There are different ways media talk about how you can't trust Iran. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for one, went straight for bigotry: "These Persians lie like a rug," he wrote in 2009.
The New York Times took a slightly different route on Saturday (4/14/12) : Maybe Iran can't be trusted because their religion permits–or perhaps even encourages–duplicity.
"Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah's Utterances" was the headline over the piece by James Risen. It's hard to know what the fog might be; the Iranian leader who actually has control over the nuclear program–supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei–has been fairly clear in stating that his country is not pursuing a weapon, and that such weapons violate his religion.
Risen sees things differently:
Ayatollah Khamenei's remarks are sometimes contradictory, and always subject to widely different interpretations.
So what's the evidence? Khamenei has talked about Libya's experience as a lesson:
For evidence, analysts can point to remarks Ayatollah Khamenei made last year that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program.
Referring to Colonel Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khamenei said that "this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, 'Take them!'"
"Look where we are, and in what position they are now," he added.
It is not entirely clear how far Libya's nuclear program has developed, but they did not have a weapon. In any event, the point about Libya would seem to an obvious and uncontroversial observation: If other countries think you might have a nuclear capabilities, or a weapon, they're less likely to invade your country.
But Risen's main case seems to be that Shiite Muslims have some kind of pass when it comes to lying:
Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei's denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
Blogger and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole–an expert on Shiite history–wrote a helpful corrective (4/16/12) explaining that taqiyya, which dates back hundreds of years, had a specific purpose:
For Shiites, who were often a minority in early Muslim societies, the doctrine of pious dissimulation was permission to say that they were actually Sunni Muslims if saying that would save their lives or their big property.
As Iran became Shiite-majority (over the last 400 years), there was little need for taqiyya. Cole explains:
Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has "completely lost its importance" in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.
So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter.
So who are the "some analysts" the Times believes could argue that Shiites are strategic liars? It's hard to figure; the article's main source would seem to be former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross. Cole derides this Shiites-are-likely-liars idea as "just some weird form of Islamophobia, and policy-makers and analysts can safely disregard it." That would be easier to do if it weren't in the pages of the New York Times.