• Given Iran's tendency to enrich uranium in secret, it may achieve nuclear breakout capability well before ten years from now.

  • Nor should we forget that current polls place Mahmoud Ahmadinejad close behind Hassan Rouhani for the 2017 presidential election.

  • An exhaustive list of genocidal threats by major Iranian politicians between 2009 and 2012 has been compiled by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The latest threat was made on March 1 of this year.

  • The Islamic State and other terrorists do not represent an idealized version of normative Islam, and a number of Muslims may not even support them. But their scriptural and historical roots frankly have plenty of precedent, and far from minimal support.

  • Shi'i Islam is a very different belief system from Sunni Islam. Iran today resembles a medieval European state.

When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke from the podium of the U.S. Congress to warn of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, the clock was already ticking towards March 31. That is the deadline for a final agreement between the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) and the Iranian regime on limits to Iran's nuclear program, in return for the lifting of sanctions currently imposed on Iran.

By now, everyone has read page upon page of commentary on what the likely consequences of such a deal may be, with a preponderance of analysts agreeing that President Barack Obama's drive to secure a resolution is likely to put Iran on a clear course to nuclear weapons capability after about ten years. Given Iran's tendency to enrich uranium in secret, they may achieve nuclear breakout capability well before ten years from now.

Netanyahu's mission was to warn Congress about the possible ramifications of these negotiations not only for Israel, but for the entire free world. Obama's vehement opposition to Netanyahu's speech was a desperate sign of how far his political advantage now takes precedence over any concern for the danger that Iranian nuclear weapons will pose to Israel, the Middle East, Europe and even America.

Over the years, Iran's threats to destroy Israel, to "wipe it" from the pages of history or to flatten Tel Aviv and Haifa, have been direct and unambiguous. This last threat was made on March 1 of this year. Joshua Teitelbaum and Michael Segall, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, have compiled an exhaustive list of genocidal threats by major Iranian politicians between 2009 and 2012. It is highly unlikely that Barack Obama, John Kerry, or anyone else in the U.S. Administration or the State Department have ever read it, or, if they have read it, that they care.

What is worrying more than anything is that the U.S. president and his allies seem not to understand, even a little, the country now working to build nuclear weapons: its culture, its religion, and its apocalyptic obsessions.

Obama seems to think the Iranian leadership is made up of pragmatic politicians who favor an almost areligious approach to world affairs. This calculation seems based on a wished-for interpretation, which is almost secularist, of a religiously-defined and faith-inspired culture.

Let us start with a recent statement by President Obama, made during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on February 9, 2015. Obama argued that a nuclear deal with Iran was possible because "according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon." Sadly, this comment reveals that he is as ignorant of Islamic scripture as he is of Islamic history.

Obama has gone out of his way to say that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. He insisted, at a White House summit later in February, that "We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." But he failed to explain how reams of accurate quotes from centuries of theory and practice of the Qur'an, the hadith (traditions) and works of Islamic jurisprudence, could constitute "perversion."

The Islamic State and other terrorists do not represent an idealized vision of normative Islam, and the majority of Muslims may not even support them. But its scriptural and historical roots frankly have plenty of precedent, and far from minimal support.

If we speak about the faith of the Iranian people, we are ignoring a few small minorities. Shi'i Islam is a very different belief system from Sunni Islam. Regrettably, it seems that neither Obama nor his advisors knows a thing about the theology, history, rituals and mechanisms of Shi'ism, its clerical system, its seminaries, its sects, or its modern manifestations. Many of these matters are very relevant to the question of whether Iran would use nuclear weapons once it had them.

Even if it is unreasonable to expect that the American president embark on a study of the intricate metaphysics of Ishraqi philosophy, Babi apocalypticism, or Usuli ejtehad, at least he has at his disposal universities full of scholars, who could bring him up to speed on the most basic elements in modern post-revolutionary Iranian beliefs. The problem is that he seems not to want to listen to people who might tell him what he does not know, in case he might disagree with it. This wilful blindness calls into question the wisdom of enabling Iran to be a nuclear-armed country -- ever. Unfortunately, a nuclear-armed Iran is something Obama and his supporters apparently intend to make a reality.

Professor Bernard Lewis, in 2009, said on the question of Iran's nuclear weapon, "For most of the Iranian leadership MAD would work as a deterrent, but for Ahmadinejad and his group with their apocalyptic mindset, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it's an inducement."

True, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer the Iranian president, and the current president, Hassan Rouhani is often deemed by the west a pragmatist and a reformer, but the apocalyptic mindset is not something unique to Ahmadinejad and his followers. It has deep roots in Shi'ite belief. That -- plus raw superstition, a large measure of religious fanaticism, and a cult of martyrdom -- makes Iran the most dangerous country on the planet today.

Put another way, if someone boasts of uncontrollable urges to slaughter everyone he considers his enemy, is it really advisable to buy him an assault rifle and a few of boxes of bullets? Imagine what he could do with a batch of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

According to Jane's Defence Weekly, Iran's longest-range rockets, while "theoretically capable of ICBM ranges," cannot be classified as ICBMs. But the United States Institute of Peace believes Iran already has the largest and most diverse ICBM arsenal in the region, built from foreign imports, notably from North Korea. In the meantime, the regime has long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads to Israeli cities. On 8 March 2015, at a ceremony in Tehran, Iran unveiled its new Soumar long-range cruise missile. Their Qadr and Qiam missiles can already reach Israel.

The expectation of the coming of a messianic figure called the Mahdi, peripheral in Sunni Islam, has always been a key feature of Shi'ism. In this belief, the war that will bring on the "End of Days" or the Apocalypse, will bring to earth the Mahdi, the "Hidden Imam," a descendent of Mohammad. Then there will be universal peace.

The promise of mankind's liberation through a semi-divine saviour has been at the heart of the Shi'ite faith -- the faith that Obama thinks will not contemplate the use of nuclear arms. The Shi'a identify the Mahdi as the last of their twelve holy Imams, a young boy who disappeared from human sight in the year 260 (872 C.E.), lives in a state of occultation as the Hidden Imam in the celestial cities of Hurqalya and Jabulsa, and will return to earth with a sword to fight a last battle against the forces of unbelief. The form of Shi'ism that is dominant in Iran is the majority Twelver sect, which means that the living presence of the last Imam, and the promise of his return to establish a world of peace and justice, runs through the veins of all believers.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and especially during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 to 2013), apocalyptic notions and supernatural influence on political decisions have challenged those who seek a rational and pragmatic approach to state affairs. Perhaps the leading scholar of this trend is Dr. Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Khalaji trained in Islamic theology and philosophy for fourteen years in the seminaries in Qom, then in Tehran and Paris. He is now an American citizen who understands the Iranian regime as an insider. His study, "Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy," should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks Iran can be approached and negotiated with as a rational partner.[1] Although he was writing about the Ahmadinejad period, his monograph shows substantial evidence that irrationality was not and is not restricted to one man's delusions. According to Ali Rahnema, "... the president's [Ahmadinejad's] behaviour and utterance and those of his proponents were neither exceptional nor isolated cases in historical terms."[2]

"The Islamic government [of Iran]," Khalaji writes, "has turned to an apocalyptic vision that brings hope to the oppressed and portrays itself as an antidote to immoral and irreligious behaviour." (p. vii) Perhaps this is merely religious superstition that has no impact on political behaviour. But Khalaji stresses several times that Ahmadinejad was reputed to belong to a secret society that believes in the imminent return of the Hidden Imam. He informs us that "It is very difficult to know precisely what this secret society believes, but some rumours suggest it is eager to control the country's nuclear program."[3] Later, Khalaji points out that the president "juxtaposes the preparation for the return of the Hidden Imam with the collapse of the state of Israel" (p. 24), and chillingly adds that "Ahmadinejad has stated that the Iranian nuclear program is running under the control of the Hidden Imam" (p. 26). Even if the former president is a crank, millions upon millions of Iranian Shi'is have an intense belief in the power of the Mahdi over human affairs.

Between 1997 and 2005, the president of Iran was Mohammad Khatami, since considered as a key figure in the reform movement that sought to replace clerical rule with a more secular system. Although a cleric himself, Khatami opposed Khomeini's theory of rule by religious guardians (velayat-e faqih). Yet even in the years of his second term, 2001-2005, an enhanced yearning for the return of the Twelfth Imam was advocated through selective mosque networks and Islamic associations. That this happened under a genuine reformist, who wanted to bring about a true democracy in Iran, is of considerable importance in any analysis of what may happen under Iran's current president, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani has been widely interpreted as a reformer, but the increase in hangings, strictures on veiling, and mistreatment of the Baha'i community under his presidency suggest he is a very different man from Khatami or to those belonging to the suppressed "Green Movement". Khamenei's support for Rouhani is itself indicative of his adherence to traditional norms. There is no sign of a let-up in superstition or the apocalyptic vision under his presidency.

Since "moderate" Hassan Rouhani (right) became the president of Iran, the surge in executions has given Iran the world's highest death penalty rate per capita.

An important sign of the continuing appeal of extreme religious thought and behavior may be found in the growth of a major cult based around what is now a huge mosque complex on the outskirts of Qom, where the more rationalist seminary is located.

Modern Iranian messianism is no longer the passive style of centuries past, but activist, and can lead to military action.

Religiosity and superstition played an equally important part in the Iranian military response to Iraq during the 1980-1988 war between the two countries, during which some 750,000 Iranians died and tens of thousands more were badly wounded.

Throughout the war, religious themes predominated, from calls to jihad, to imitating the events of Karbala, when the Imam Husayn was martyred ("Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala"). All dead soldiers were lauded as martyrs; even children were sent into battle carrying plastic silver "keys to paradise." The idea was that by fighting the Iraqi army in a war between truth and falsehood, Iranians would hasten the return of the Hidden Imam.[4]

With this sort of thinking -- the willingness to sacrifice, whatever the cost -- it is critical to remember the words of former "reformist" president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2000:

"If one day, a very important day, of course, the Islamic World will also be equipped with the weapons available to Israel now, the imperialist strategy will reach an impasse, because the employment of even one atomic bomb inside Israel will wipe it off the face of the earth, but [such a bomb] would only do damage to the Islamic World. It is not unreasonable to consider this possibility."[5]

Militant messianism is as dangerous as ever today. Expectation of the Hidden Imam and the activist struggle to bring about his advent are not only matters of pious belief. According to Mehdi Khalaji, the former Iranian cleric, apocalyptic ideas have a strong following within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia. He points out that Ahmadinejad's followers, who believe in the coming apocalypse, "are linked to an influential group of the IRGC that has responsibility over Iran's nuclear program."[6] There is no reason to suppose that this group within the IRGC has abandoned its apocalyptic beliefs, or the link between them and control of nuclear arms.

Iran today resembles a medieval European state more than a modern secularized democracy. The Muharram processions, when men march through city streets naked to the waist while whipping themselves with chains and razor blades, bring to mind the ritual marches of medieval Flagellants. Like the Flagellants, the Shi'a of Iran expect the imminent end of the world.

In a country sunk in economic misery, subject to a harsh system of government and justice, where young people are desperate to flee abroad to seek normal lives, where nothing works, where corruption is rife at all levels, not least among the "spiritual," it is not surprising that so many seek escape through superstition, pilgrimage, writing letters to a man who died centuries ago, and connecting their Saviour's return to military might and the conquest of the world.

The Iranian regime is changeable, with frequent shifts in direction and personnel. President Obama treats the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, as a pragmatist with whom he can do a deal. But Rouhani (who remains a hardliner) is not the most powerful man in the country. Greater power resides in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even that may be about to change, long before Rouhani comes to the end of his term. On the March 5, the Jerusalem Post reported that Khamenei may be close to death. There have been rumours about his cancer for several years, but now it seems he does not have long to live. We do not know what sort of man will replace him, but it is unlikely to be an entirely rational figure, and it could turn out to be a cleric who espouses at least some of the superstitious beliefs outlined above. Nor should we forget that current polls place Mahmoud Ahmadinejad close behind Hassan Rouhani for the 2017 presidential elections. If Iran has nuclear weapons during a third Ahmadinejad term, the risks for humanity will be immense.

Can the world afford to give the green light for building nuclear weapons to a country that is so unstable and so close to justifying the use of such weapons by believing in the nearness of The Last Day?

Dr. Denis MacEoin has a PhD in Persian Studies (Cambridge 1979) and has lectured in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He has contributed to the major encyclopedias on Islam and Iran, the "Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd ed.", "The Encyclopedia Iranica," and "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam in the Modern World."


[1] Of comparable importance are Ali Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics from Majlesi to Ahmadinejad, Cambridge University Press, 2011, chapter 1; Abbas Amnanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi'ism, I B Tauris, 2009, chapters 2 and 10; Idem, "The Resurgence of Apocalyptic in Modern Islam," Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, New York, 2000. Also relevant are: David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apoclayptic Literature, N.Y. Syracuse University Press, 2005 and David Cook, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, Princeton, The Darwin Press Inc., 2002, pp. 189-229

[2] Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics from Majlesi to Ahmadinejad, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. x

[3] Mehdi Khalaji, "Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy," p. vii

[4] These themes have been dealt with at length by Ardalan Rezamand in "Use of Religious Doctrine and Symbolism in the Iran-Iraq War".

[5] Cited by Joshua Teitelbaum and Michael Segall, The Iranian Leadership's Continuing Declarations of Intent to Destroy Israel p. 7

[6] Mehdi Khalaji, "Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy," p.viii

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