Guest column: What drives Ahmadinejad?

The Iranian president does not conceal his intention to set the stage for the coming of the Mahdi, the Shi'ite messiah - and to eliminate Israel as a prerequisite

Shi'ite Iran is striving to attain the position of regional superpower en route to becoming a significant nuclear power on the international stage. It openly challenges the West, trying to eject the Americans and British from Iraq and attain hegemony in the Persian Gulf region - supported by a military massively built up in recent years. The Iranian leadership talks of a "New Middle East," one that would be Islamic along the lines of present-day Iran. Iran's political aspirations are driven by deep religious zeal. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly pledges "the imminent and evident liquidation of Israel" - code words for the messianic fervor he shares with his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. Yazdi is one of the most radical of ayatollahs, subscribing to diplomatic and military activism to advance the Iran-spearheaded global Islamic revolution. Former president Mohammad Khatami, an Iranian reformist, once called Yazdi "the theoretician of violence." In 2006, Yazdi's leading disciple, Mohsen Gharavian, issued a fatwa (ruling) sanctioning the use of nuclear weapons - though Iranian diplomats in the West repeatedly state that nuclear weapons are opposed by Islam and therefore will not be sought. Addressing senior religious scholars in mid-November of 2005, Ahmadinejad did not attempt to hold back his true motives and intentions. Our basic goal, he said, is to set the stage for the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah, or "vanished Imam." In order to bring that about, Iran must set an Islamic example, develop a strong society and forge government policy which would hasten the end-of-time vision in which the Mahdi will appear. As mayor of Teheran, Ahmadinejad in 2004 reportedly secretly instructed the city council to build a grand avenue to prepare for the Mahdi. A year later, as president, he allocated $17 million for a blue-tiled mosque closely associated with mahdaviat - preparing for the Mahdi - in Jamkaran, south of the capital near the city of Qum. He also initiated the construction of a direct Teheran-Jamkaran rail line. SUCH IS the religious fervor associated with the mosque that every Tuesday night - the predicted evening of the Mahdi's arrival - thousands of Iranians gather at the shrine of Jamkaran. They write wishes on pieces of paper and throw them in a well where the imam is supposed to appear. Ahmadinejad openly espouses the belief that his rule is the harbinger of the Mahdi. In a speech at the UN in 2006, in the presence of many world leaders, Ahmadinejad closed with a prayer: "O mighty Lord, I pray you to 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." A book published in Lebanon last year focuses on Ahmadinejad's Shi'ite vision of the Mahdi. Entitled Ahmadinejad and the Next Global Revolution, its author, Shadi Fakiya, paints a direct link between Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi, claiming that the current Iranian president fits the description of the commander of the Mahdi forces who will liberate Jerusalem according to Shi'ite belief. Ahmadinejad is depicted as determined and guided directly by Allah, believing that the "army of the liberation of Jerusalem" will pass through Iraq, much as Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that "the road to Jerusalem passes through Karbala" (a holy Shi'ite town in Iraq). EVEN AHMADINEJAD's determination to acquire nuclear weapons is construed as one of the signs of messianic redemption. Ahmadinejad and his associates view the showdown with the international community over Iran's acquiring nuclear technology as one of the ways to prepare the ground for the appearance of the Mahdi. As in Christianity, the Shi'ite messiah will be predated by an anti-Christ, or in Shi'ite belief, the Dajjal. Muslim tradition predicts that in the "End Times," the Dajjal and his army will threaten to take over the entire globe, conquering much of it by military power, and seducing others with material prosperity. The Mahdi will then appear and destroy the Dajjal and rule the world according to Shari'a law. Although historically little is known of the identity of the Dajjal, more and more Shi'ite imams are claiming that the Dajjal and his followers are Jews. These extremist imams and their followers point to the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as proof that the Jews are running the world and corrupting Islam. Already in the 1970s Ayatollah Khomeini wrote in Vilayat-i Faqih that the Jews were perverting Islam and thus deserving of divine retribution. Ahmadinejad's obsession with Israel has convinced many that he believes Israel to be an absolute evil, fitting the role of the Dajjal. The Iranian president's other obsession, disproving the Holocaust, also fits nicely into the belief that the Dajjal manages to fool the world with lies. The present era, according to Fakiya, is the "era of revelation," whereby various signs foretell the appearance of the Mahdi. First there will be a gathering of the Jews in Palestine. Following this, the Shi'ite Mahdi will appear and lead the decisive campaign to annihilate the Jews. This will be followed by the establishment of an Islamic state as the first stage in creating the worldwide imam state. An important element in this scenario is an Iraqi regime loyal to Iran. The depiction of the Khorasani in the Shi'ite vision of the end of time is compatible with Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai, the present supreme ruler of Iran. The Khorasani will hand over the torch to the Mahdi when he appears, and will become the most senior among the Muslims. Finally, the historical description of Shuyeb bin Salah, the figure who will command the Mahdi's army, seems to be an uncanny description of Ahmadinejad himself. Also known as al-Shabi al-Salah, Shuyeb is depicted as suntanned, thin, sporting a short beard, hailing from Teheran, determined and warlike. No wonder many are convinced that Ahmadinejad sees himself in this role. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former adviser to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ashley Perry is a political analyst who has worked with many organizations including the Israel Prime Minister's Office, and as editor of the Middle East Strategic Information project.