Iran’s dangerous concoction of nuclear ambitions and Shiite Messianism

The combination of an apocalyptic theology with equally apocalyptic weapons makes Iran a truly frightening prospect.

Unhinged: is deterrence destined to fail?
Tom Wilson
On 3 August 2011 12:07

Ahmadinejad’s ambitions for achieving nuclear capabilities are hardly one of Iran’s great state secrets. Yet it is far less widely known that the Iranian president seats himself within a strongly messianic and indeed apocalyptic strand of Shiite Islam.  

With growing evidence that popular messianism is on the rise among Shiites across the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear activities appear all the more alarming.

In the last week, the Associated Press has reported on rumors that Ahmadinejad has again been clashing with Iran’s ruling clerics, this time over his wish to come out to the world about the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.  

That is not to say that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is opposed to Iran’s nuclear activities, indeed, Khamenei seems to see the nuclear program as encapsulating the ideals of the Islamic revolution, but Iran’s spiritual leaders are nervous of how the world might react to such a provocative announcement.

Despite these concerns and despite four sets of UN Security Council resolutions opposing Iran’s nuclear activities, the regime has nevertheless gone ahead and recently announced that it is currently expanding its uranium enrichment program with the installment of a new model of speedier centrifuges. This now gives Iran over four tons of low-level enriched uranium and hastens Iran’s progress towards weapons capabilities.

This growing boldness in Iran’s attitude towards its nuclear activities, safe in the belief that the West will do nothing to halt the regime’s ambitions, needs to be understood alongside the theological underpinnings of Ahmadinejad’s worldview.  

The Iranian president follows an increasingly popular revival of Mahdism (Islamic messianism) which in Shiite Islam translates into the belief that the 10th century, twelfth Imam, who as a child is said to have disappeared down a well outside the holy Iranian city of Qom, will one day return as part of an apocalyptic fulfillment of prophecy. 

Many of the accounts of the twelfth Imam’s return involve a cataclysmic war heralding the world’s end with the Mahdi reaping fierce revenge on the enemies of Shiite Islam.  

All the more concerning is that Ahmadinejad has alluded to the belief that he himself will play a pivotal role in the return of the twelfth Imam.  Indeed following his infamous September 2005 speech to the UN, Ahmadinejad claims to have felt himself being bathed in an ethereal green light, apparently a sign of the Mahdi’s approval towards him.

It would be wrong to dismiss these esoteric beliefs as simply feverish imaginings exclusive to Ahmadinejad and his immediate clique.  Historically Shiite religious leaders channeled popular messianism and apocalyptic expectations towards the far off future. 

Yet today, Middle East scholars are remarking on a revival in Mahdism that is being witnessed across the Shiite world, from Lebanon to eastern Iraq and into Iran itself.  

Radical lay preachers are increasingly interpreting current global events within the framework of a tight timeline towards the end times and there now exists a huge body of literature, including many popular histories of Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, in which miraculous events surrounding appearances of the Mahdi are reported upon.   

Quite apart from what appears to be genuine religious conviction, attaching himself to Mahdism serves a shrewd political purpose for Ahmadinejad and his hardline spiritual mentor Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.  

As observers note the increasing tensions between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics, not least over the matter of ministerial appointments, associating himself with the Mahdi whose authority naturally supersedes that of Khamenei’s, has the potential to give Ahmadinejad added legitimacy in the eyes of some key constituencies in Iran. 

What Western leaders need to grasp is that the connotations of the radically religious and messianic milieu that Ahmadinejad comes from means that a nuclear Iran would not be the equivalent of a nuclear Soviet Union. For an Iranian leadership that thinks in the way that Ahmadinejad does, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent but rather an incentive.  

This is, after all, the society that brought about the revival of the notion of the shaheed (heroic martyr) before exporting the death cult’s popularity to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Few would wish to dwell upon the implications of the spread of nuclear armaments in such an unstable region.  Yet for Iran in particular, the combination of an apocalyptic theology with equally apocalyptic weapons could lead to consequences that are, for most of us, truly unthinkable. 

Tom Wilson is a political analyst and a doctoral student at University College London.

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