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What drives Ahmadinejad's combative rhetoric

The hard-line views expressed by the Iranian president at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday are informed by a Messianic religious belief.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2008

Waiting for The Mahdi: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seen at a press conference in Tehran last week, says the Shiite Messiah, or Imam Mahdi, will soon return.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters


Tehran, Iran; and ISTANBUL, TURKEY

In the midst of the combative rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday at the United Nations, where he referred to Israel as a “cesspool” and the US as a “bullying power,” he also renewed his call for the quick return of the Shiite Messiah to vanquish oppressors and bring perfection to the world.

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For Shiite Muslims, the eventual return of the Imam Mahdi is an article of faith – equivalent to the second coming of Christ for many Christians. While few Iranian politicians so publicly embrace this Messianic worldview, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his aides have stated more and more frequently that their administration is governed by the Mahdi.

Such beliefs guide Ahmadinejad in both domestic and international affairs and help explain his stance on Iran's nuclear program, his unwillingness to succumb to US demands to curb enrichment, and why his government continues to back anti-Israeli and anti-American militants in the region.

President Bush, who spoke hours earlier at the Tuesday gathering of world leaders in New York, lashed out out at Iran for precisely this stance and called for additional UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Critics in Iran – many of them clerics – charge that Ahmadinejad's conviction that the "end of times" is near has brought Iran dangerously close to war with the US and Israel.

"Nothing connects with the audience like the vocabulary of imminence," says Kurt Anders Richardson, an expert on Shiite theology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. "It's great to live with imminence if you believe. It changes everything: it supercharges politics, it supercharges ethics and collective feeling.

"Also it's a great antidote to worldly distractions. Instead of fear instigated by morality police, you have euphoria, a profound enticement," says Dr. Richardson, speaking in Tehran during a recent conference on Mahdism doctrine. "Clearly these people are motivated by the belief they will be privileged to see the return of the Mahdi in their lifetime."

Belief that the "ultimate savior" will soon return has been a constant theme, both in substance and rumor, since Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. Three years ago, he was quoted telling local officials concerned with overspending: "Don't worry, Imam [Mahdi] is going to come in two years and all the problems will be solved."

Ahmadinejad has been seen on a video telling a ranking cleric that an "aura of light" wreathed his head when he spoke at the UN in 2005, and later said the Mahdi was guiding his controversial appearance at Columbia University last year.

The president has struck back, saying those who ridicule have "damaged beliefs." But in an address to celebrate the Mahdi's birthday last month, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, said "divine religions … did not intend to give people false hopes."