On Sunday, March 21, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was lowing about progress in the "peace talks," Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was calling for "Death to America." Mercifully, his call came before the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) -- illegally, under the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- tried to allow Iran to bolt its obligations under the NPT and acquire nuclear weapons.
Khamenei's announcement, reported by the Times of Israel, appears to vindicate the views of Israel's farsighted, newly re-elected Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the voters who overwhelmingly elected him, as well as France's courageous former Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius.
Netanyahu recently explained that the circumstances of escalating extremist Islamism in the region at this time make handing over more land to terrorist groups, such as the Palestinian Authority's government and Hamas, inauspicious. U.S. President Barack Obama said he would take Netanyahu at his word. It is therefore safe to assume, of course, that the current U.S. Administration will take Iran's Supreme Leader "at his word," as well.
When 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 resolution of an agreement on nuclear affairs between the P5+1 and the Iranian regime on limits to Iran's quest for nuclear power in return for the lifting of sanctions currently imposed on it.
By now, everyone has read page upon page of commentary on the likely consequences of what such a deal may be, with a preponderance of analysts agreeing that U.S. President Barack Obama's drive to secure a resolution is likely to put Iran on a clear course to being able to use their nuclear weapons after about ten years, as well as a galloping nuclear arms race among other countries in the Middle East. Given Iran's tendency to enrich uranium in secret, that time may well before ten years.
Obama's vehement opposition to Netanyahu's mission of telling Congress what these negotiations could result in -- not only for Israel but for the entire free world in general -- is a desperate sign of how far his political advantage apparently takes precedence over any concern for the danger in which Iranian nuclear bombs will place Israel, the Middle East, Europe and even the United States. Over the years, Iran's threats to destroy Israel, "to wipe it" from the page of history, or to flatten Tel Aviv and Haifa have been direct and unambiguous. The last threat was made just a few weeks ago, on March 1 of this year; and Iran's Foreign Minister and lead negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, recently described Iran's diplomacy with the U.S. as an active "jihad."
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.
In a recent statement made by President Obama during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on February 9, 2015, he 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." Not only has no such "fatwa" [religious opinion] ever been found, but, sadly, this comment reveals that the U.S. president is as ignorant of Islamic scripture as he is of Islamic history.
Obama has gone out of his way to say -- directly contradicting what many terrorists 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." He failed, however, 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.
In speaking about the "faith of the Iranian people," one ignores a few sizeable minorities in Iran. Moreover, 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 veryrelevant to the question of whether or not, once Iran had nuclear weapons, it would use 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 he has openly bragged about hoodwinking the United States in the past.
Further, 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). These are not needed to reach Israel or Europe; Iran can already do that. Iran is already working on building even longer-range missiles. The only likely target for those is what Iran has obligingly been calling "The Great Satan," the U.S., as opposed to "The Little Satan," Israel.
Iran has killed thousands of U.S. troops in Lebanon, Africa and Iraq. It recently practiced naval drills on a mock-up of a U.S. Navy ship. In Arabic there is a saying: "He spits in your eye and you call it rain."
The expectation of the arrival of a messianic figure called the Mahdi, peripheral in Sunni Islam, has, additionally, always been a key feature of Shi'ism. In this belief, a war that will bring on the "End of Days," the Apocalypse, will also bring to Earth the Mahdi, the "Hidden Imam," a distant descendent of Mohammad. After that, there will be universal peace.
Modern Iranian messianism is no longer the passive style of centuries past, but activist, and can lead to military action.
Between 1997 and 2005, the key figure in the Reform movement of Iran was Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran, who supposedly sought to replace clerical rule with a more secular system. Although a cleric, Khatami opposed Khomeini's theory of rule by religious guardians (velayat-e faqih). Yet even in the years of his second term, 2001-2005, selective mosque networks and Islamic associations were exhibiting an enhanced yearning for the return of the Twelfth Imam.
That this happened under a genuine reformist who is said to have 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, Hasan Rouhani.
Rouhani has been widely interpreted as a reformer, but the intensification of hangings, strictures on veiling, mistreatmentof the Baha'i community and more suggest he is a very different man from Khatami or from those belonging to the suppressed Green movement. Supreme Leader Khamenei's support for Rouhani is itself an indication of his adherence to traditional norms. There is no sign of a let-up of superstition or wishes for an apocalypse under his presidency.
The continuing appeal of extremely religious thought and behaviour may be seen in the growth of a major cult based around what is now a huge mosque complex on the outskirts of Qom.
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."
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."(p. viii) 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 -- starting with the oil fields of Persian Gulf, "The Little Satan," Israel, and "The Big Satan," the U.S.
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.
 These themes have been dealt with at length by Ardalan Rezamand in "Use of Religious Doctrine and Symbolism in the Iran-Iraq War."
 The promise of mankind's liberation through a semi-divine Saviour has been at the heart of the 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, 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 Ahmedinejad (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 in 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.
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] Although he is writing about the Ahmedinejad 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." [Superstition as Ideology, p. x]
"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." [Khalaji, p. vii] Let's stay with Ahmadinejad for the moment. 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 adds this chilling reminder 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 on millions of Iranian Shi'is have an intense belief in the power of the Mahdi over human affairs.]
 Religiosity and superstition also played an equally important part in the Iranian military response to Iraq during the Eight-Year War between the two countries, between 1980 and 1988, 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, imitation of the events of Karbala when the Imam Husayn was martyred ("Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala"); all dead soldiers lauded as martyrs; even children, sent into battle carrying plastic silver "keys to paradise."