Did Obama Swallow Iranian Disinformation?

By: Cliff Kincaid
Accuracy in Media


President Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 that “…the Supreme Leader [of Iran] has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.” A fatwa is supposed to be an authoritative religious edict, and sounds like a guarantee that the Iran regime has ruled out nuclear weapons.

But the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) says, “In fact, such a fatwa was never issued by Supreme Leader Khamenei and does not exist; neither the Iranian regime nor anybody else can present it.” MEMRI Founder and President Yigal Carmon told FoxNews.com, “There is no such fatwa. It is a lie from the Iranians, a deception, and it is tragic that President Obama has endorsed it.”

If MEMRI’s report is true, then the President of the United States has accepted a form of disinformation designed to make the Iranian regime look good, perhaps in order to make a deal with that regime. What do we know about this fatwa?

We do know that some in the U.S. media, including such figures as Fareed Zakaria of CNN, have accepted it as fact.

In addition to his speech to the U.N., Obama made a reference to the fatwa in remarks at the White House. “Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons,” Obama said. He made this claim after declaring, “I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution” of the nuclear weapons issue.

The problem for Obama and his administration is that there is no written and verifiable record of this fatwa, and what it actually says or does not say. Instead, the supposed “fatwa” is based completely on statements attributed to questionable Iranian sources that may or may not have access to this mysterious document.

As such, Obama’s claim appears to be part of the “propaganda, hype and disinformation” from the regime that former Ambassador John Bolton refers to in his Monday column in The Wall Street Journal.

It is shocking that, with the future of the Middle East at stake, Obama would accept and promote a claim that is highly questionable, and base his policy of engagement with Iran on what may be a blatant lie.

During the Reagan years, there was a concerted effort to expose and challenge Soviet disinformation and propaganda activities, such as the claim that AIDS originated in a Pentagon laboratory. Under Obama, it seems that questionable claims made by foreign regimes are accepted, rather than rebuffed, and made into the basis of nuclear weapons policy. In this case, as we documented, the alleged source of the fatwa, Iran’s Supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, is likely a Russian agent trained by the old Soviet KGB. He may know a lot about how to conduct disinformation and propaganda activities against the West.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says, “Perhaps it’s time for a bit less trust and a bit more verify. While Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa has been the stuff of diplomatic gossip for years, no one citing it has ever actually seen it. Khamenei lists all of his fatwas on his webpage, but the nuclear fatwa isn’t among them.”

He adds, “Every single journalist who cites the fatwa should demand to see it.”

But some of these journalists, led by Fareed Zakaria of CNN, have failed to verify and instead only seem to “trust” our adversaries.

Joel B. Pollak of Breitbart has dug into this, providing evidence that he says proves the “fatwa” is a hoax. He argues, “…the evidence on which President Obama is basing his decision to trust the Iranian regime is far weaker than the evidence on which George W. Bush based his decision not to trust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.”

Here’s what others have reported on this subject:

  • The report, “Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy,” by Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji, claims that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “issued an oral fatwa forbidding the production and use of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in any form” in October 2003, but that it could be easily modified or could be a form of deception on the part of the regime.
  • Ali M. Ansari of the University of St. Andrews reports there can be little doubt “that at present such a fatwa—in any meaningful form—does not appear to exist. The concept of an ‘oral fatwa,’ in the context of Iran’s nuclear program, is meaningless…”
  • Kenneth Pollack, in his book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, says about the fatwa, “no Westerner has seen it…”
  • Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi writes at the PBS Frontline site that “(1) There is doubt over whether such a fatwa even exists, and, (2) Even if such a fatwa does exist, it does not mean that it couldn’t be changed as and when deemed necessary by the Islamic Republic’s political leadership.”
  • Professor Juan Cole reports that the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has referred to such a fatwa in a statement issued to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Based on this news account and reaction to it, Cole concludes the fatwa not only was issued but is “widely acknowledged by high officials of the Islamic Republic,” is “considered by them to be binding law,” and “has been reaffirmed numerous times.” Still, he did not produce the actual ruling, only a statement by the regime.
  • Wikipedia has an entry on an Iranian fatwa “against production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons,” but merely refers to the Iranian statement released to the IAEA cited previously. The “full text of the statement,” which was read by Iranian nuclear negotiator Sirus Naseri, says, “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.” However, the actual document was not produced for inspection.
  • Mike Shuster of National Public Radio said, “As far as anyone knows, the fatwa was never written down.”

Of special interest is the fact that Fareed Zakaria, like Obama, also accepts the propaganda.

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, notes that Zakaria wrote a cover story for Newsweek on May 22, 2009, insisting that “the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral.” Zakaria also wrote an article in The Washington Post uncritically quoting Khamenei as saying, that “the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” The title of this piece was, “The shape of a deal with Iran.”

In his 2009 book, The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West, Gold notes that Zakaria is “one of the most respected voices on trends in U.S. foreign policy,” but that his approach flies in the face of the evidence about uranium enrichment activities and nuclear warhead design in Iran substantiated by the IAEA itself.

The author of The Post-American World, Zakaria seems eager to usher in a New World Order in which dangerous regimes such as Iran develop nuclear weapons capabilities. Obama was once photographed by The New York Times carrying the book.

Indeed, Zakaria says the West can live with a nuclear Iran. He says, “…even if one day Tehran manages to build a few crude bombs, a policy of robust containment and deterrence is better to contemplate than a preemptive war.”

So even if the Iranians are lying about their fatwa, according to Zakaria, it apparently doesn’t matter. He is prepared to accept Iranian nuclear weapons no matter what.

Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism and can be contacted at cliff.kincaid@aim.org.


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