Teresa Walsh — US News and World Report
When Americans think of Iran, the first thing that comes to mind for many is nuclear weapons – Iran wants them and the West thinks it’s a terrible idea. But what many Americans don’t know is that one of Iran’s top leaders has actually declared nuclear proliferation as anti-Islam.
On a recent trip, a group of U.S. bishops learned, according to Iran’s supreme leader, Shia Islam does not allow for the development, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons. In that, the two groups of religious leaders found common ground to discuss similarities in faith and reason between Islam and Catholicism.
A six-person American delegation, including three bishops, engaged in conversations with Iranian Ayatollahs at the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom, the pre-eminent center of religious scholarship in Iran. Over four days in March, they met with religious counterparts to discuss the implications of nuclear weapons.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa, or an Islamic legal opinion, stating the religion prohibits possessing, developing and using such weapons. Iranian officials have echoed the decree, maintaining that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
But despite the declaration that nuclear weapons violate Islam, Iran has a difficult time convincing the rest of the world it doesn’t seek nuclear armament.
Ebrahim Mohseni, a senior analyst at the University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research, who was part of the delegation, says much of the distrust stems from fallout from the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. During that conflict, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians, but despite the verified war crime, the international community “turned a blind eye,” Mohseni says.
Convinced the global community could not be trusted to protect them, it was then Iranians began developing nuclear capabilities.
“There is the accusation, that I think is credible, that experiments were conducted over a decade ago that have nuclear weapons applications,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “I don’t think Iran’s leaders are going to admit that their scientists were engaged in work relating to the development of nuclear weapons … [but] the fatwa helps to reinforce that Iran will not be pursuing nuclear weapons in the future.”
As the West has tried to limit the number of nuclear powers in the world, and Israel has campaigned against Iran specifically out of fear of a religiously fueled nuclear war, Iran has been tightly scrutinized. The Muslim country has been subject to international sanctions due to past refusal to suspend nuclear enrichment, and the inability of the International Atomic Energy Association to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is purely peaceful.
Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee, said Wednesday at a briefing on the trip that it’s no secret that Iran and the U.S. have a troubled political history, but the delegation was looking for ways to build bridges to the Iranians. They hoped the religious dialogue could help create a climate where the nuclear negotiations between the West and Iran could succeed. Bates repeatedly stressed that the delegation traveled to discuss moral and religious issues only, and was not political in nature. Upon returning, participants briefed members of Congress, the State Department, White House and National Security Council on the conversations they had in Iran.
A joint declaration from the bishops and Ayatollahs said Christianity and Islam both share the “common commitment to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.”
“These foundational moral values unite us in raising fundamental moral questions regarding weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said. “Shia Islam opposes and forbids the production, stockpiling, use and threat to use weapons of mass destruction. Catholicism is also working for a world without weapons of mass destruction and calls on all nations to rid themselves of these indiscriminate weapons.”
Catholicism also opposes nuclear weapons, in line with a 1963 papal encyclical authored by Pope John XXIII which stated the Catholic Church’s opposition to nuclear arms and called for international action to end the threat of such weapons.
Details on the status of the nuclear talks between the West and Iran are publicly murky, with negotiators declining to provide many details for fear of jeopardizing the possibility of reaching a deal. Last week Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator in the talks with Iran, said the group is doing everything they can to meet the Nov. 24 deadline.