How Zoroastrianism Influences the Worldview of Iran's Leadership

News Abroad

Juan R. I. Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at his website, www.juancole.com, on March 9, 2010. His latest book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave, 2009).

As I reported in January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun taking the line that the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington were actually stage-managed by US "Intelligence," to create a pretext for American invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This view is not widely shared among Iranians or Iranian politicians. Iran itself lost nationals in Afghanistan and Pakistan to assassination by al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan were massacred by the same forces. Then-president Mohammad Khatami expressed warm condolences to the US after the attacks, noting that Iran had suffered from terrorism as well. Iranian young people held candle light vigils for the victims.

Ahmadinejad's recent speech to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry reiterates this 'truther' crackpot conspiracy theory about 9/11. The speech also demonstrates a Manichaean vision of history, in which the virtuous Islamic Republic is ranged against the forces of capitalism, which he says was invented by Zionists and which is intrinsically belligerent, war-like, exploitative and genocidal. (This analysis of the capitalist system as fomenting aggression and war comes not from Shiite theology but from Lenin's analysis of the outbreak of World War I, as a capitalist war over control of markets.) Ahmadinejad's looney assertion that capitalism was invented by 'Zionists' is ridiculous, since capitalism developed in early modern and modern Europe and Zionism as a movement did not amount to anything until the late nineteenth century at the earliest. But the trope of an essentialist connection between Jews, capitalism and exploitation is a commonplace in the literature of anti-Semitism, and is probably the origin of this bizarre allegation.

Ancient Iran developed the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, which holds that history is the unfolding of a battle between Ahura Mazda, God, and the evil Ahriman, a satan figure. The prophet of the new religion was Zarathustra, whom the Greeks called Zoroaster. The archaic language of the Old Persian (which is close to Sanskrit) of Gathas, his scripture, probably places him in the 1200s BC, though there are disputes and some date him hundreds of years later. Although some speak of Zoroastrianism as dualistic, Ahura Mazda is more powerful than Ahriman and will defeat him in the fullness of time. Human beings, the creation of Ahura Mazda, play a role in determining how soon the victory comes. When they lie or commit immoral acts, they aid and abet Ahriman. When they tell the truth and are virtuous, they aid Ahura Mazda and hasten the advent of the Saoshyant or promised future messiah. Zoroastrianism invented concepts such as the Last Days, the resurrection of the dead, and an eternal afterlife.

Although Iran converted to Islam gradually (and mostly willingly) after the seventh century CE, cultural influences of Zoroastrianism are visible in Iranian Shiite Islam. Indeed, Zoroastrian ideas probably influenced Judaism and the writing of the Bible during the Babylonian exile, as Iran came to rule Babylonia. And since the Parthian dynasty of Iran had a presence in Palestine shortly before the advent of Christianity, it is not impossible that Iranian themes influenced that religion, as well.

Ahmadinejad's speech not only presents a dualistic war between good Iran and an evil, Ahriman-like United States (champion of oppressive capitalism), but also refers to the Iranian president's emphasis on the Shiite Promised One or Imam Mahdi. He refers to Iran's intelligence operatives as the 'unknown soldiers' of the 'Lord of the Age' (i.e. the Mahdi), and praises them for capturing Abdul Malik Rigi, the leader of the Sunni Baluch terrorist group Jundullah (Army of God), which has attacked mosques and other sites in the Iranian province of Baluchistan and Sistan in the southeast. Baluch are Sunnis and many feel oppressed under Persian, Shiite rule; the province is the poorest in Iran. Rigi's televised confession alleged that he was recruited by high-level CIA and other US intelligence officials and did not strike me as credible as to its details, but it appears to have been widely believed by the Iranian public and to have hurt the image among them of the Obama administration, according to Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

Not only is Ahmadinejad the Iranian equivalent of a truther, he is also the mirror image of the Christian Zionists. That brand of evangelicals in the US believes that the establishment of Israel throughout geographical Palestine, i.e. the complete annexation of the West Bank and perhaps the expulsion of its Palestinian residents, will hasten the return of Christ.

Ahmadinejad holds the opposite. It is in his view the collapse of what he calls the Zionist regime and the emergence of a state for all Palestinians, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, that will provoke the Promised One to come. In Shiite Islam, the promised one is the return of the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. In Muslim folk belief it is sometimes alleged that when the Mahdi comes, Jesus will also return, and they will join forces to prepare the world for the Judgment Day. When he was in Damascus on 25 February, Ahmadinejad spoke thusly when meeting with Syrian Muslim clergymen, as broadcast on the official Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1 radio channel that day, and translated by the USG Open Source Center:

'The day on which the Lord of the Age (REFERENCE to the 12th Shiite imam) and Jesus (peace be upon him) will come and spread monotheism and justice in the whole world, is close. Understand this. The final move has begun. God willing, with the destruction of the Zionist regime, the prophets' mission will be fulfilled. Today, the settings of the stage for the resurrection of Jesus and endeavors to prepare the ground for the re-appearance of Imam Mahdi, are factors which make up the axis of unity of all those who have faith in the holy prophets.'

Because there will be a lot of propaganda around all this, I want to underline that Ahmadinejad did not then and has never called for the violent destruction of Israelis or Israel. He rather expects the 'Zionist regime' peacefully to collapse, as the Soviet regime in Moscow did. It is that peaceful collapse that will apparently in his view herald the return of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, and of Jesus Christ....

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/20/2010

Kovachevs of this world cannot forgive
Prof. Cole for often reflecting REALITIES of the Middle Eastern situation and occasionally criticizing
insidious policies and crimes of Israeli rights and its American collaborators, which by itself is a no-no in practice of such real, not pseudo intellectuals, as kovachevs and their religious and nationalist ideologues are.
It is the single reason and rationale behind their indignation and degrading remarks towards J.Cole.
Somehow the majority in the world prefer to listen to the truth told by "pseudo intellectuals" of J. Cole type than the recurring small and big lies quaked by super intellectual nationalists and religious fanatics such as Ahmenedijad or kovachevs.

Peter Kovachev - 3/14/2010

A surprisingly original concoction by the otherwise unoriginal Cole. Ok, still a pseudohistorical pseudopolitical pseudoanalysis by a pseudointellectual, but perhaps the cookiest and undeniably most entertaining howler of his literary efforts.

Alright, so Cole doesn't know his Ahura Mazda from his Spenta Mainyu, or Angre Mainyu, as Mr Dee claims, but why quibble? Cole's not a historian or an original researcher in the traditional sense; he's now a visionary. And, giving credit where credit is due, this is possibly his first brave departure from the banal boilerplate Arabist and Islamist propaganda he tarts up for Western consumption in his blog. He even updates his sublime piece with a reference to the rising stars of Iran "scholarship," Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett!

So, here's the deal. Ahmenedijad's promises to wipe Israel off the map are not genocidal statements. Pure and simple, just ask any two-bit trial lawyer to explain this better. Working on nukes, arming its proxies like Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, interfering in Iraq and Lebanon, murdering dissenters, etc., all that must just be an Iranian ruse to confuse cynical Westerners and the all-powerful Jews ...uh, that's Zionists/Likudniks, of course. What Iran and its hip somewhat-Zoroastrian mullahs (who are no different from Christian Zionists, btw) really long for is the glorous day when the "...emergence of a state for all Palestinians, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim ... will provoke the Promised One to come."

So, there, Zoroastrianism has replaced scary jihadist fantasies and y'all can close your eyes and stop your ears from ugly thoughts from now on. Just imagine smiling and dancing mullahs holding hands with jolly children of all backgrounds, creeds and orientations, as a chastised and sheepish Israel proceeds to peacefully erase itself from the maps to make the world a happier place for all.

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Jay H Dee - 3/11/2010

Ahura Mazda rules supreme. He is the Omniscient, Omnipotent "God". He is not in any battle. The battle is between Spenta Mainyu (Good) and Angre Mainyu (Evil). While on earth, we mortals have to choose and shall be rewarded accordingly.