Iran’s jefe started his campaign with an obliging “60 Minutes.” 1 While Scott Pelley was much harder on Ahmadi-nezhad than was Mike Wallace last year, the interview still left a lot to be desired. There were some trenchant questions about co-existing with Israel (sorry, but make that—according to Ahmadi-nezhad—the “Zionist entity” which “is not a a nation) and Iran’s nuclear program (no need, you see, for “the time of the bomb is past”—no doubt is wishful thinking on his part). But the Islamic Republic’s leader still managed to get in, pretty much unchallenged, his attempts at exploiting the American domestic political situation: “the way the American people voted in the  elections is very telling;” “they [the Bush Administration] should not bug telephone conversations of their citizens” and should “help the victims of Katrina.” Ahmadi-nezhad came very close to saying “Bush Lied, People Died” about Iraq, and claimed that U.S. evidence of Iranian weapons-running to the Jaysh al-Mahdi and other Shi`i militias comes from “fabricated documents.” When Pelley said that Bush, like him, was a “religious man” Ahmadi-nezhad asked what kind of religion tells a leader to occupy another country and kill people? At one point he reminded Pelley that “I am a Muslim, I cannot tell a lie.” This, too, went largely unchallenged. Perhaps Ahmadi-nezhad’s earlier remonstrances that this was an interview, “not a secret prison in Europe…[and]] not Abu Ghraib” caused Pelley to back off a bit. Amazingly, the interview ended with nary a question about the most frequently-expressed belief that Ahmadi-nezhad expresses: the return of the Hidden Imam as the Mahdi! Also, Pelley seemed unaware of the Shi`i practice of taqiyah, literally hiding what one truly believes (developed over centuries of living under often-oppressive Sunni rule) but tantamount to, well, lying. Grade: Pelley B; Ahmadinezhad, A.
The next, more public venue for Khameini’s mouthpiece was the now-famous Colubmia University speech. 2 Much praise has been heaped on Professor Coatsworth and President Bollinger of Columbia for what is seen by many as their merciless grilling of Ahmadi-nezhad. But, much like Pelley, these gentlemen often seem to miss the important Mahdist forest for the political trees. Ahmadi-nezhad began his talk by praying for Allah to “hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi.” Yet no one, in the ensuring Q & A, bothered to ask him about this! Shi`ism’s self-styled spokesman tried to garner favor with his audience by reminding them he is an academic himself and that he still teaches university students. But he then says that all too often Western scholars allow themselves to be “misused by bullying powers” as a rationale for “creating non-existent enemies.” The irony must have been thick enough to cut with the prophet’s sword, since undoubtedly many (if not most) of the Columbia faculty consider President Bush’s GWOT (Global War on Terror) in just this fashion—yet there they sat, accused by Ahmadi-nezhad of complicity with the Toxic Texan! The A-man sounded like Usamah bin Ladin when, in response to questions about whether Iran was trying to build nukes, he brought up “new generations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima residents” about whom we should be concerned—just as Bin Ladin has done in a number of his videotapes. Ahmadi-nezhad broke new theological ground, even within Shi`i Islam, by claiming that not only would the Mahdi come, but that “Allah himself will arrive with Moses and Christ and Muhammad to rule the world.” This was allowed to pass without investigation, because the moderators were unprepared—or perhaps simply uncomfortable—with it. But again, as with “60 Minutes,” the clear and present danger of Ahmadi-nezhad’s Mahdist and eschatological beliefs was simply ignored, even when he prayed again in his closing comments.
Iran’s leader also showed up, via teleconference, at the National Press Club.3 And while the seasoned and jaundiced journalists did turn up the heat a bit on Ahmadi-nezhad, it certainly wasn’t the roast one might have expected. He was questioned about the persecution of Baha’is and of journalists in Iran, but by-and-large Mr. A was able to wax theological in a way that no Western leader would have been allowed. He began by quoting unspecified verses from the Qur’an and then shortly thereafter launched into a sermon about the “bright” prosperous future that we soon arrive, in line with what Moses, Christ and Muhammad all taught. Perhaps this frank expression of religious beliefs was meant for divine protection when the Iranian leader claimed things like Iran’s women “are the freeest in the world.” But the interview ended with a sycophantic softball of a question: “do you plan on running for re-election?” As if it’s up to Ahmadi-nezhad, and not his ayatollah handlers. And no one betrayed any glimmer of recognition that his hopes for the “bright” future are references to what the Mahdi will bring, and that there is a “Bright Future Institute” in Qom, Iran dedicated to preparing the way for the coming of the Mahdi!
Ahmadi-nezhad’s main event was at the U.N. General Assembly on September 26, 2007. 4 As he did last year in the same venue, he opened by praying to Allah to “hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi….” The usual transparent condemnations of the United States were issued: “certain powers” run “clandestine prisons” and “prosecute scientists and historians for stating their opinions on important global issues” (like global warming, one supposes; perhaps Ahmadi-nezhad has been reading DailyKos and Moveon.org). Iran’s leader fulminated against the usual suspects: “brutal Zionists” led the list, followed closely by “bullying powers” who “under the pretext of the overthrow of a dictator and…weapons of mass destruction” invaded and occupied Iraq. (Perhaps the A-man is angling to be invited to the next Democrat Presidential Debate?) But then, as he had at the previous venues, Ahmadi-nezhad turned into a theologian, telling the General Assembly that true monotheism is the only answer to humanity’s ills and stating publicly that “I invite everybody to line up a front of fraternity, amity…based on monothism and justice under the name of ‘Coalition for Peace.” He even advocated that “monotheism, justice and love for humans should dominate the pillars of the U.N.” After predicting the “imminent fall of empires” (candidates, anyone?), Ahmadi-nezhad opined that “the pleasing aroma of justice will permeate the world” once all nations come together in “striving…to give the rule to the righteous and the Promised One” who will “establish the bright future and fill the world with justice and beauty.” He ended by asking Allah that “this wish will be realized in the near future.”
Many Westerners are tempted to dismiss such Ahmadi-nezhadisms as either lunatic ravings or, alternatively, political posturing. True, the Islamic Republic does not hesitate to trumpet its President’s pronouncements for domestic 5 and foreign 6 political gain, those are not the primary purposes of his public utterances. Iran’s President, like many (but not all) of the ayatollahs at whose pleasure he serves, is a true believer in the eventual—perhaps imminent—return of the Hidden Imam as the Mahdi. While the elites of Columbia University, CBS News and the National Press Club seem unaware—or unwilling to discuss—this paramount issue, some other analysts fall off the horse on the other side and wrongly turn Ahmadi-nezhad’s Mahdism into a Shi`i death wish.7 This incorrect take is a variation of the idea of “hot-wiring the apocalypse,” first devised by Professor Reuven Paz. 8 It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American—but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?) Rather, the Iranian regime, through its spokesman Ahmadi-nezhad, is stoking the very real Mahdist yearnings in both the Shi`i AND Sunni world as a means for Tehran to grab the mantle of ecumenical Islamic leadership. And so far, it seems to be working.1 http://www.cbsnews.com
5 “Ahmadinejad Revealed US, Israeli Lies,” IRIB News, Sep. 28, 2007: http://www.iribnews.ir; “US Efforts to Pass Resolution against Iran Foiled by Ahmadinejad’s Statements,” Fars News Agency, Sep. 30, 2007: http://english.farsnews.net