The Iranian Challenge: An Apocalyptic Religious Zealot Takes on the World

Iran's mullah-run theocracy is on a seemingly unstoppable course to becoming a nuclear power. The country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a pious zealot with a penchant for visions, is doing his best to provoke the West. Faced with a choice between acceptance and intervention, America and Europe have opted for diplomacy -- for now, that is.

It's only a quarter past eight in the morning, just after the early news, and the radio station is already discussing the apocalypse. Radio Jawan's interviewers are out on the streets questioning a handful of Tehranians about their views on their country's nuclear program. It's a tough issue for commuters in a minibus on the Resalat Expressway, who are stuck in traffic and, like millions of others, listening to the radio.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a military parade.
DPA

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a military parade.

"So," the reporter asks, "are you for or against nuclear energy?" Views on the issue differ widely, with censorship hardly an issue. "Why do we need this nuclear program?" one interviewee asks in response, "It will only cause problems for us. Don't we have enough trouble in Iran, as it is?" But another respondent disagrees. "Pakistan has nuclear weapons and so do India and Israel. Why shouldn't we?" Yet another respondent is a touch more aggressive: "We have a right to nuclear weapons. They will show the world how strong we are. Look, we've already forced the West to its knees." But then music begins to play and the bus driver adds his opinion to the conversation -- gloomy commentary on an otherwise ordinary Monday morning.

"The end of time is near," he says. It is written, he says, that 50 signs will herald the impending end of the world, and he is convinced that he has already detected 33. The men will dress as women, say the scriptures. "And? Isn't this city sinking into moral decay?" the driver asks. According to another prophecy of doom, the river flowing through the holy city will run dry. "Hasn't the river through Ghom dried up completely?" he asks, as if to affirm the prophecy. And the fact that everyone is talking about the nuclear bomb these days fits perfectly with the bus driver's doomsday scenario. That too, he says, is a sign of "achar-esaman" -- the end of time and the return of the Mahdi, the so-called 12th or hidden imam.

Talk of messianic, apocalyptic visions is becoming increasingly common on the streets of Tehran these days. This phenomenon has, on the one hand, something to do with the fact that it's part of the Shiite worldview. But on the other hand -- and this is what's setting off alarm bells in the West -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is practically promoting such scenarios.

After all, he mentioned the Mahdi, the Promised One, as far back as last September, when he first took to the largest stage in global politics, the podium at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. In his speech before the UN, Ahmadinejad, 49, didn't just take the opportunity to complain about the world's injustices and about countries that have already used nuclear weapons and yet seek to bar others from acquiring them -- creating a system of "nuclear apartheid" in which countries like Iran are at a disadvantage. Before the world's assembled delegates, he also called upon the Almighty "to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being" -- none other than the Mahdi, or Messiah.

Ahmadinejad's words likely instilled an apocalyptic mood of a different ilk in the representatives of the West -- a sense of impending doom.

But instead of subsiding, the West's collective dismay has only grown since Ahmadinejad's UN appearance. This pious fan of the apocalypse is currently making the rounds in his country, giving almost daily speeches that are always triumphant, appearances in which Ahmadinejad is always surrounded by religious dignitaries, high-ranking officers and national symbols, and in which the president's words always meet with enthusiastic applause from carefully vetted audiences. He tells his supporters that "through the grace of God the Almighty, and thanks to the efforts of our scientists, we have mastered the nuclear cycle." He says that "our people have spoken out in favor of (nuclear energy) again and again," he asserts Iran's right to join the club of nuclear powers and reports that its efforts have born fruit.

He speaks as if in a trance, like a man filled with a divine spirit, like a prophet. He strikes up a great cry of triumph, a cry into which he immerses himself again and again and in which he conjures up a great confrontation, be it with Israel, which he insists must be "wiped off the map," or be it with America and all other enemies of Iran, whose "hands must be severed." In Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, the nations of the West have become nothing but "aging lions with matted fur and rotting manes."

Where is this going? Is Ahmadinejad, the apocalyptic who believes in the coming of the Mahdi, eager to bring about the great clash -- Armageddon? Or is he merely the bluffing president of a country that isn't nearly as far along on the nuclear stage as he claims?

Map: The Islamic Republic of Iran
DER SPIEGEL

Map: The Islamic Republic of Iran

Conditions in Iran are already nightmarish, a blend of the sermons of hate and efforts to develop the Bomb, a weapon this state, all denials to the contrary, clearly seeks to possess. Iran poses a far greater threat than nuclear powers Pakistan or India because the mullah-dominated state brings together a far-reaching Islamist ideology and an image of the enemy -- that of the Great Satan, the United States, and a smaller Satan, Israel -- all the while promoting a calculated anti-Semitism aimed at building Islamic solidarity in the Arab world.

Iran is also far more dangerous than Iraq or North Korea. The theocracy stands a good chance of successfully building weapons of mass destruction. The kind of weapons that, in a figment of Western imagination, Saddam Hussein had supposedly come close to obtaining. Moreover, Ahmadinejad's realm is no starving, poverty-stricken North Korea. Instead, the country possesses a diversified military system that includes both an arsenal of conventional weapons and control over terrorist groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

Iran has considerable economic strength and, as Ahmadinejad claims, it "possesses the necessary means to defend itself." Indeed, Ahmadinejad is so confident in Iran's military prowess and economic might that he has not hesitated to threaten that "those who use harsh and illegal language against Iran need relations with Iran 10 times more than we need relations with them." Besides suggesting that Iran could bring home the oil billions it has invested abroad, his comments are clearly aimed at the industrialized world's energy supply.

Iran is in fact one of the leading players in the international energy game. It has the world's third-largest petroleum reserves and its second-largest stores of natural gas. Iran's mullahs see the jump in the price of oil caused by the brewing crisis over the country's nuclear program as proof positive of their global leverage.

The implicit question behind the growing nuclear conflict of the past few months is this: If all diplomatic efforts to put a stop to an Iranian Bomb fail, will there be an American or Israeli military strike?

Or, if Iran indeed manages to become a nuclear power, will nuclear weapons in the Middle East have the same deterrent effect as they did in Europe after World War II? Could deterrence work in the Middle East? Are nuclear weapons truly political weapons whose purpose lies in their possession, not in their use? Almost as if to validate this theory, the US government has consulted leading Middle East experts on the question of whether nuclear deterrence could work with Iran's mullahs.

Ahmadinejad opponent Bush: Taking a tough stance against Iran.
AP

Ahmadinejad opponent Bush: Taking a tough stance against Iran.

If a level-headed regime were at the controls in Tehran, it would be easier to believe that that would be the case. But Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is characterized by a foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Israel -- wouldn't he be more likely to use the Bomb? And just who is this man? Until last year, he was unknown to Western diplomats. As mayor of Tehran, a city of 12 million, he hardly seemed worth the attention of those same diplomats or even his own dossier.

Ahmadinejad is a short, slow-moving man. He has a penchant for inexpensive beige-colored jackets and never wears a tie, which he sees as a sign of Western decadence. His hair is always carefully combed and he generally wears a three-day beard. These are all signs of modesty and simplicity, carefully orchestrated to differentiate Ahmadinejad from the country's elegant mullahs in their turbans, sand-colored suits and black robes.

And despite the fact that, in his political appearances, he clearly intends to come across as a spokesman for the entire Islamic world -- as a spiritual leader, or imam, for the entire religion, and as a Grand Ayatollah in the style of former Iranian leader and father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini -- and not just the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad is no Islamic religious scholar. And although he is said to enjoy intense debate in small circles, he is no intellectual.

Making enemies in no time at all

He was long underestimated -- far too long -- and now he is doing his utmost, clearly with relish, to ensure that the world gets to know the new Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has only recently embarked on trips abroad, including visits to Syria and Indonesia. He bases his understanding of the world and what it needs on his religious convictions and his engineering knowledge, and he is apparently convinced that the time has now come to send missives out into the world. His condescending, 18-page letter to US President George W. Bush was just the beginning. A letter to Pope Benedict XVI is said to be in the works, and Ahmadinejad has told SPIEGEL that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be the next world leader to receive one of his communications.

In office for less than a year, Ahmadinejad has already transformed himself into a pivotal figure on the world stage. He speaks as if Iran were already the world power he intends it to become. He tells the Jews that they have no right to be in Palestine. He tells the Germans that there is no historical proof that the Holocaust ever took place, while at the same time proposing that the Israelis be resettled on German soil. He preaches to US President George W. Bush about Christianity and the fiasco in Iraq, and he informs America -- and essentially the entire West -- that its concept of democracy and liberalism has failed.

Compromise has no place in this worldview, one in which compromise is a show of weakness. Iran is devoid of any constructive proposals to bring peace to the Middle East. Ahmadinejad issues demands and refuses to negotiate. He has a high opinion of himself and of Iran.

Few heads of state have made as many enemies in as short a time span as Ahmadinejad. The global community's apparent inability to oppose him and set boundaries has only encouraged Ahmadinejad, a tireless provocateur, to conclude that his actions are historically justified. At times it seems as though the clock had been turned back 25 years and Khomeini were still alive, says one Iranian intellectual, who sees Ahmadinejad as Khomeini's reincarnation -- absent the religious robes. His apocalyptic fantasies engender a sense of the enraptured, the otherworldly. And because he poses as a champion of the downtrodden in Iranian society, of those who were given the short end of the stick in the revolution, says another intellectual, he is also something of a holy Robin Hood for many Iranians.

In truth, Ahmadinejad is fighting a battle on several fronts, picking fights with everyone, from the political establishment in what he deems a hostile world to factions within his own country. In writing his recent letter to Bush, he promptly alienated two leading figures in Iran. They included Ali Larijani -- the chairman of the country's National Security Council, the conservative establishment's key political figure, and normally the man in control of Iran's nuclear program -- as well as the country's supreme religious leader and ultimate authority on all major worldly issues, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad's political allies have indicated that the president sent his letter to Washington without consulting with other key officials or even bothering to obtain their approval.

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