Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory in the Iranian presidential elections last year sent foreign-policy experts in Washington scrambling to decipher the little-known former Tehran mayor suddenly in charge of a country determined to master nuclear technology.
The task has become all the more urgent and complex in recent months since Ahmadinejad has intensified his confrontational rhetoric, most notably his vows to wipe Israel off the map and his repeated questioning of the Holocaust.
Many Iran observers see Ahmadinejad as a populist politician eager to assert himself in both Tehran’s complex power structure and the Muslim world by rekindling the fiery anti-Zionist and anti-Western ideology of the early revolutionary years. But other scholars are increasingly warning that more attention needs to be focused on his messianic religious beliefs.
“U.S. analysis generally discounts ideology,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. and a former Pentagon official. “But he’s a true believer, he wants to return to the core values of the revolutions that have been abandoned by corrupt elites. He also expects the return of the Hidden Imam, and we need to take this seriously rather than mirror-image it and dismiss it as crazy stuff.”
The Bush administration appears to be taking such views seriously. The White House reportedly has tasked officials to conduct an in-depth review of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, including his religious beliefs and the potential violence induced by his claims about the imminent coming of the Mahdi, according to a scholar who has been contacted by administration officials over the issue. The CIA, which regularly conducts psychological profiles of world leaders, is presumably conducting its own review.
Robert Freedman, a professor at Baltimore Hebrew University, said that some people in government appear interested in Ahmadinejad’s belief that violence could hasten an apocalypse. Freedman declined to elaborate.
Ahmadinejad frequently refers to the Shia belief in the second coming of the so-called “Hidden Imam,” also known as the 12th Imam or the Mahdi, who is said to have gone into hiding in the ninth century. According to Shia belief, his return is expected to ignite a battle between the forces of good and evil before bringing forth an era of peace and justice and the ultimate triumph of Shiite Islam.
The White House’s National Security Council did not return a request for comment.
The issue is not purely theoretical but also operational, especially when it comes to potential military conflict. For instance, a key concept such as deterrence only applies if the opponent is seen as afraid of a violent confrontation. However, if he believes that violence is desirable to achieve his objectives, “it throws us off,” Rubin said.
Most experts stressed, however, that the nuclear and foreign-policy decisions are made in Iran by the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, not by the president. These experts say that any attempt to link Ahmadinejad’s heated rhetoric and the nuclear issue was misleading — especially given that his predecessor, Mohamed Khatami, was often described as having little power.
“Ahmadinejad is really a millenarian who believes the second coming of the Mahdi is around the corner, which would be worrying if he was really in charge, but that’s not the case,” said the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole, an expert on Shiism.
However, Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that unlike Khatami, Ahmadinejad “is a man of action” who already has replaced a number of ambassadors, governors and university heads with officials who are believed to share much of his worldview.
Some experts see the portrayal of Ahmadinejad as a mystically driven leader as a means used by those most concerned by Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to attract the attention of the international community.
“Israel is very concerned about Iran’s nukes and knows it has very few unilateral tools at its disposal to stop this,” said Kenneth Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Middle East center. “They want the international community to act, and calling attention to his statement reinforces the point.”
According to Trita Parsi of Johns Hopkins University, Israeli security officials have not noticed any change in Iran’s policy since Ahmadinejad took office. Parsi also said that both countries found a way to cooperate militarily in the 1980s despite Tehran’s rabid anti-Zionist propaganda.
“The Iranians provide all superficial evidence for the mad mullah argument so Israel does not need too much work to paint them as an irrational actor and thus demand international action,” said Parsi, whose dissertation on Israeli-Iranian relations will be published this fall. “But the Israelis know that Iran is radical but rational.”
Unlike most Iranian leaders, Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, is not a cleric. He studied engineering before becoming a leader of the group that seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. He then served as an officer in the 1980s war with Iraq, during which he joined the hard-line Revolutionary Guards. He resumed his studies and eventually became a university professor while occupying a series of midlevel government positions in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He became governor of a province in 1993 and was elected mayor of Tehran in 2003. During his short tenure, he made a point of enforcing stricter religious rules.
Running on an anti-establishment platform and emphasizing his modest origins, he upset former president Hashemi Rafsanjani in last June’s election. While several experts say that Ahmadinejad is reclaiming the mantle of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, others have argued that he favors the more radical Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.
Ahmadinejad is said to be close to the messianic Hojjatieh Society, which is driven by the belief that the 12th Imam’s return will be hastened by chaos. When he became president last August, Ahmadinejad donated $17 million in government funds to the Jamkaran mosque, a popular pilgrimage site where the faithful can drop their missives to the “Hidden Imam” in a holy well, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
“He has all the markings of an ideological fanatic and some troubling mystical experiences,” said James Phillips, a resident fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
One of those alleged markers was his address to the United Nations General Assembly this past October, which attracted Western attention mainly because of his defiant tone on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad ended his address with a prayer imploring God to hasten the return of the 12th Imam.
In a video distributed by an Iranian web site last November, Ahmadinejad described how one of his Iranian colleagues claimed to have seen a glow of light around the president as he began his speech to the U.N.
“I felt it myself, too,” Ahmadinejad said, according to press reports. “I felt that all of a sudden, the atmosphere changed there. And for 27 to 28 minutes, all the leaders did not blink.… It’s not an exaggeration, because I was looking. They were astonished, as if a hand held them there and made them sit. It had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic.”