Is It Time to Worry About Ahmadinejad’s Apparent Fanaticism?

Ahmadinejad at UNThose who claim that the time for diplomatic engagement with Iran on the part of the United States has long passed are fond of citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism. His greatest hits include hosting a holocaust deniers’ conference, calling for the day when Israel would cease to exist as a state, and, of course, speculating before the United Nations last week that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Then there’s his apparent apocalypticism. What could be more frightening in the leader of a sizeable nation than an eagerness to see the world go up in flames? We quoted The Rise of Nuclear Iran recently. However hawkish author Dore Gold’s agenda, facts are facts.

Besides the escalation of Ahmadinejad’s anti-western incendiary rhetoric, the second feature of his presidency that has received enormous attention has been his repeated references to the imminent return of the Twelfth or Hidden Imam. In Twelver Shiite tradition, Muhammad ibn Hasan was the twelfth descendent of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was born in 868, but at the age of six, he vanished and was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment, when a new era of divine justice will prevail, and Shiite Islam will be recognized as the true global faith. . . .

Ahmadinejad made the re-appearance of the Twelfth Imam [who] was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment. . . . into a hallmark of his presidency. [For instance, he] declared in an address to the Iranian nation shortly after his 2005 election victory: “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.” . . . Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism had been advanced and supported by those who served as his religious mentors, particularly Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi [whose lectures] repeatedly stressed the theme of hastening the coming of the Mahdi.

Progressive commentators tend to think that hawks are being disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that in Iran, the executive branch’s function is managerial and its foreign policy input limited. For instance, while the president appoints the minister of defense, he doesn’t control the armed forces. In fact, Ahmadinejad answers to Supreme Leader Ayataollah Khameini, who presides over foreign policy.

But what if Ahamadinejad accumulated enough power to rival the Supreme Leader? In fact, that’s not outside the realm of possibility. One of the most incisive Iran watchers is USC professor of chemical engineering Muhammad Sahimi, the lead political columnist for PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau. In an article titled Ahmadinejad-Khameini Rift Deepens, he writes about changes in the Tehran landscape after the elections (emphasis added):

Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. [Presumably because of the post-election violence -- RW.] . . . reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself. . . . The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics. . . .

The second development concerns Ahmadinejad’s recent attempt to take full control of Iran’s diplomatic efforts. In the meeting of his cabinet with Khamenei, the president noted that he has made 81 trips to foreign nations and 70 foreign delegations have visited Iran during his tenure. He claimed that these figures indicated his government’s activism and success in the international arena. The ayatollah responded, almost angrily, “More important than the trips is the spirit and content of the diplomacy,” an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy and belligerent rhetoric. Khamenei then emphasized that diplomacy must be led by the Foreign Ministry, that “parallel diplomacy is not acceptable,” . . .

Should Ahmadinejad come out on top in this power struggle, he needs to drop the holocaust denial, death-to-Zionism talk, and Mahdism like, yesterday, or there will be legitimate cause for concern on the part of the West.