As they confront Iran's nuclear aims, negotiators must mind the Shiite doctrine of deceit called 'taqiyya.'
Should the West trust Iranian promises? The short answer is "no." But the underlying question is "Why not?"
The answer lies in Iranian belief systems – notably the doctrine of taqiyya, a difficult concept for many non-Muslims to grasp. Taqiyya is the Shiite religious rationale for concealment or dissimulation in political or worldly affairs. At one level it means that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime can tell themselves that they are obliged by their faith not to tell the truth.
This doctrine has not been discussed much in the West, but it should be. How should the world deal with taqiyya in Shiite Islam in the context of Iran's nuclear file?
Can Iran be trusted?
In Iran, the teachings of Shiite Islam govern all aspects of society. And taqiyya – dissimulation and concealment – is one of the key elements of the Shiite faith. While many outsiders are surprised by Iran's concealment of its nuclear installations, those who study the Shiite faith and recognize the signs of taqiyya are not.
Many governments lie about strategic secrets, especially secrets about nuclear weapons. Witness Israel's concealment of its nuclear capabilities. And former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping counseled his country to "hide its brightness" – for strategic reasons.
Iran's approach to its nuclear ambitions, however, is a different form of deception and denial. Certainly states do not need a religious edict to lie or obfuscate. But it helps if a state has one already in place.