Ahmadinejad’s Apocalyptic Ambitions

Arash Khamooshi/AFP/Getty Images

Ahmadinejad’s Apocalyptic Ambitions

We ignore them at our own peril.

During an interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently, msnbc’s Ann Curry confronted the Iranian president with a provocative question about his spiritual beliefs.

“In your speeches, you pray for God to hasten the arrival of the hidden imam, the Muslim messiah,” stated Curry. “What is your relationship with the hidden imam, and how soon do you think before the second coming?”

Ahmadinejad’s response, delivered rather nonchalantly, was non-specific and concocted to appeal to his American audience. “Yes, that’s true,” he replied. “I prayed for the arrival of the 12th imam. … When the imam arrives, all [the world’s problems] will be resolved. And a prayer for the owner of the age is nothing but a wish for justice and brotherly love to prevail around the world.”

Unconvinced, Curry pushed further: “You’ve said that you believe that his arrival, the apocalypse, would happen in your own lifetime. What do you believe that you should do to hasten his arrival?”

“I have never said such a thing,” Ahmadinejad retorted. That was all it took. Deflated, Curry apologized, and backed away from the issue. “Forgive me … forgive me,” she pleaded, before allowing Ahmadinejad to conclude the segment with a slick sales pitch on the virtues of the 12th imam.

Despite Curry’s capitulation, msnbc’s inquiry into Ahmadinejad’s spiritual underpinnings was refreshing, unique and extremely relevant. If Curry had pushed the issue further, she might have shed some much-needed light on what is arguably the most underrated story in the ongoing saga with Iran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s quest to create the apocalyptic conditions he believes will surround the return of the 12 imam.

The belief of a returning Mahdi, or 12th imam, is a defining doctrine within the most populous group of Shiites (known as Ithna Ashari, or “Twelvers”), to which Ahmadinejad belongs. Iran’s president—who wishes for the extermination of the Jewish state and is gunning for a nuclear arsenal—is a staunch adherent to the mahdaviat, which is “belief in and efforts to prepare for the Mahdi,” according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

Twelvers believe the 12th imam will emerge from hiding when the world has fallen into chaos and civil strife. Ahmadinejad has stated that the main mission of the Islamic revolution “is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th imam, the Mahdi.”

“Ahmadinejad speaks of the return of the 12th imam in many of his speeches,” warned Rick Santorum recently. “To the consternation of the ayatollahs, he has even said the Mahdi has communicated with him personally” (emphasis mine throughout). Commenting on what makes Iran’s leader a radical Twelver, Santorum noted Ahmadinejad’s consistent predictions about the return of the Mahdi, and, more ominously, Ahmadinejad’s conviction that “it is within his power to call the Mahdi back from his occultation.”

When it comes to the Mahdi’s return, Ahmadinejad is the opposite of the seemingly nonchalant believer he sold himself as during his interview with Curry. In 2004, as mayor of Tehran, he instructed the city council to build a grand avenue to prepare for the Mahdi. Once he became president, he allocated $17 million for a blue-tiled mosque in Jamkaran, south of the capital, that is closely associated with the mahdaviat.

Ahmadinejad’s belief in the Mahdi’s return has been a driving force behind his politics over the past four years. “From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, to challenging the United States and Israel and enhancing Iran’s power with nuclear programs,” Scott Peterson wrote, “every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the Mahdi’s return.”

In a speech before the United Nations in September 2005, the Iranian president concluded his address to world leaders with a prayer for the Mahdi’s appearance: “O mighty Lord, I pray to you 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.”

According to Ahmadinejad, it was no ordinary prayer. When he returned to Iran, the Iranian president boasted about it to supporters: “[O]ne of our group told me that when I started to say ‘In the name of God the almighty and merciful,’ he saw a light around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. … [T]hey were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic Republic.”

Peterson wrote that Ahmadinjad’s “presidential obsession with the mahdaviat yields a certitude that leaves little room for compromise.” Is there a better way to describe the present state of Iranian foreign policy? Ahmadinejad does not base his political decisions on what is best for his nation—he makes decisions based on his radical religious beliefs. And these beliefs tell him that he must facilitate the return of the Mahdi by challenging America and the West and strengthening Islamic power on the world scene.

Charles Krauthammer summed it up perhaps the best. He wrote back in 2005:

So a Holocaust-denying, virulently anti-Semitic, aspiring genocidist, on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons of the apocalypse, believes that the end is not only near but nearer than the next American presidential election. … This kind of man would have, to put it gently, less inhibition about starting Armageddon than a normal person.

Middle East expert Daniel Pipes says Ahmadinejad’s religious fervor and unbending commitment to the return of the 12th imam ranks him among the most dangerous leaders in history. “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 ….”

Instead of apologizing, then backpedaling, Ann Curry, armed with all the evidence proving Ahmadinejad’s devotion to his 12th imam, ought to have prodded Ahmadinejad further on this issue. msnbc, rather than burying the snippets of its interview on its website, ought to have produced a full-length report on Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic beliefs, and then aired it on prime-time television. Why?

Because by providing an honest glimpse into the mind of Iran’s president, it could have helped America, including those inside the Beltway, uncover a fundamental reason for the United States’ ongoing failure to deal with Iran. It could have helped America realize that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to his Mahdi, not Western leaders—not Barack Obama.

And what is the Mahdi supposedly telling his earthly minion? He’s telling him to shun peace, and work toward creating the apocalyptic conditions needed to usher in his return.