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Iran’s aim for nuclear weapons is tied to theological ambitions

And the United States and Europe need to wake up to that fact

An Iranian cleric walks past an anti-U.S. mural on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Getty Images/Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP

Iran’s aim for nuclear weapons is tied to theological ambitions
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The 2015 agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is defunct since former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018. However, in April 2021, just months after President Joe Biden took office, he initiated “indirect negotiations” between the United States and Iran intended to put the agreement back in place. But at what cost? The Trump administration withdrew from the pact because of clear and repeated Iranian violations.

For almost a year, the Biden team has failed to reach a new agreement. Nonetheless, in recent days, under the aegis of the Vienna negotiations, the United States and Iran are reported to be close to reviving the nuclear deal. To come to the table and negotiate with the West, Iran insisted on receiving a guarantee from Biden that the United States would not withdraw from any future agreement.

This possible reviving of the nuclear deal is a major development with dangerous risks, especially as the UN atomic agency warns that “Iran has almost enough near-weapons-grade nuclear fuel for a bomb.” According to Reuters, while U.S. sanctions have indeed crippled Iran, it only needs between several months and a year “to produce enough fissile material for an atom bomb.”

I am not primarily concerned with the politics of Republican or Democrat presidents. Rather, I am highly concerned with how lawmakers underestimate Iran’s religious worldview, which plays a significant role in these nuclear negotiations. Iran is not committed to the principles of international law, but it is committed to its religious worldview. Thus, I plead with lawmakers to be cautious. I don’t trust Iran, and they shouldn’t either. The revolutionary government of Iran has never earned any trust and it has not changed its ambitions in the region.

Iran is an Islamic theocracy that is officially called The Islamic Republic of Iran. Not only does it stress its Islamic nature, but it also advances itself as the major Shiite Muslim power in the world, in contrast to the Sunni Muslim majority, often led by Saudi Arabia.

Iran is headed by a supreme Shiite Muslim leader and its constitution begins with the important Quranic statement, “In the name of Allah.” The text then emphasizes Iran’s Islamic government and proudly credits its modern inception to “the great Islamic Revolution of Iran” of 1979. The constitution is very clear that the Islamic government is in “the process of intellectual and ideological evolution towards the final goal, i.e., movement towards Allah.”

With Allah as the goal and Islam as the sole foundation, it is too naïve for Western lawmakers to think that Iran approaches any political deal without a strong theological devotion.

As the United States and Europe secularize, there is a concern that our lawmakers may not pay significant enough attention to the strong religious commitment and distinct religious worldview of Iran. With Allah as the goal and Islam as the sole foundation, it is too naïve for Western lawmakers to think that Iran approaches any political deal without a strong theological devotion. When Iran identifies the United States as the “Great Satan” and vows to erase Israel from the map, these are not just propaganda statements. They are distinctly religious aims, supported by Islamic texts and doctrines.

While the United States and its partners—Europe, China, and Russia—come to the table of these negotiations with a secular agenda, Iran does not.

For Iran, commitment to Islam—and particularly its Shiite version—is at the heart of all political aspirations and economic ambitions. They do not seek national achievement without the advancement of Iran’s Islam and the accomplishment of its theological aspirations.

Precisely because there are doctrinal and eschatological distinctions in the Shiite worldview.

Doctrinally, they must win at all costs. According to Shiite Islam, Muslims can lie in specific situations to achieve major religious, political, and social goals. The practice is called taqiyyah, which means the concealment of one’s belief. It is supported by the Quran and by Muhammad’s statements. For Shiites, when there is a religious threat or political danger, lying to the enemy is not only desired but also religiously allowed and theologically prescribed.

Of course, we can indeed argue that politicians lie all the time regardless of their beliefs, but giving a lie a religious shield and a sanctified status makes it commendable and appealing. History does not lie, as Shiite Muslims have often used taqiyyah to protect themselves against persecution at the hands of non-Muslims and even by their majority Sunni counterparts.

Eschatologically, the Shiite worldview has distinct beliefs that the entire political scene must aim to prepare the earth for the reappearance of its final leader, Imam Mahdi. He is their last imam, who was born in 869. He became the 12th and final Shiite imam when he was 5, and Shiites believe he never died and went into a religious disappearance and will reappear in the last days to defeat infidels and enforce justice on earth. Shiites thus work diligently to make the scene ready for Islam’s hegemony under Mahdi, and they pine for his reemergence. The Shiite devotion to these end-times beliefs is central and unmatched.

With news of the reviving of the Iran nuclear deal, I wonder whether our lawmakers are conscious of the religious devotion of the Iranian Shiites. The Iranian Muslim clerics have clearly made their point. There is no excuse for Western ignorance. Through doctrinal support and eschatological aspiration, a nuclear Iran would be a fulfillment of their Shiite dream—and a disaster to the rest of the world.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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