President Ahmadinejad’s speech before the UN General Assembly in September was a towering diplomatic dud. Instead of assuaging the prim gentlemen in the audience — who are always willing to suffer through long harangues from third-world despots, as long as they paint the West as omnipresent villain — Ahmadinejad indulged in warlike hyperbole, threatening to “reconsider” his nation’s supposedly peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy if Washington and its allies continued to “impose their will” on Iran. The vitriol stood out in the staid chambers of the UN, giving rise to another round of vigorous brow-furrowing among the gathered elites.
Less well publicized — but no less important — was the content delivered near the end of Ahmadinejad’s speech. Instead of hard-edged provocations concerning his country’s quest for nuclear power, Ahmadinejad unexpectedly delved into the mystical, stating:
“From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all divine religions will be fulfilled with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace. O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.”
The “repository” of which Ahmadinejad spoke is the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, who Shi’ite theology holds will return it some distant date to bring about an earthly utopia. Of course, any mention of religion inside the palace of effete secularism would have raised eyebrows, but Ahmadinejad’s fire and brimstone must have been particularly confusing to those unaccustomed with the finer points of myopic Shi’ite mysticism. Ahmadinejad evidently failed to pick up on the discomfort of the audience, however. During a recent discussion with leading cleric Ayatollah Amoli, Ahmadinejad revealed that he had sensed “a light” surrounding him as soon as he uttered the words “in the name of God.” With the favor of the divine in place, Ahmadinejad suggested that the spectators at the UN “had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic” and that the incandescent specter prevented them from blinking.
To most Iranians, President Ahmadinejad’s revelations and over-the-top religious imagery are standard faire. While undoubtedly magnified by rumor and street chatter, Ahmadinejad’s confirmed relationship with religious extremists, along with the degree to which he has embraced their bleak and violent visions, is a sufficient cause for concern.
AHMADINEJAD’S ODD FIXATION ON the apocalypse may stem from his close association with Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, a fire-brand cleric who advocates total separation from the West. Mesbah-Yazdi has lived in virtual isolation for the past 20 years, holed up in de-facto exile in the Shi’ite holy center of Qom. Considered extreme even by the hard-liners of the ruling Guardian Council, Mesbah-Yazdi is thought to be a rival of Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamanei, the two having clashed quietly over political and doctrinal issues. Such a fissure is not difficult to imagine, given Mesbah-Yazdi’s fanatical devotion to the tenets of extremist Shi’a Islam, which — in his estimation — justify the immediate execution of those who dare insult the religion. Mesbah-Yazdi has also suggested that killing “intellectuals” is sanctioned by God himself, and that “pluralism” is Satanic trickery.
The invective of Mesbah-Yazdi is usually transmitted in the pages of Parto Sakhan, a Qom-based daily which regularly pillories anyone who deviates from the extremist line. Targets in the past have included Presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who was deemed especially “problematic.” Other pages are devoted to the recruitment of suicidal “martyrs” to be deployed in Iraq or against the “Jews in occupied Palestine.”
With the elevation of Ahmadinejad — who considers the mad Ayatollah his chief “spiritual guide” — Mesbah-Yazdi may no longer be relegated to the shadows. Already, close advocates of his maniacal brand of Islam have stepped into leadership positions, including, most notably, Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, the president’s chief political operative. Mesbah-Yazi acolytes were also thought to have played a leading role in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet selections, which were notable both for their lack of credentials and their excess religiosity. Additionally, internal security agencies have been placed under the command of Mesbah-Yazdi followers.
Upon his assumption of office in Iran, Ahmadinejad chaired a formal meeting of ministers and deputies. The first order of business, suggested the new president, was the ratification of an agreement between the government and the 12th Imam. Apparently unfazed by the paranormal request, the presidential-loyalists signed the agreement, which was then dropped down the Jamarakan Well, a likely setting for the return of the Long Awaited One.
This story — sourced mostly to opponents of the regime — seems so farcical that its authenticity is indeed somewhat questionable. However, its central suggestion that Ahmadinejad is a devoted religious literalist — one who believes that the goal of national leaders is to ready the world for the reemergence of divine guidance — seems increasingly accurate. From his first day in office, Ahmadinejad has thought nothing of connecting his belief in the imminent return of the 12th Imam to the execution of state policy. In a 7,000 word policy document delivered to Parliament or Majlis, Ahmadinejad states clearly that power belongs to God and the 12th Imam, who is currently in stasis. Therefore, reasons Ahmadinejad, all authority should reside with the clerics, who can ably rule in his temporary absence. Democracy, or even the faulty version currently practiced by the Iranian state, will only delay the return.
Ahmadinejad has been thoroughly honest in this use of dogma as policy guide, including the 12th Imam in almost every one of his public speeches. At various conferences with officials, Ahmadinejad is known to preface most recommendations with the statement that “followers of this divine school of Islamic thought are doing their best to pave the way for his [the 12th Imam’s] urgent reappearance.” During a meeting with regional governors following his election, Ahmadinejad excoriated the officials for their terrestrial concerns — crops, roads, and crime — and urged them to concentrate their energies on constructing the perfect Islamic state. In November, before a gathering of the nation’s leading clerics, Ahmadinejad reiterated his role in the return of the Mahdi: “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam.”
MESBAH-YAZDI AND AHMADINEJAD’S SINCERE belief that the imminent return of the 12th Imam — ushered in by an apocalyptic conflagration — echoes the grim prognostication of the shadowy Hojjatieh Society. Founded in 1953 by the Shah, the society was originally dedicated to converting followers of the Ba’hai religion. As the group expanded, it began to develop and embrace more fantastic concepts, including one which justified the instigation of societal chaos, so as to augur the return of the Mahdi. Using this belief as their guide, Hojjatieh members refused to become involved in the 1979 Revolution, believing the Shah’s missteps to be the perfect spark for the return of the Mahdi. Considered so extreme that the Ayatollah Khomeini formally banned the group in the early 1980s, the society was forced to move underground.
However, it is widely believed that the philosophy of Hojjatieh survives, espoused by numerous theological schools in Iran, the most prestigious being the Hojjatieh-founded Haqqani school in Qom. Haqqani’s most famous graduate? Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
While Ahmadinejad’s advocacy of tyrannical order do not necessarily gel with the tumultuous prophecy of Hojjatieh, their shared recognition of chaos on an international scale as a legitimate precursor to the return of the mythical figure of the 12th Imam is troubling enough, especially considering the fact that Ahmadinejad is close to gaining the perfect weapon for the instigation of said disorder. The idea that such a man, mesmerized by stagnant and violent myth, could soon gain access to nuclear weapons, is simply unconscionable, especially considering the tragic historical precedent of allowing certifiable madmen to gain access to the instruments of mass destruction.
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