What Does the Ayatollah Want?
My previous analysis of the Iranian crisis focused on whether Israel or the United States will preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This question does not require us to investigate which course of action is right or wrong, strategically sound or unsound. The question is whether a certain military action will be taken or not. Today’s column will leave this question and focus on the Iranian side. What does the Iranian leadership want? What are they trying to achieve? What unintended consequences are likely to follow?
On Saturday President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is about to unveil “major achievements in the nuclear domain.” He said an announcement would follow in a matter of days. More than a week ago, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran would never give up. “We will respond to threats of war and oil sanctions.” Indeed, Iran is suffering from sanctions and the freezing of assets.
UN Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and related activities. Several other UN Security Council Resolutions have been passed, basically restricting Iranian access to technology and equipment. The European Union has passed sanctions against Iran, as well as several nations – including Canada, Australia, Switzerland, India, the United States and South Korea.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad does not hide the fact that Iran is attempting “major achievements in the nuclear domain.” Undoubtedly, a country that is floating on oil, and has a plentiful supply of domestic energy, does not need nuclear power. Furthermore, why should Iran defy the international community in pursuit of this power? Nuclear power is more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. Add to this the cost of an embargo and sanctions. Is it not madness to persist?
What could the Iranian leaders be thinking? There is only one path to discovery. You have to ask someone who has been inside the Iranian system. Iranian defector and former Revolutionary Guardsman Reza Kahlili has written a book about the inner workings of the Iranian regime, titled A Time To Betray. It describes a leadership that believes in the coming of the Mahdi (or twelfth Imam), a figure from Islamic eschatology who will annihilate the unbelievers worldwide. According to Kahlili, Ahmadinejad “believes that many of the signs of the Madhi’s return have emerged. Known as Hadiths, these signs include the invasion of Afghanistan, the bloodshed in Iraq, and the global economic meltdown.”
Islamic prophecy says chaos and war, famine and mass death will set the stage for the appearance of the Mahdi. What could such a prophecy signify, if not the aftermath of a nuclear war? “People like Ahmadinejad so completely believe that these conditions would hasten the return of the twelfth Imam [Madhi], that they were willing to foment universal war, chaos, and famine to bring it about.” What the Iranian regime wants, according to Kahlili, is to immanentize the Islamic eschaton. Kahlili claims that the Iranian regime plans to unleash a nuclear war – a thousand suitcase nukes detonated in Europe and America at one time (or some such terrorist fantasy).
There is little doubt that Kahlili is accurately describing the openly professed beliefs of the Iranian leaders. What is unclear is whether the pragmatic business of statecraft can be entirely given over to a religious enthusiasm. Do the Iranian leaders govern with the idea of triggering the appearance of the Mahdi?
Last 7 November Joel C. Rosenberg wrote a piece for Fox News with the title Why Iran’s Top Leaders Believe That the End of Days Has Come. In this piece Rosenberg refers to a July 2010 claim by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he personally met the Mahdi (or twelfth Imam). Furthermore, the Ayatollah claims to be the Madhi’s representative. And there is more.
Last year a CD was widely distributed within Iran, titled The Appearance Is Imminent. From this CD we learn that the Mahdi is soon to appear. The CD also suggests that the Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad are the Mahdi’s helpers. Atousa Bayan, writing on balatarin.com, tells us the CD was “widely criticized” and that Iranian clerics and officials admonished the people who produced it, “and distanced themselves from the program.” However, wrote Bayan, “[T]wo important people did not react to the whole debacle – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” Bayan went on to site a prominent Qom cleric who insisted on “the story of a miracle in which witnesses said that at the time of his birth, Ayatollah Khamenei uttered the name of Imam Ali.” Such claims, according to Bayan, show “the deteriorating image of clerics who would resort to telling unfathomable stories in order to create an air of sanctity around Iran’s Supreme Leader, a man bestowed with unlimited and unchecked power….”
In 2008 The Middle East Quarterly offered an article by Mohebat Ahdiyyih, titled Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi. According to Ahdiyyih, “After the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic incorporated the idea of Mahdism into its complex system of governance.” In this concept, the government of Iran and its top leaders are, by definition, “representatives of the Madhi in the ‘first government of God’ on earth.” In fact, the Iranian parliament is allowed to exist only insofar as its deputies offer their “services to [the] Lord of the Age [the Mahdi], may God speed his blessed appearance.” Since the first days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, officials of the Iranian government paid lip service to the Madhi. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are not the first Iranian leaders to pose as harbingers of the messiah. They have merely brought this belief front and center.
Reza Kahlili worked inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He witnessed atrocities. He saw how crazy the regime’s beliefs were; so he decided to work for the CIA – to become a spy. In Kahlili’s account the Iranian regime plans to inflict massive destruction on Israel, the United States and Europe. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, he says, it will be too late for the world. Unprecedented destruction and suffering will follow.
How do we analyze Kahlili’s claim? First, we do not wish to believe such a claim. If we accept what he says, then we must invade Iran with ground forces. This would be expensive and unpopular. No American politician would publicly advocate such a plan. As the Iranian regime has total control over its own population, an internal uprising is unlikely. What is more likely, then, is that Iran will eventually attack the United States. Unfortunately for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the chaos unleashed in this attack will not bring forth the Mahdi. Instead, the chaos will bring forth the ascendancy of the undamaged powers (those not hit by Iran’s planned nuclear assault).