Ausgabe 26/2009

Potential for Apocalypse Is War between Iran and Israel Inevitable?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may seem very different, but they are united in their apocalyptic religious visions. Their respective beliefs may be propelling them on a collision course with potentially horrific consequences.

By Erich Follath

A pair of more disparate twins hasn't existed since the muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger and the sharp-tongued, diminutive Danny DeVito played twins in the Hollywood movie of that name. One, the Israeli, is tall and thickset and often wears tailored suits. He is a gifted speaker and a militant anti-Iranian. The other, the Iranian, is short and slight and is almost always seen wearing an ordinary-looking beige windbreaker. He tends to be somewhat gauche and is a rabble-rousing populist and a self-declared enemy of Israel. The two men couldn't be more different.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 59, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, are twins in spirit, which is not to imply in any way that they are morally equivalent. Both men are convinced of the absolute validity of their beliefs, both are obsessed by what they see as their higher calling, and both are convinced that theirs is a Messianic mission -- a mission to "honor" a religion or "save" a people.

There is every indication that the coming nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran -- if, indeed, they begin in the next few months with Ahmadinejad still Iranian president -- will end in a stalemate by the end of the year. If that happens, US President Barack Obama will push for tougher sanctions against Tehran in early 2010, with the reluctant support of the Russians and Chinese. The leadership in Tehran will interpret this as an aggressive act and will likely speed up its uranium enrichment, meaning that Iran will only be a few months away from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb. At some point next spring, things could have proceeded so far that the Israelis could decide, even without Washington's approval, to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. The entire Middle East would see thousands of casualties, and the consequences for the global economy would be devastating.

To understand what motivates the Iranian president and the Israeli prime minister, and what convictions guide their policies, it is important to examine the deeply religious ideas that shape both Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu and practically destine them to clash with each other: the theology of the Islamic Haqqani school and the Jewish concept of Amalek. And to understand why Tehran and Jerusalem, with Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu at their respective helms, have embarked on such an alarming and potentially devastating course, it helps -- as this author has done -- to have personally met the people involved and to have studied their milieu during numerous trips to Iran and Israel over the past three-and-a-half decades. These experiences form the pieces of a puzzle, and although the resulting image is not all-encompassing and does not explain everything, it is at least an image based on a concrete search for evidence and on personal experience of the reality on the ground.

The Return of the Mahdi

Flashback: It is the late 1980s, and I am visiting the Iranian holy city of Qom. It is my first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, following earlier visits during the time of the shah and my reporting on his overthrow. "Do you want to meet Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the head of the education department at the Rah-i-Haq Institute?" my guide asks. Not another holy man, I think to myself -- I have already had exhausting interviews with half a dozen Koran scholars today. It is hot and dusty in Qom, where Fatima, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is buried in a giant mosque. But then my guide tells me that Mesbah Yazdi is considered to be one of the most brilliant and influential thinkers in Qom, and that he is an ardent student of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In the interview, Mesbah Yazdi proves to be cosmopolitan and admits to being a computer geek. Ideologically, however, he is an ultraconservative hardliner and a theoretician of the radicals, and his fixed mocking smile cannot conceal his cold nature. He openly advocates suicide bombings, calls for the carrying out of the fatwa imposed against author Salman Rushdi and demands "the blood of any person who insults Islam." And he considers "the Zionists" to be the fundamental source of evil on earth.

Mesbah Yazdi kept a low profile for years, except to control the fundamentalist Haqqani movement, a role in which an ambitious and deeply devout young man became his protégé. In 2005, Mesbah Yazdi called upon the faithful to vote for his former student, Ahmadinejad. It was an unusual step in the world of ayatollahs, who usually steer clear of mundane politics and keep their personal preferences to themselves. Since then, the ultraconservative cleric, who portrays himself as an infallible interpreter of the faith, has been viewed as Ahmadinejad's ideological and spiritual mentor.

As the son of a blacksmith, Iran's president was in his youth attracted mainly to Islamic social revolutionary theories. Ali Shariati, an Iranian philosopher who was educated in Paris and linked Marxism to religious, anti-colonial beliefs, influenced Ahmadinejad in his early years. But then, in his mid-20s, Ahmadinejad met Mesbah Yazdi and came under the spell of mystical fundamentalism. Ahmadinejad has long been an avowed supporter of the same ultra-religious school of Shia as Mesbah Yazdi. The Haqqani group, in its religious fervor, is reminiscent of the zealots of another religion, the born-again Christians (a group which includes, incidentally, former US President George W. Bush).

The so-called Mahdists around Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmadinejad believe that their Twelfth Imam disappeared from the face of the earth in the 9th century because Allah the Almighty hid him to put mankind to a test. They also believe that this Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi, will return to the earth, as will Jesus, who all Muslims see as an important predecessor to Muhammad. The Mahdi, in their view, will create a paradise on earth for believers and condemn blasphemers to eternal damnation. But he will only return when the world has undergone a catharsis, a whirling, gigantic, cleansing upheaval.

Could it take the form of a war between Muslims and heretics, perhaps? Possibly a nuclear war? And do some of the apocalyptically minded within the Haqqani school want to provoke this cataclysmic event to bring about the return of the Mahdi as soon as possible?


© DER SPIEGEL 26/2009
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