The Mystical Menace of Ahmadinejab - Dr. Daniel Pipes on the meaning of Mahdaviat and why Iran's leader must be stopped
Iranians unseals nuclear facilities to develop WMD's in move which enjoys popular support
The Mystical Menace of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
by Daniel Pipes
Thanks to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a new word has entered the political vocabulary: mahdaviat.
Not surprisingly, it's a technical religious term. Mahdaviat derives from mahdi, Arabic for "rightly-guided one," a major figure in Islamic eschatology. He is, explains the Encyclopaedia of Islam, "the restorer of religion and justice who will rule before the end of the world." The concept originated in the earliest years of Islam and, over time, became particularly identified with the Shi‘ite branch. Whereas "it never became an essential part of Sunni religious doctrine," continues the encyclopedia, "Belief in the coming of the Mahdi of the Family of the Prophet became a central aspect of the faith in radical Shi‘ism," where it is also known as the return of the Twelfth Imam.
Mahdaviat means "belief in and efforts to prepare for the Mahdi."
In a fine piece of reporting, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor shows the centrality of mahdaviat in Mr. Ahmadinejad's outlook and explores its implications for his policies.
As mayor of Tehran, for example, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to have in 2004 secretly instructed the city council to build a grand avenue to prepare for the Mahdi. A year later, as president, he allocated $17 million for a blue-tiled mosque closely associated with mahdaviat in Jamkaran, south of the capital. He has instigated the building of a direct Tehran-Jamkaran railroad line. He had a list of his proposed cabinet members dropped into a well adjacent to the Jamkaran mosque, it is said, to benefit from its purported divine connection.
He often raises the topic, and not just to Muslims. When addressing the United Nations in September, Mr. Ahmadinejad flummoxed his audience of world political leaders by concluding his address with a prayer for the Mahdi's appearance: "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."
On returning to Iran from New York, Mr. Ahmadinejad recalled the effect of his U.N. speech:
What Mr. Peterson calls the "presidential obsession" with mahdaviat leads Mr. Ahmadinejad to "a certitude that leaves little room for compromise. From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, to challenging America and Israel and enhancing Iran's power with nuclear programs, every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the Mahdi's return."
"Mahdaviat is a code for [Iran's Islamic] revolution, and is the spirit of the revolution," says the head of an institute dedicated to studying and speeding the Mahdi's appearance. "This kind of mentality makes you very strong," the political editor of Resalat newspaper, Amir Mohebian, observed. "If I think the Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard." Some Iranians, reports PBS, "worry that their new president has no fear of international turmoil, may think it's just a sign from God."
Mahdaviat has direct and ominous implications for the U.S.-Iran confrontation, says an Ahmadinejad supporter, Hamidreza Taraghi of Iran's hard-line Islamic Coalition Society. It implies seeing Washington as the rival to Tehran and even as a false Mahdi. For Mr. Ahmadinejad, the top priority is to challenge America, and specifically to create a powerful model state based on "Islamic democracy" by which to oppose it. Mr. Taraghi predicts trouble ahead unless Americans fundamentally change their ways.
I'd reverse that formulation. The most dangerous leaders in modern history are those (such as Hitler) equipped with a totalitarian ideology and a mystical belief in their own mission. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fulfills both these criteria, as revealed by his U.N. comments. That combined with his expected nuclear arsenal make him an adversary who must be stopped, and urgently.
Iran has said nuclear fuel production remains suspended but it looks as if it is now going to research how to make that fuel.
That is not reassuring for the West, which fears that same technology can be used for making weapons.
But the first reaction in Iran was from a group of parliamentarians who drew up a letter welcoming the decision to resume research.
Open criticism is unlikely because on the eve of the United Nations seals being broken the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, indicated his support for the step.
He stressed that peaceful nuclear technology was Iran's inalienable right.
And he indicated Iran was preparing itself psychologically for the prospect of punitive action, saying sanctions had just made Iran more self reliant in the past and would have no effect in the future.
Reformists, who are now in opposition, have remained relatively silent on the nuclear issue.
The approach of Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, was to keep the negotiating process going and hope to avoid referral to the UN Security Council while not making long term concessions.
Some analysts have suggested the reformists were willing to bargain away the country's nuclear programme if the price was right.
But without the involvement of the Americans in the negotiating process there was doubt about whether the incentives would ever have been attractive enough for Iran.
While there are few dissenting voices in public, reformists will be alarmed by the increasing talk of referral to the Security Council.
And they will be worried that Russia may side with other permanent Security Council members if it came to a vote against Iran.
If Russia deserted Iran this would put pressure on China to follow suit.
But the new government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken a much tougher line than the reformists before them on a range of foreign policy issues, including the nuclear one.
The radical new president seems to want to go back to the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and he hopes to use the nuclear issue to rally Iranians and the wider Muslim world behind him.
A few Iranians outside the establishment might think the political costs of pursuing nuclear technology are not worth it.
But for the majority nuclear power is a nationalistic issue and there is deep resentment that the west wants to prevent Iran from making technological progress.