The New Islamic Superpower

From the September-October 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

On the small stage of the Middle East, “the times of the Gentiles” is playing out in miniature.

Coming soon to a city near you.

Arbitrary violence. Daily attacks. Israel in retreat. Terrorists becoming politicians even while maintaining their vicious views. The world’s mightiest military helpless to stop an insurgency—eager to turn the job over to under qualified locals.

And in the midst of it all, a head-shakingly belligerent nation defiantly rearing up—knowing that its greatest enemies are simply unwilling to stop it.

The eyes of the world are fixed on the drama unfolding in the Middle East. Why? People may not recognize it, but this extraordinary narrative is about nothing less than the emergence of a frightening new global power—one that demands to be reckoned with.

Iran is roaring onto center stage, riding a surge of circumstances and events that have prepared its way.

And it is doing so exactly according to Jesus Christ’s prophecy of “the times of the Gentiles”—and right on schedule.

The Glory of Persia

How did Iran suddenly burst into such prominence in our day? The story is fascinating.

Before 1935, Iran was always known to the West as Persia.

The resplendent Persian Empire, which dominated Southeast Asia from the sixth to the fourth centuries b.c., was one of four dominant Gentile superpowers in history. Governed by luminaries such as Cyrus the Great and Darius, it expanded and flourished.

Later rulers, however, succumbed to decadence, and when the empire was attacked by the ambitious Alexander the Great, it fell quickly.

Nevertheless, the flame of that glorious history still burns in the heart of Iran.

Over the centuries, the power of the Persians rose and fell with the tides. At the beginning of the 20th century it was in ebb, and for decades Iran remained a minor player pressured by the United Kingdom and Russia (later the Soviet Union). Not until 1943 did Iran receive assurances of postwar independence. Still, its oil, discovered in 1908, was controlled by foreign nations, especially Britain and America, clear up through 1973—and its politics were pro-Western.

But the seeds of revolution were taking root through these years. In stark contrast to the liberal government, hard-core Islam was spreading among the populace, and as far back as the 1940s an Iranian Islamist leader named Ruhollah Khomeini was breathing fire. “[T]hose who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world,” he wrote in a 1942 essay. “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! … Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword!”

Throughout these years, Islamic groups grew increasingly agitated. The Islamic clergy, led by Khomeini (who became an ayatollah in the 1950s), roundly criticized Iranian politicians for their spineless dealings with the West. They ignited widespread protests throughout the late 1970s, and were able to isolate the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and force his exile on Jan. 16, 1979. Within a month, Khomeini took control and established Iran as an ultraconservative theocracy.

Khomeini represented the genuine arrival of a fiery brand of Islam that stirred the spirit of many Muslims. The sight of a turban crowning a nation’s leader for the first time in generations inspired many with the notion that this was a beachhead for Islam—today Iran, tomorrow the world.

It didn’t turn out that way. A year and a half later, Sept. 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded western Iran to gain control of a contested waterway, and Iran lashed back, triggering a vicious eight-year war that killed 1 ½ million, sapped the strength of both countries, and ended inconclusively.

This, it seems, was the perfect outcome as far as the United States was concerned—the last thing it wanted to see was a decisive victor that could then pose a larger threat. (In a National Security Directive in 1983, the U.S. pledged to do “whatever was necessary and legal” to prevent Iran from winning and began to supply intelligence and material support to Iraq; meanwhile, it secretly sold arms to Iran.)

After the war, however, both nations rebuilt quickly. Saddam Hussein managed to incur the wrath of the U.S. in doing so, and in the first Gulf War, Iraq’s development was again considerably set back.

Meanwhile Iran, which understandably remained neutral in that war, quietly went about the business of becoming a genuine, bristling power. Khomeini’s death in 1989 brought in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and elections that summer ushered in Hashemi Rafsanjani as president. This pair laid considerable groundwork for Iran to become the preeminent power in the region.

To advance toward regional supremacy, Iran endeavored to seize the reins of leadership among radical Islamists. Thus, throughout the 1990s, it aggressively bankrolled international terrorism (on four continents) and upgraded its military. Khomeini would have been proud.

A popular reform movement empowered Mohammad Khatami, replacing Rafsanjani in 1997—but then something interesting happened. With a “moderate” now president, Iran enjoyed an image makeover. It effectively mutated from an outcast state into a bona fide partner to many countries, particularly Russia and China. Emerging into the sunshine of broader international acceptance, Iran nurtured political and economic ties worldwide—despite the reality that Khatami had no actual power, and the mullahs continued to pursue their violent program.

It was under Khatami’s watch that the U.S. decided to make the Taliban its first target in the war on terror. It so happened that this hardline Islamic group in Afghanistan, just over Iran’s eastern border, was Tehran’s enemy—and the U.S. did the Iranians a favor by deposing it.

But that was just the prelude. Then came the main event: The U.S. next focused its sights on Saddam Hussein.

Maybe Washington had been lulled by Khatami’s charisma and by its own hopes of the imminent triumph of Iran’s moderate movement; maybe it figured it had to move a step at a time and that Iran would be next; maybe it believed its mere presence in the region would intimidate Tehran into acquiescence. Whatever the case, ousting Saddam Hussein well and truly scrapped the dual-containment policy that had kept the Islamic Republic in check for 2 ½ decades, and virtually guaranteed that Iran would achieve its first ambition: supremacy in the Middle East.

It was truly a watershed moment. The U.S. essentially threw the door open for Iran.

Iran responded immediately, vigorously pressing its advantage.

A Bold Forecast

The Trumpet’s editor in chief forecast for over 12 years, based on Bible prophecy, that Iran would rise to lead the radical Islamic camp and in the process assume preeminence in the Middle East. Over a decade ago, in “Is Iraq About to Fall to Iran?” (Trumpet, December 1994), Gerald Flurry detailed the additional prophetic indications that Iraq could come under Iran’s control. (These are spelled out in his free booklet The King of the South.)

Today we’re watching that happen.

As Amos 3:7 states, God alerts His true servants to the important prophetic trends that will affect world events. We cannot afford to ignore these powerful statements in the Trumpet’s history. These predictions resulted from prayerful study and comparison of several relevant Bible prophecies with current events.

However, God does not give us a complete picture all at once. As the Apostle Paul said, “now we see through a glass, darkly.” God requires that we watch events (Luke 21:36) so that, as they unfold, we see more clearly how specific prophecies will be fulfilled.

Iran’s gentle conquest of Iraq is happening in a far more extraordinary fashion than the Trumpet anticipated! Not only did it come about by the hand of the United States, but also at the expense of U.S. power. It appears that Washington, now weakened, will yield to the pressure to withdraw from the region (the generals have announced a possible pullback of two thirds of American forces next year) having spilled far more blood and spent far more borrowed cash than it had planned. Whenever this occurs, you can be sure that Iran will eagerly fill the void.

The situation demonstrates the weakening of the American superpower and the strengthening of this radical Middle Eastern power more vividly than anything we have yet witnessed! A tremendous sign of the coming times of the Gentiles.

A Budding Islamic Empire

With Saddam Hussein gone, Iran wants more than anything to extend its influence by forcibly transforming its former enemy into its closest ally. It seems to be finding considerable success.

“We have come to our Iranian brothers to ask them for help,” Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi announced in the first week of July. He was visiting his counterpart in Iran, Ali Shamkhani, to discuss the beginnings of robust military cooperation between the two countries, including Iran’s contribution of $1 billion in reconstruction aid to the Iraqi government, of which a slice would go to the Defense Ministry.

The beginnings of military cooperation between these two neighbors—a stick in the eye to Iraq’s American benefactors, to be sure—is as unsurprising as it is audacious. The Iranian defense minister went so far as to ask Baghdad to prevent the U.S. from establishing a long-term base on its soil. Both defense ministers bristled at the suggestion posed by reporters that American opposition to their new military arrangement should be considered. “No one can prevent us from reaching an agreement,” Shamkhani said, to which Duleimi chimed in, “Nobody can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries.”

The collaboration extends to the energy sector. In order to help solve the energy crisis in Iraq, the new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, signed energy agreements with the Iranian government in July. There are three parts to these agreements: 1) linking the electricity grid of the two countries; 2) using Iran’s Caspian ports to import refined fuels into Iraq from central Asia; and 3) building a 40-kilometer oil pipeline between the Iraqi oil center of Basra and Iran’s Abadan port.

How Iran would love to gain access to Iraq’s oil! Mr. Flurry’s words from December 1994 ring out: “Can you imagine the power [the Iranians] would have if they gained control of Iraq, the second-largest oil-producing country in the world?”

Duleimi’s trip was the first such visit since the two countries went to war in 1980. While apologizing for the war, Duleimi placed the blame squarely on Saddam Hussein. “We’ve come here to open a new page in our relations against the painful page of the past,” he told reporters. A new page indeed—especially considering the fact that Iraq’s biggest military partner at present is the U.S., Iran’s number-one enemy!

But Iraq knows that the Americans are only there for the short term. Eventually they will vacate, and Iran will remain next door. Prime Minister Jaafari, at a May 18 news conference with Iran’s foreign minister, said as much: “[T]he party that will leave Iraq is the United States, because it will eventually withdraw. But the party that will live with the Iraqis is Iran, because it is a neighbor to Iraq.” It’s clear where his loyalties lie.

Certainly a U.S. pullout would open Iraq to greater influence by Iran. Is it not likely, given the fact the mighty U.S. has been unable to squash the insurgency in Iraq, that terrorists will seize the initiative in those areas from which it withdraws and give the far-less-mighty Iraqi security forces more fight than they can handle? Considering the security and economic cooperation already beginning between Iraq and Iran, it seems virtually assured that Iranian forces will be called upon to help restore order.

Imagine the prospect of Iran succeeding where America could not.

Creating a Monster

Days after Defense Minister Duleimi’s visit to Iran, Prime Minister Jaafari himself led a high-level delegation on a visit to Tehran. During this reportedly very friendly visit, then-President Khatami said, “Hopefully, the visit will set a turning point in the bilateral historical relations.”

This “turning point” is a goal Iran has worked toward for some time. Tehran has labored intensively to infiltrate Iraqi politics in order to achieve it—even before America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. And Jaafari—who tried to spread the Iranian Revolution to Iraq in 1979 and was subsequently forced into exile in Iran, who maintains strong links with Iran’s ruling clerics, whose party’s official position is that Iraq should be an Islamic state—appears to be more than sympathetic to Iran’s aim.

But Iran’s work behind the curtain in order to draw Iraq into its sphere of influence hasn’t been limited to politics—it has included culture and religion (see “Iraq’s Iranian City,” page 11).

A look at Iraq’s demographics reveals why Iran has pursued such an aggressive strategy.

Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baathist leadership was an anomaly in a country with a majority of Shiite Muslims. With him gone and the people given a political voice, Iraq now has a Shiite prime minister, a Shiite-dominated government and a Shiite-dominated constitution-drafting committee headed by a Shiite. Shiites rule the nest, and, simply put, many of their hearts still resonate with the spirit of the Iranian Revolution.

Over recent months, Iraqi officials have sparred over whether—or, more accurately, the degree to which—Islamic law should be enshrined in the new Iraqi constitution. Most Shiite leaders in Iraq want the country to become an Islamic state, not so different from the Iranian model. Iran wants this most of all.

In flat opposition to America’s goals, vociferously stated shortly after the fall of Baghdad, this outcome seems inevitable. Iraq will almost surely end up becoming, like Iran, some form of Islamic theocracy.

As unbelievable as it once would have seemed, ultimately the U.S. will have spent the lives of its soldiers and billions of its treasure to create another Shiite Islamic republic in the Mideast.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has said, “If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then yes, we’ve opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq.”

Essentially, the Middle East would be dominated by a broad crescent of radically infused Shia governments sitting on the world’s most prized oil reserves. A whole set of new problems, indeed. And largely thanks to America.

Surrounded by Iran

On Sept. 11, 2003, former President Rafsanjani was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying, “Even though the United States has a physical presence in the countries that surround us, the reality is that the United States is, in fact, surrounded by Iran. God has pushed the Americans into a quagmire in Iraq. If they stay, they will be victims every day, and if they leave it will be a loss of honor.”

Two years later, it’s difficult to deny the truth in these ugly statements.

But why? Isn’t the United States the world’s supreme superpower?

In truth, no label can disguise the fact that Washington’s hands are effectively tied with respect to this “little” Mideast nation of Iran.

For one, as the Trumpet has examined previously, the U.S. relies heavily on Iran to help stabilize Iraq by keeping the Shiites quiet. (The insurgency is led by Sunnis; if Iran incited a Shiite uprising, the U.S. would be in deep trouble.) This dependence will only increase should Washington withdraw troops.

On top of this, the U.S. would be logistically incapable of maintaining the level and duration of commitment needed to deal with Iran militarily. In fact, declining recruitment numbers and an unsustainable level of military responsibilities in combat areas are already making America look to get out of Iraq.

Then there is the consideration of both world opinion and public opinion within America concerning U.S. intervention in Iraq, and the still-sensitive issue of whether or not there was a smoking gun. The pressure is intense not to make the same “mistakes” in Iran. For example: American intelligence sources now say Iran is 10 years from making a nuclear weapon, according to the Washington Post. This is absurd, but the idea effectively buys the U.S. time—at least in its own mind—in its dealings with the Islamic Republic.

Unable to act, the U.S. is left only to dream. Administration officials hope against hope that the Iranian government is near its end, soon to be trampled under the country’s slow march to democracy. The Washington Times quoted an official familiar with policy discussions on Iran as saying that the administration keeps “hoping the mullahs will leave before Iran gets a nuclear weapons capability.”

This is essentially what America’s foreign policy toward Iran has been reduced to.

Iran knows it.

Times of the Gentiles.

Prophetic Timetable

Iran has already attained an impressive degree of clout within the Middle East. Gary Samore of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said, “The Gulf countries naturally see Iran as the big power, much more powerful than any Gulf state including Saudi Arabia, and as a country that needs to be balanced.” Iranian political scientist Mohammed Hadi Semati of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concurs: “The Bush administration has to face the reality that Iran is now the regional superpower.”

As impressive as Iran is, however, it’s about to become even more so. Considering that the nation has a new president who strengthens the hand of the mullahs, the world should brace itself for a series of bold, pushy moves that establish Iran as a legitimate global superpower.

The timing of Iran’s rise is no fluke. It is occurring precisely according to the Bible’s prophetic timetable, and it should make plain the urgency of the times we live in—how near we truly are to witnessing Jesus Christ’s prophecy of the times of the Gentiles play out before us on the world stage.