Ahmadinejad's Messianic Fervor in Iran

Calculated Provocation

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turns to foreign policy issues – such as his anti-Israeli agitation – in order to divert attention away from domestic failures and to maintain the worldwide pressure on Iran. By Katajun Amirpur

Mahmud Ahmadinejad (photo:AP)
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defied worldwide outrage at his call for the destruction of Israel

​​"Israel must be wiped off the map." No other statement has been so frequently associated with Iran's current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and equally taken as proof of his destructive fantasies against Israel.

The problem is, however, that he never said it. He didn't say that he wanted Israel "wiped off the map," but rather "this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time."

Controversy over the "wipe off the map" remark

On the other hand, he allowed this false translation, which apparently was issued by the Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, to stand uncorrected for a long time. He has since, presumably due to Iranian domestic pressure, offered an explanation. "Iran has no plans to attack Israel," said the President in answer to the question of whether Iran intends to destroy Israel and wipe out the Jewish nation.

Yet, the debate around the "wipe off the map" remark and its translation continues. The German Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb), Spiegel online, dpa, and many others have since adopted the correct translation, while some organizations feel that the proper translation changes nothing in the basic intention of the Iranian President – namely, the desire to destroy Israel.

One question, however, continues to be ignored in this crucial debate sparked by the journal "Arbeiterfotographie," and that is why does the official Iranian side continues to use the "wipe off the map" English translation to this day. A possible explanation requires a closer look at contemporary Iranian history.

Immanent anti-Zionism

In 1999, a notable as well as disturbing event occurred. On the eve of the Pessah festival, 13 Jews from Shiraz were arrested and charged with espionage for Israel. This marked a new tone in relations, as in all the years following the Islamic Revolution, there was no specific persecution of Jews in Iran apart from some very few exceptions.

Mesbah Yazdi (photo: DW)
Prior to the 2005 election Mesbah Yazdi issued a fatwa, calling on all members of the paramilitary Basiji-militia to vote for Ahmadinejad

​​Jews are discriminated against to the same degree as all other officially recognized religious minorities in Iran. This means that they are free to practice their religion, but do not enjoy full legal rights nor are they able to equally participate in political affairs.

In all these years, the official Iranian position nonetheless distinguished between the state ideology of immanent anti-Zionism and Jews living in Iran. After all, with 25,000 Jewish citizens, it is home to the larges Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel.

Instrumentalization for domestic conflicts

The charges laid in Shiraz, however, began something new – the instrumentalization of Jews in domestic Iranian conflicts. The events in Shiraz could, for the first time, be directly attributable Ahmadinejad's policies, the secret police, the Revolutionary Guard, and the so-called Haqqani clergy, graduates of the seminary of same name, known for their radical interpretation of Islam.

They condemned the policy of gradual opening begun under Khatami and wanted a return to the fervor of the revolution. This is why they used the issue of "Jews in Iran" as a means to discredit the reform-oriented government in the eyes of those abroad. This political faction hoped to reverse the progressive orientation towards the West that had been pursued during the era of Rafsanjani and Khatami.

According to these custodians of the revolution, the youth is too westernized, women too self-confident, students too rebellious, and the many reform theologians in Ghom are heretics. And it is namely this faction that is even interested in a military escalation with the West in order to gain a tighter grip on the reins of power in Iran.

"A bunch of drunken riff-raff"

Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaking to the UN (photo: AP)
Ahmadinejad made a defiant speech at the UN on the nuclear issue in September 2005

​​Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from the inner core of this group. His spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, once referred to the reformers around Khatami and his electorate – comprising almost 80 percent of Iranian voters – as "a bunch of drunken riff-raff." This group feels that the Islamic Revolution has lost its identity years ago.

The conceptual outlook of this group is framed, in particular, by messianism and Shiite beliefs on salvation. Under the Iranian reformers and pragmatists surrounding Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, this salvation pathos has increasingly fallen into the background with each passing year.

By contrast, Ahmadinejad, Khatami's successor, nurtures a very pronounced belief in messianism. As the mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad had a boulevard renovated, because the Mahdi is supposed to march down it upon his long-awaited return. He is said to have printed out maps for city administration staff with the route the Imam will take.
In all of his speeches, including one to astonished members of the UN, Ahmadinejad has spoken of the necessity of preparing the groundwork for the return of the Mahdi.

The problem is that according to Shiite belief, the Mahdi will only return when the greatest possible chaos reigns on earth. The President's opponents – in the West as well as those in Iran – claim that this is exactly what he hopes to accomplish with an attack on Israel.

This is a bold step in the chain of arguments, especially as Iran does not have the possibility of engaging in an attack (with the possible exception of nationalist suicide bombers), but then again, an attack on Iran by the USA and Israel would not necessarily be inopportune for Ahmadinejad.

Cult of martyrdom and political consideration

Ahmadinejad and Yisroel Dovid Weiss (photo: AP)
Ahmadinejad greeted Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Monsey, spokesman and assistant director of Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist group, at the conference on the Holocaust in Tehran

​​Here is where thoughts of martyrdom come into play. Every Iranian that fell victim to an attack by the USA or Israel would by stylized as a martyr. This is why the argument that Ahmadinejad won't provoke an attack to ensure the safety of the Iranian population doesn't hold.

According to his outlook on the world, any believer can count himself as lucky to die a martyr – voluntarily or not! It is not only ideological ardor that gives rise to such ideas, but also cool political calculation. One shouldn't forget that such an approach did much to prop up the Iranian regime during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.

In this connection, it is extremely noteworthy that although Ahmadinejad never said that Israel should be wiped off the map, his words continue to be translated as such by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, most recently on June 3 this year. "The corrupt element will be wiped off the map." Could it be, that the issue of "Jews" or "Israel" continues to be used because it is so well suited for spitting in the face of the West?

Ahmadinejad and the radicals in Iran need a foreign policy issue to divert attention away from domestic failures and to maintain the worldwide pressure on Iran. As such, statements made by Ahmadinejad on Israel could be seen as a calculated provocation. And with politicians like Ahmadinejad on the one side and Olmert, Bush, and Shaul Mofas on the other, two trains are on a full-speed collision course.

Katajun Amirpur

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron


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