By Colin Freeman and Philip Sherwell in Washington
The Sunday Telegraph – Iran’s hardline spiritual leaders have issued an unprecedented new fatwa, or holy order, sanctioning the use of atomic weapons against its enemies.
In yet another sign of Teheran’s stiffening resolve on the nuclear issue, influential Muslim clerics have for the first time questioned the theocracy’s traditional stance that Sharia law forbade the use of nuclear weapons.
One senior mullah has now said it is "only natural" to have nuclear bombs as a "countermeasure" against other nuclear powers, thought to be a reference to America and Israel.
The pronouncement is particularly worrying because it has come from Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely regarded as the cleric closest to Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nicknamed "Professor Crocodile" because of his harsh conservatism, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi’s group opposes virtually any kind of rapprochement with the West and is believed to have influenced President Ahmadinejad’s refusal to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The comments, which are the first public statement by the Yazdi clerical cabal on the nuclear issue, will be seen as an attempt by the country’s religious hardliners to begin preparing a theological justification for the ownership – and if necessary the use – of atomic bombs.
They appeared on Rooz, an internet newspaper run by members of Iran’s fractured reformist movement, which picked them up from remarks by Mohsen Gharavian reported on the media agency IranNews.
Rooz reported that Mohsen Gharavian, a lecturer based in a religious school in the holy city of Qom, had declared "for the first time that the use of nuclear weapons may not constitute a problem, according to Sharia."
He also said: "When the entire world is armed with nuclear weapons, it is permissible to use these weapons as a counter-measure. According to Sharia too, only the goal is important."
Mohsen Gharavian did not specify what kinds of "goals" would justify a nuclear strike, but it is thought that any military intervention by the United States would be considered sufficient grounds. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi has previously justified use of suicide bombers against "enemies of Islam" and believes that America is bent on destroying the Islamic republic and its values. The latest insight into the theocracy’s thinking comes as the US signals a change in strategy on Iran, after the decision earlier this month to report it to the United Nations Security Council for its resumption of banned nuclear research.
While Washington has made it clear that military strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites would be a "last resort", White House officials are also targeting change from within by funding Iranian opposition groups.
The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said the Bush administration would seek an extra $75 million (ÃÂ£43 million) from Congress to help to support Iran’s fractured pro-democracy movement and fund Farsi-language satellite broadcasts.
The announcement is the clearest public indication that Washington has adopted a two-track approach to Iran, combining the diplomatic search for a united international condemnation of its illicit nuclear programme with efforts to undermine the regime’s status.
The new tactic amounts to the pursuit of regime change by peaceful means, although that phrase is still not stated as official US policy. Washington hopes that a dedicated satellite channel beamed into Iran will encourage domestic dissent, such as the current strike by bus drivers – the most significant display of organised opposition since the 1999 and 2003 student protests.
Ms Rice unveiled the change of tactics a week after a visit to Washington by a senior British delegation that pressed for a co-ordinated Western policy on using satellite television and the internet to bolster internal opposition. The State Department had previously been wary of the two-track strategy.
As the Sunday Telegraph reported last week, Pentagon strategists have been updating plans for a another policy of "last resort" – blitzing Iranian nuclear sites in an effort to stop the regime gaining the atomic bomb.
The bus strike, which has led to the jailing of more than 1,000 drivers, was originally sparked by an industrial dispute over unpaid wages benefits. But the robustness of the state response has indicated the nervousness of the Ahmadinejad regime over any internal dissent.
Reports from Iran say that Massoud Osanlou, the leader of the bus drivers’ union, was arrested at his home by members of the Basij, the pro-regime militia, and had part of his tongue cut out as a warning to be quiet.
But the dispute already risks disillusioning Mr Ahmadinejad’s core of working class support – among them municipal workers – who voted him into power on his promises to improve the lot of Iran’s poor.