Nobody seemed terribly surprised that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used last week’s news of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke as a platform to launch yet another anti-Israel invective. This one rejoiced over the impending death of Prime Minister Sharon, who at this writing remains in a coma, and reassured his followers that “God willing,” countless other Israeli leaders will follow. Since his unanticipated election victory in June, Ahmadinejad has been a broken record of hate speech, anti-Semitism and poorly camouflaged military threats. His infrequent and elaborately staged public appearances usually double as recitals for these vicious tirades and take place in receptive settings where he can comfortably brand Israel as the international community’s “tumor”; where audiences agree the Jewish state should be “wiped off the map”; where instead of meeting condemnation and disgust, speeches decrying the Holocaust as “myth” find praise and applause.
That Ahmadinejad couldn’t muster the decency to let grief-stricken Israelis pray for their leader without interruption should come as no shock. It should, however, serve a cautionary purpose for U.S. and European officials who insist on viewing the Iranian hardliner through the same tactical lens with which they viewed his relatively moderate predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Much unlike Khatami, Ahmadinejad operates with glaring contempt for international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and resentment rooted in a dark and fanatical religious conviction, the true contours of which few have come to terms with.
As was the case with his mentor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual architect behind the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ahmadinejad sees government as a tool to instill religious obedience and, if need be, as an instrument of repression. Likewise, Ahmadinejad took office with an ambitious and divinely inspired policy agenda. At the top of his list: ushering in the Messiah.
Yes, as startling as it sounds, Ahmadinejad subscribes to a branch of Shiite Islam convinced the return of the Messiah – and with it, the dawn of the apocalypse – is imminent. According to believers, Imam Mahdi, sometimes referred to as the Savior of Times, will soon be resurrected in a mosque in southern Iran. The exact timetable for the Shiite version of Judgment Day is unclear, but syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer reports that Ahmadinejad was heard in “official meetings” saying the Imam will return within the next two years. Further complicating matters, this particular understanding of Messianic revival distances itself from the passive fatalism of other religions, holding instead that civil society (and yes, even government) can play an important function in hastening the Imam’s second coming. To this end, Ahmadinejad has proven unwilling to divorce his role as a national leader from that of a religious disciple. Perhaps this explains why as one of his first acts of public policy, Ahmadinejad donated $17 million to the very shrine in which the long-awaited Imam is expected to return. This guy actually believes that along with commanding a military and overseeing his various internal ministries, heralding the return of the Messiah is all in a day’s work.
Much to the peril of the rest of the region, Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic delusions are inexorably connected with his long-time loyalties to violent terrorist groups like Hezbollah as well as to his sincere belief that Israel – both as a nation and a people – has no right to existence. Admittedly, a head of state openly hostile toward Israel is garden variety in the Middle East. One that publicly denies the Holocaust? Disturbing, but by no means astonishing. One convinced our day of reckoning will arrive before the next Harry Potter book? That’s just scary.
To say that U.S. and European diplomats need to better account for Ahmadinejad’s religious leanings during the now-stalled nuclear negotiations is, I believe, a grave understatement. If the international community truly wants Iran in a cage, Western stakeholders must stop hiding from the religious motivations behind Ahmadinejad’s brinksmanship. They must stop dismissing antagonism as “power projection” and look past “regional posturing” in explaining away his flagrant aggression toward Israel. Most importantly, they must not write off the unthinkable. It’s time to consider the frightening possibility that this maniac isn’t simply “saber-rattling” when he speaks of rubbing out the Jewish state.
The textbook approaches to this type of strategic engagement rely on assumptions of self-preservation and rational policy action that simply don’t apply when one party believes itself divinely ordained. Coupling positive incentives with veiled threats may have worked with “rogue states” like Libya and North Korea, where standard rules of engagement applied and it was reasonably assumed that all negotiating factions believed life as we know it would continue longer than two years down the road.
But if this guy is even a quarter as warped as he is reported to be, Iran’s hard-line government will remain the world’s most volatile and unpredictable regime. This man is no statesman. He isn’t even a politician. He’s a self-proclaimed apostle on a violent, wayward mission from God. Anywhere outside Tehran he’d be in a straitjacket, but as Israel’s luck would have it, he happens to command an administration of revolutionary fanatics and a military less than two years away from possessing an operational nuclear weapon.
Singer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.