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Tuesday, August 22nd 2006

Benign…

…as benign as it can be. Time Magazine takes a shot at “explaining” Iran and President Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s president is fond of folksy mysticism, but that doesn’t drive his policies. Since his election last year, many have argued that Ahmadinejad’s religious beliefs are apocalyptic, and that he seeks to hasten the end of time by acquiring and using nuclear weapons. The paranoia is so real that when he said Iran would respond to the West’s nuclear offer on August 22, one established expert suggested Ahmadinejad might deliver Armageddon instead. This speculation grew from the correspondence of August 22 to a date on the Islamic calendar deemed as auspicious, should one happen to be an apocalyptic leader who happened to be looking to for a good date to end the world sometime mid-summer. Iranians do not use the Islamic calendar, and August 22 happens to be the last day of the Persian month. Of course, that might be the na├»ve explanation.

Some have also suggested that the principle of deterrence known as MAD (mutual assured destruction) would not ward off confrontation between a nuclear-armed Iran and its foes. This misunderstands both the role of Shi’ite mysticism in Iranian culture, and Ahmadinejad’s real political motivations. Like the majority of Shi’ite Muslims around the world, Ahmadinejad believes that Shi’ism’s Twelfth Imam will emerge near the end of time to do apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil. This is pedestrian Shi’ite piety, not a cause for international alarm. The majority of Shi’ites believe this, and such views are not unique to Islam; other prophetic religions have their own messiahs, and beliefs about the end of time.

It is true that Ahmadinejad is more preoccupied with Tweltfh Imam than most Iranian officials. That’s because he is younger, and belongs to a generation for whom such devotional piety is commonplace. Such mysticism was forged in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq War, a war that was fought on the Iranian side by poor young men indoctrinated to believe they were fighting for Islam; legends developed at the front of the Twelfth Imam riding past on horseback, and when the fighting stopped, such myths found their way into popular culture. Ahmadinejad fought in this war, and absorbed its sensibilities. What matters is that this mysticism is much like saint worship; it does not insist the apocalypse is now, or imminent. No sane, educated person in Iran believes that Ahmadinejad wants a nuclear program to hasten the apocalypse, because they know his real motivation: nationalism.

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