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.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
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.

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.

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."

While rejoicing that Iran today "pays more attention than ever to the issue of Mahdaviat," Mr. Khamenei warned that "those who pursue personal interests sometimes take advantage of this fact."

Claims of seeing the Mahdi were "utterly false and shameful," Khamenei said, while claims of "being connected with, meeting, or receiving orders from this honored Imam cannot be confirmed." The warning was aimed at charlatans who profit from claims of a direct connection to the Mahdi, who advertise with posters in shops and homes that they will pass on prayers and requests to the Imam for money. Police swooped on many such places days after Khamenei spoke.

Shiite tradition holds that after being absent for more than a millennium (he is believed to have disappeared in 874 AD), nobody but God knows when the missing 12th Imam will return. Those who believe they have seen him are forbidden from saying so.

But analysts in Iran say Khamenei's words were also directed at Ahmadinejad and his government to not to go too far in their claims. The supreme leader backs them on many key issues and even recently told the cabinet to prepare for a second term after June 2009 presidential elections.

"The very, very top of the religious leadership is strongly concerned about this business," says a former Iranian official. "It's a warning … a very strong alarm of the Leader to the government."

Critics found voice in a July article about "deviant" claims of the president's proximity to the divine. "Do you believe that these speeches can excuse the government of its mismanagement, inflation, increasing prices, dissatisfaction, and the protest of people?" wrote Rasoul Montajabnia, a cleric and opposition politician.

Few believers in Iran doubt that the "ultimate savior" will come one day. Ahmadinejad says the Mahdi will destroy unjust rulers who "are not connected to the heavens [and are separated] from the almighty prophets" – meaning those of the United States, Israel, and the West.

There is no more important subject, Ahmadinejad said during his speech at the Mahdism Doctrine conference. God had created mankind "from soil and mud" but wanted him to move "toward the peak of perfection, toward godliness."

Ahmadinejad and several top officials attended the conference, which was sponsored by the Bright Future Institute, based in Iran's religious center of Qom. It was backed by the president's office, which has earmarked millions for Mahdaviat study.

"Although 1,100 years have passed, each hour can be a century for those who feel," said Masoud Poursayed-Aghaie, the director of the Bright Future Institute. He said government had "one purpose, to pave the way for the appearance of the Mahdi."

But standing in the way of this vision, Ahmadinejad added, were "those who are willing to sacrifice the whole of humanity to satisfy their own devilish interest and desires and filling the deep pockets of capitalists."

Only the Mahdi can restore justice, he said, though believers will have to work hard: "We should do our best and if we change our hearts, if we change our ideas … then that great auspicious event will happen."

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