What the next US president will need to know about Iran and Islamic State

The Oval Office is no place for on-the-job training.

US Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the Brookings Institution Saban Forum at the Willard Hotel in Washington December 6, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the Brookings Institution Saban Forum at the Willard Hotel in Washington December 6, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In less than a month voters in Iowa will cast their ballots, officially setting the 2016 presidential election in motion.
The big question: Will Americans choose a leader who will truly be ready on Day One to face the enormous global challenges that lie ahead, particularly those in the Middle East? Above all, the next president of the United States must understand that the greatest challenge facing the Western alliance in the Middle East is not simply the threat of radical Islam, but that of apocalyptic Islam.
Unfortunately, most candidates and voters are still not adequately familiar with such distinctions. But they need to be.
Why? Because while adherents of radical Islam (such as al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas, etc.,) use violent acts hoping to drive the US, Israel and other “infidels” out of what they regard as their holy lands, adherents of apocalyptic Islam seek to use genocide to annihilate all infidels and establish a global Islamic kingdom known as the caliphate.
For the first time in human history, the leaders of two nation states are being driven by eschatology. The rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran are consumed by ancient Islamic prophecies that predict the end of the world as we know it. So are the rulers of Islamic State (IS). The former are Shi’ite. The latter are Sunni.
Yet both believe their messiah – known as the “Mahdi” (and to the Shi’tes as the “Twelfth Imam” or “Hidden Imam”) – will appear on Earth at any moment. Both believe he will usher in the End of Days.
Both are determined to hasten his coming.
But each has very different strategies to get there.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, believes his mission is to immediately build the caliphate in the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories) and slaughter all who refuse to convert to his brand of Islam. He wants to draw the Western powers (“the forces of Rome”) into an apocalyptic battle in the Syrian town of Dabiq, because that’s where he believes Islamic prophecy has promised a great victory. Then he believes the Mahdi will arrive to expand the caliphate’s reach around the globe.
“Rush, O Muslims, to your state,” al-Baghdadi proclaimed in a July 2014 audio recording. “It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis.
The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims....This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.”
By contrast, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his close advisers believe the priority is not building the caliphate but rather building the infrastructure to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons. When they are ready to commit genocide on an epic scale – annihilating America and Israel – then they can turn their attention to the establishment of the Islamic kingdom and the Mahdi will come.
“The Hidden Imam has no tangible presence among us, but... we must prepare the ground for his speedy appearance,” Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then a senior adviser to Khamenei, said in 2006. “[He will not appear] if we sit idly.”
“The coming of Imam Zaman [the Mahdi] is the definite promise by Allah,” Khamenei declared in 2014. “The caravan of humanity from the day of creation has been moving... to the time of the coming of Imam Mahdi.... I can tell you with utmost confidence: The promise of Allah for the coming [of the Mahdi] and the establishment of a new Islamic civilization is on its way.”
“The slogans of the Iranian nation on Al-Qods [Jerusalem] Day show what its position is,” Khamenei then insisted in the summer of 2015, just after the nuclear deal was announced. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’ have resounded throughout the country....
Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”
Apocalyptic thinking is rampant in the Muslim world. According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, “in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, more than half or more of Muslims believe they will live to see the return of the Mahdi.” In a world of some 1.6 billion Muslims, this means that upwards of 800 million Muslims believe the end is near.
In Egypt, 40 percent of Muslims believe this. In Jordan, the number is 41%. Among Palestinians, the number is 46%. In Turkey, it’s 68%. In Iraq, it’s 72%. In Afghanistan, the number is a stunning 83%.
Likewise, millions of Muslims believe that Jesus is coming back to earth. They don’t believe Jesus is the messiah or the son of God, as Christians do. Rather, they believe Jesus is the Mahdi’s deputy who will force all infidels to convert to Islam or be slaughtered.
The Pew survey found 28% of Jordanian Muslims believe Jesus is coming back to Earth. In Egypt, it’s 39%. Among Palestinians, the number is 46%. In Iraq, the number is as high as 64%.
Not every Muslim who believes in Islamic eschatology wants to see – much less participate in – genocidal wars to fulfill their favorite prophecies. But the leaders of Iran and IS do. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
In recent years, I’ve written two series of novels, not simply to entertain, but to help the American people, members of Congress, presidential candidates and other become aware of such Islamic apocalyptic thinking, and various worst-case scenarios that could result if Western leaders are blindsided by enemies they do not understand. Yet far more must be done to ensure that American voters and the leaders they will choose truly understand these facts.
Commander-in-chief is not an entry-level position. The Oval Office is no place for on-the-job training. Events in the Middle East, in particular, are moving too fast for a novice. The next leader of the Free World will need to enter the White House with a deep understanding of who our enemies are, a decisive plan of action to neutralize – not contain – them, and an experienced national security team.
The stakes are too high for anything less.
The writer is the author of ten New York Times best-selling international political thrillers with more than three million copies in print. His eleventh novel, The First Hostage, was published on December 29. (www.joelrosenberg.com) You can follow him on Twitter @JoelCRosenberg.