You are on page 1of 33

A Messianic State?

Ideology, Rationality and Eschatology in Iranian Politics

10825 words including abstract and bibliography

Patrick O'Neil
University of Puget Sound
Department of Politics and Government
1500 N Warner
Tacoma, WA 98416 USA

Abstract: In current discussions regarding Iranian domestic and foreign policy it is often argued
that Iran is a messianic state. Specifically, it is asserted that the Iranian regimes ideology, as
institutionalized through the 1979 revolution, is based on the imminent appearance of a messiah,
known within Shi'ism as the Mahdi. This emphasis on end times is given as evidence that the
Iranian regime does not function within the same logic as rational states. More recently,
President Ahmadinejad's explicitly messianic rhetoric was cited as proof that the regime embraces
an increasingly dangerous eschatology which seeks to in fact hasten the Mahdi's return. This paper
argues instead that Mahdism is a strategy intended to institutionalize a religious nationalism that
can serve as a powerbase for non-clerical political elites. Iranian religious nationalism is not
noticeably different from other ideologies, and is just as rational in its objectives.

Biography: Patrick O'Neil is Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget
Sound. His interests are authoritarianism and democratization. His past work focused on Eastern
Europe and the transition from communism. His more recent focus is on the Middle East,
specifically Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy, as well as the politics of Shi'ism outside
of Iran. A secondary interest in Israel/Palestine. His published works include Revolution from
Within: The Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party 'Reform Circles' and the Collapse of Communism,
and the edited volumes Post-Communism and the Media in Eastern Europe and Communicating
Democracy: Media and Political Transitions. He is also the author of Essentials of Comparative
Politics, currently in its fourth edition.

In the ever-deepening tensions regarding Irans nuclear program, various and sometimes
contradictory arguments have been used to justify the need for sanctions and outright force against
the Iranian state and regime.

One argument is grounded in traditional realist theories of

international relations. That is, that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability, this will set off
an arms race in the region and further destabilize what is already a region in tumult. One could
respond that Israel has possessed (undeclared) nuclear weapons for decades without a similar arms
race, but past nuclear efforts by both Iraq and Syria indicate that this is already a very real threat.
Such arguments do not require (and largely eschew) any discussion of ethnic, national or religious
differences in the region. Rather, following the end of Cold War superpower hegemony over the
Middle East, various states in the region will rationally compete to assert their authority to become
the regional hegemon.
Within this framework, Irans nuclear program is no different than that of Israel, Syria or
Iraq, meant to ensure deterrence as well as extend their power over other states in the Persian Gulf
and broader Middle East. Such an arms race is fraught with risk. According to a 2012 report by
the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nuclear-armed Iran would significantly alter the geopolitical and
strategic landscape of the Middle East, raising the likelihood of instability, terrorism, or conflict
that could interrupt the regions oil exports. More specifically, the authors suggest that Saudi
Arabia would most likely also seek nuclear weapons in order to counter Iran, while an
emboldened nuclear Iran could instigate or exacerbate an uprising in Saudi Arabias Shiitemajority Eastern Province, the nerve center of Saudi oil exports. The result, the authors warn,
would be a situation that could devolve into atomic warfare.

While many scholars of

international relations assume that states are unitary, rational and risk-mitigating actors, political
and technical deficiencies can undermine effective decision-making. The Bipartisan Policy Center

cites precisely this concern, noting Irans and Saudi Arabias small arsenals, lack of durable
communication channels, poor civilian oversight of command-and-control systems, [and] erratic
intelligence.2 In short, even if we can assume that Irans possession of a nuclear weapon would
be checked by both Israels nuclear deterrent and Saudi Arabias likely acquisition of its own
nuclear bombs, questions of internal state coherence make this a dangerous path.
And yet the dangers of a nuclear armed Iran are frequently not framed within the broad
context found in the discussion above. First, a possible arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia
has not been at the center of international concern. Rather, attention has focused on Irans threat
to Israel, a county over 1000 miles away.

Second, concerns over Irans possession of nuclear

weapons has often not been couched in terms of its regional aspirations or technical capacity to
manage such weapons, but rather in the context of the view that for ideological and religious
reasons Iran is an irrational state.
What does it mean to say that Iran is an irrational state? Realist theories of international
relations assume that states wish to preserve and expand their security and power in an anarchic
international environmenta rational goal of self-preservation and expansion. Yet scholars and
policymakers accept that some states may be controlled by irrational elites. These are not elites
whose rationality is constrained by organizational or informational deficiencies, but rather elites
whose ideological or nationalist commitments tend them toward risk-taking, even self-destructive
In discussions of Iranian foreign policy it is a common argument that those in power are
anything but rational. Since the 1979 revolution Irans foreign policy has been described as
steeped in fanaticism, with the prime evidence given as the long war with Iraq. In the Iran-Iraq

war hundreds of thousands of ill-equipped Iranian martyrs died as a result of the Ayatollah
Khomeinis decision to continue the war even after Saddam Hussein sought peace in 1982 (the
war would continue for another seven years). More than the scale of casualties, the emphasis on
the martyrdom of soldiers and the war as a step toward an Islamic revolution across the region are
testimony to the fusion of religious and political fervor that drove the revolution forward. But
even this argument of Iran as a fanatical state contains within assumptions of strategy and

The Iranian revolutions fanaticism is a piece of many revolutions, which are

commonly insecure but overconfident in their ability to export their new ideology and defeat
their external enemies.3
The perception of Iran as a fanatical state began to wane as the Iran-Iraq War came to an
end in 1989 and the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini that same year. While concerns began to
surface regarding Irans nuclear program in the early 1990s, this occurred alongside the growing
prominence of reformist and pragmatic elites who overshadowed the new Supreme Leader,
Ayatollah Khamenei. Hopes for greater political change however, soon went into reverse, as
reformists were driven out of the legislature and other state institutions. The election of Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad as president in 2005 seemed to represent a return to Irans revolutionary fanaticism.
Indeed, Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as a keeper of the revolutionary flame, and he derived
much of his support from poorer and more rural parts of the population, who were attracted by his
apparent piety and lack of corruption.
While Ahmadinejad built his domestic base of electoral support on values that emphasized
the poor and recapturing the spirit of the revolution, it was his relationship to the international
community that drew the greatest attention.

The president quickly became known for his

vociferous criticism of the West and his anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic positions. Particularly

notorious was his role in the World Without Zionism Conference in Iran in 2005, in which
Ahmadinejad uttered the notorious phrase that Israel boyad az safehi ruzgar mahv shavad must
disappear from the pages of time or, in other, more menacing if misleading translations, must be
wiped off the map. Shortly thereafter Ahmadinejad supported Irans International Conference to
Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in 2006, attended by numerous Holocaust deniers,
among them former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. All of these actions made it appear
not only that Iran had returned to a more fanatical position, but that with this rhetoric Ahmadinejad
was eclipsing the power and authority of the Supreme Leader. Iran no longer seemed moving
toward what Weber termed the routinization of charisma, a bureaucratic regime that paid lipservice to revolutionary values but was otherwise rational, risk-averse and conservative. Where,
then, did Irans ideology lie?
With the election of Ahmadinejad observers of Iranian politics began to use a largely new
term, speaking of Iran as a messianic state. In a Lexis-Nexis analysis of over three hundred global
media sources from 1979 to 1989, the term messianic to refer to Iran appears fewer than twenty
times. Over the last decade, however, the western media began to speak frequently of Iran in these
terms (a similar search finds the term used over two hundred times). Ahmadinejad in particular
was described as someone gripped by apocalyptic beliefs.4 Books began to appear with such
hyperbolic titles as The Apocalypse of Ahmadinejad: The Revelation of Iran's Nuclear Prophet
and The Nuclear Sphinx of Iran. 5 But this was not simply a case of claiming that Ahmadinejad
alone was a fanatical and dangerous leader. The president was presented by many as simply part
of the regimes inherent death cult that saw its struggle against Israel and the West as part of the
coming Armageddon.6

This view differs significantly from past interpretations of Iran, which

argued that Iran may be more likely to take greater risks in order to advance its revolution and

ideology. If Iran was not a revolutionary state in a conventional, ideological stance, but instead a
messianic state that yearned for an apocalypse, it represented a much greater danger, concerned
less its own existence than the fulfillment of its own eschatology. Or, as one observer put it, once
Iran has the Islamic bomb, does anyone really believe they wont use it against the U.S. and Israel,
either directly or through terrorist surrogates?7 This view has been emphasized by the Israeli
government, which has drawn frequent comparisons between Iran and Nazi Germany, and argued
that Iran, as a messianic state, cannot be militarily deterred, and would in fact see war, even nuclear
war, as a fulfillment of prophecy. As Prime Minister Netanyahu succinctly put it, You dont want
a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs.8
The implications of such an analysis are clearly frightening. While revolutionary states
can be risky actors on the world stage, their motives are fundamentally worldly, if utopian, and
their revolutionary ardor inevitably cools to a more conservative position. But a messianic state
of the type described above would show no such tendency. As a messianic revolutionary regime
fails to achieve its worldly goals, it may not experience the routinization of charisma, as Weber
put it, but an increasing reliance on prophecy and eschatology to bolster its legitimacy. Such a
state could be increasingly irrational over time, subject to differing and increasingly anxious
interpretations of end times.
We have so far laid out a widely held view (particularly among policymakers) of the
relationship between religion, ideology, and state rationality in Iran.

Long viewed as an

unpredictable state bent on exporting the revolution, in recent years this view has morphed into
one that sees the Iranian leadership as a messianic cult bent on annihilation. Of course, this leads
to our central question: Is this analysis correct? In order to answer, we must first understand the
nature of messianic views within Iranian Shiism and the Iranian state. Second, we must evaluate

their authority and interpretation within the state as a political force, and the extent to which they
influence domestic and international policy. Only then can we evaluate whether the fears of a
doomsday Iran are justified, and the implications for international relations.

Messianic Beliefs in Iranian Shiism

Whatever the implications, there can be no doubt that messianic views have played an important
role in Shiism, especially as found in Iran. In recent years the primary differences between Sunni
and Shia Islam have been repeatedly outlined for a Western audience, but it is important to
reconsider those distinctions, especially as they relate to eschatology.

Shia Islam, while the

overwhelming majority faith in Iran, is a tiny minority of Muslims worldwide, estimated at around
10-15%. In addition to Iran, a Shia majority can only be found in Iraq and Bahrain, with a large
Shia population in Lebanon, and significant (if minority) populations in Pakistan, India,
Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. At its core, Shiism differs from Sunni Islam with regard
to leadership, as much a political as a religious concern. Upon the death of the Prophet the question
emerged of who should lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims assert that leadership,
religious and political, should fall to someone who follows the appropriate path (Sunna) of

That individual can be chosen from the community, rise to that level of

qualification through his acts or, in the case of a monarchy, inherit the role. In contrast, Shi'ism
believes that the true guardians of the faith are those who descend directly from the Prophet and
his familyin particular, his son-in-law Ali and his progeny, who Shia believe were directly
designated by Mohammed and God to be his successors. The Shiat Ali, or party of Ali, thus
advocated an inherited role, but one that followed directly from the Prophet. Ali was not chosen

to succeed Mohammed upon his death in 632, and while he did eventually become caliph in 656,
his reign would last only five years and end with his assassination.
Upon the death of Ali, his followers turned their support to his two sons, Hassan and
Hussein. As before, the argument was that as the direct descendants were intended by Mohammed
and God to uphold the Koran. And as with Ali, this position would be the minority view. Hassan
renounced his right to be caliph upon Alis death, and, Shia believe, was thereafter assassinated to
prevent his eventual return to power. His younger brother, Hussein, plays a more primary role in
Shia theology. In 680 he rose up against the caliphate, but facing overwhelming odds he and most
of his family were slaughtered on the battlefield at Karbala in present-day Iraq. This story of a
righteous battle in the face of certain death established for Shia the importance of martyrdom in
the cause of religious and political justice. It also established the important religious ceremony of
Ashura, which commemorates the death of Hussein.
Shiism at its most basic, then, is a struggle over succession, legitimacy and sovereign rule.
But while that may have been the initial conflict, the distinctions between Shia and Sunni have
grown wider and more theological over the past 1300 years. For Shia, the battle over succession
did not end with Karbala. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre Shiites continued to believe
that the family of Ali would be soon restored as the rightful heirs to the caliphate. A large uprising
took place in Kufa several years after the death of the Hussein, led by Shiite partisans who hoped
that their victory would pave the way for the return of the bloodline. However, after two years the
revolt was crushed by the Caliph of Mecca.
While the quest for temporal power essentially ended at this point, Shia continued to
follow, and increasingly venerate, the bloodline, or Imams (a term in Shiism that is typically

reserved for the descendants of the prophet), who were viewed less as political claimants than
figures of reverence and religious guidance.

Indeed, Shia came to believe that these Imams

possessed supernatural qualities endowed by God. The Imams are free from sin and fallibility,
possess special powers, and as such are the most exemplary of men--and the only appropriate
leaders for political and religious authority.
Following the Shiite uprising in Kufa there emerged the idea that the twelfth and last
Imam, Mohammad ibn al-Hassan (b. 868) was in occultation. This occultation was not simply one
of hiding or in exile, as had been the case for two centuries since the death of Hussein, but in an
absence that was created and maintained by God, protected from enemies, until a time that this last
Imam could return. This idea of occultation is similar to that of Jesus resurrection, and it is hard
not to draw the conclusion that ideas of disappearance and return were adopted from existing
beliefs within the other monotheistic and messianic traditions in the region, which were well
established by this point. The idea of occultation set into motion an eschatology, whereby the
twelfth and last Imam, the Mahdi (from the Arabic, meaning he who is rightly guided), would
return at the end of time to restore Gods rule on earth. Thus, the Shia narrative comes full circle,
emphasizing Husseins martyrdom, his followers quest to restore his bloodline, and the Mahdis
occultation until he re-emerges at the end of time.
This quick overview does not do justice to the complex nature of Shiism. However, it
does make clear the central differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, as well as the sources of
conflict between them. For Shia, majority Islam has essentially deviated from the path of correct
leadership, though otherwise they do not dispute the core beliefs of the faith. For many Sunni,
however, Shia appear to have deviated far from core Islamic beliefs, to the extent that to some they
cannot be considered Muslims. The idea of inherited infallibility that is somehow designated by

God is absent from the Koran and runs counter to the standard Islamic emphasis on individual
emulation of the Prophet. Indeed, the emphasis on Hussein and Ali seemingly over that of the
Prophet is often viewed by Sunni Muslims as a misdirection of ones source for guidance and

Furthermore, while in Islam there is a large literature discussing the specifics of the

end times, elaborating conditions and events akin to the Book of Revelations in the New Testament
(again, the Jewish and Christian influences are clear, down to the return of Moses and Jesus at the
end of time), Sunni Islam does not place a specific role for a messiah at the end. Rather, the idea
of the Mahdi within Sunni Islam is one of any number of individuals, unconnected to the family
of the Prophet, who emerge on a cyclical basis to renew Islam. In contrast, Shia emphasize the
single figure of the Mahdi as the Hidden Imam, descendent of Ali and Hussein, creating a much
more active role for a single actor associated with the apocalypse (again, similar to certain
millennial views of Jesus). It has been argued that this tradition is particularly strong is Iranian
Shiism, which itself draws upon earlier Zoroastrian beliefs regarding an apocalyptic battle
between the forces of good and evil, the latter personified by a great satanic figure (in contrast to
Sunni views of a much weaker Satan).9
The idea of a single leader in occultation and in waiting until the final age raises a number
of religious and political questions for Shia here and now. Fundamentally, the question is one of
the relationship between the Mahdi and humanity during the formers absence from the world. In
Shia views, the Mahdi is a figure with specific religious and political sovereignty, just as with
Mohammed. In his absence there is the question of sovereignty and governance. Who is to rule
while the Mahdi is in occultation? And is the nature of that rule in any way connected to the details
of the Mahdis return? As is well known, one result of the Shia emphasis on the Mahdi is that
there developed the rationale for a hierarchy of clericsAyatollahs, or signs of God--who could

develop and interpret religious law on behalf of the Mahdi. At the same time, this clerical
hierarchy remained relatively distant from state power itself, which they viewed as an area of
sovereignty that belonged only to the Mahdi himself. In the interim, a monarchy that would defend
the rights and objectives of the faith was viewed as the most appropriate relationship between
mosque and state.

Questions about when the Mahdi would return were, as one author puts it,

dismissed as unorthodox, if not heretical.10 In short, while Shiism contains messianic values
as an essential component of its belief system, traditionally this did not translate into an active
preparation for or facilitation of the Mahdis return.
That having been said, there has remained within Shiism a perspective that is more
personal and activist. One facet of this is ones personal relationship to the Mahdi. As in
evangelical Christianity, there has long been a strain of belief that the Mahdi could be reached
through visions and other practices, and that the Mahdi in turn might reach out to individuals at
given points in time. With this belief, it becomes possible to believe that one is being directed by
particular revelations from and interactions with the Mahdia messianic view which, in some
radical interpretations, could lead to an individual being directed by the Mahdi or to speak on his
behalf. Such mystical approaches may even lead to a realization that one is the Mahdi himself. In
Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadrs Mahdi Army clearly draws on a belief that their actions are on behalf of
the Mahdis return. A more extreme example would be the Iraq militant group Army of Heaven,
which was destroyed after a fierce battle with US and Iraq forces in 2007. The groups leader had
proclaimed himself the Mahdi, and had apparently intended to march on the holy city of Najaf
during the ceremonies of Ashura, assassinate the senior clerics there (including Grand Ayatollah
Sistani), and proclaim the return of the Hidden Imam.11
Messianic Shiism and the Iranian Revolution

These ideas of a personal and active relationship with the Mahdi shaped, and were shaped by, the
1979 Iranian Revolution. The general details of the revolution are well known, driven by topdown, rapid and disorienting modernization, the corruption and opulence of the Shah, and a
growing clash between secularism and traditional religious values. The conflict between modern
and traditional forces stimulated both religious fundamentalism as well as radical Marxist views.
Most interestingly, they also gave rise to different mixtures of secular and religious perspectives.
Though a seeming contradiction, these radical and reactionary views were not necessarily
diametrically opposed to one another. Both saw a revolutionary transformation of existing social
and political structures in order to bring about institutions that were consistent with the true nature
of humanity.
In spite of the presence of Shia thought in these ideological strands, messianism played a
limited role in the discussion of revolutionary change.

Ayatollah Khomeinis most influential

work, Islamic Government (1970), argued against a passive role for the clergy in anticipation of
some distant return of the Mahdi. However, Khomeini did not conclude that the Mahdi's return
was in any way imminent or could be somehow be hastened. Rather, he asserted that in the absence
of the Mahdi, it was important for the clergy to serve in the place of the Mahdi as a religious
guardianship over the people. In short, Khomeinis blueprint for the new regime depended on the
Mahdi's continued occultation, for his imminent return would make the Islamic Republic, and
indeed even the revolution, perhaps unnecessary.12
A different but related argument was taken by the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati.
Shariati, who in many ways was as much the inspiration for the 1979 revolution as Khomeini,
railed against what he called black Shiism in favor of red Shi'ism. In his definition, black
Shiism was an approach to the faith that was constrained by an emphasis on mourning and the

perceived injustices done to the faith. Shariati contrasted this with his own call for a red Shiism,
a radical belief system that emphasized social justice, class struggle, and the Imams as a
revolutionary forcea religious Marxism, if you will (though Shariati would have rejected such a

Shariatis contribution was therefore to emphasize the ideological power of

Shiism as the embodiment of radical Islam, and to reject the clergy as reactionary in favor of an
ideological faith that put religions and political power in the hands of the masses. Shariati, who
died in 1977, could be viewed as having lost the struggle for the course revolutionary change in
Iran, but his belief that Shiism could be transformed (or in his view, restored) into an active
revolutionary ideology resonates clearly in Khomeinis work. It is evident that much of Shariatis
views, while condemned as hostile to existing religious institutions, were in fact co-opted by
Khomeini, helping to create a regime that claimed to embody the true intentions of the Mahdi
through a radical political agenda with global implications. Khomeinis work is thus in many ways
similar to other forms of political Islam that had emerged around the same time, such as Said Qutb
in Egypt and Mawlana Mawdudi in Pakistan, and is, either directly or indirectly, influenced by
those authors as well.14
In the years prior to and following the Iranian Revolution one can find various messianic
elements in play. Perhaps most striking is the publics reference to Imam Khomeini, a title that
heretofore had been reserved for the descendants of Ali and Hussein. Whereas the state structures
articulated in Islamic Government called for a supreme leader who would serve as a deputy of the
Hidden Imam, already in the early 1970s Khomeinis supporters began to refer to him with this
honorific. This expanded dramatically after the revolution. As Abbas Amanat notes, a certain
semi-prophetic sanctity was also attached to the title, which was largely the work of propagandists
in the revolutionary press but nevertheless was reminiscent of the recurring messianic tradition

deeply embedded in Iranian Shiism.15 Many members of the public saw Khomeini as the sole
actor who, in the words of one 1979 Iranian public resolution, could smooth the way for the
government of Imam Mahdi.16 At an extreme, some were inclined to see Khomeini as the Mahdi
himself. However, we need to put such messianic tendencies in historical context. In Lebanon,
the Iranian-born cleric Musa al-Sadr became so central to the religious and political life of
Lebanese Shia that he, too, was given the honorific Imam; his disappearance in Libya in 1978
further generated parallels with the Hidden Imam.17 And specific views that religious or political
activists were perhaps the Mahdi was not confined to Iran in this period. In November 1979,
shortly after the Iranian Revolution, a large group of Saudi militants seized control of the Grand
Mosque in Mecca, led by a figure who claimed that he was the Mahdi. The resulting battle lasted
for two weeks and over two hundred militants and troops were killed.18
Revolutionary Iran, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Road to Jerusalem
Where messianic views do emerge more explicitly is during the Iran-Iraq War. When Iraq
attacked Iran in 1980, the latter faced a regime supported directly or indirectly Arab and Western
powers who feared the spread of the Iranian Revolution. Iran was hindered in its war effort by
weapons embargos as well as ethnic and political turmoil.
In the face of these challenges and consistent with the rhetoric of the regime, Khomeini
framed the war in terms of the battle of Hussein against the caliphate, a struggle of righteousness
against overwhelming odds, and martyrdom on behalf of the Imamate. This connection was easy
to make, not simply because of the historical animosity between majority Sunni and minority Shia,
but also because the very landscape of battle was that on which Hussein fought. Thus, the regime
portrayed the conflict as a symbolic and literal battle for Karbala, the taking of which was an


important goal. As we are well aware from Americas war in Iraq, the southern part of that country
is overwhelmingly Shia (though Arab and not Persian), and contains not only important holy sites
but also the important seminary of Najaf, where Khomeini and other Iranian ayatollahs had
studied. Thus, by defeating Iraq, the Iran could liberate those lands and Shia holy places that were
long under Sunni rule, expanding the revolution to Muslims beyond its borders.
It is at this time that the most direct calls for individual martyrdom begin to appear. While
domestic terrorism and guerrilla activity had been present during and immediately after the
revolution, the use of suicide attacks or martyrdom missions became an important component
to the war. Perhaps best known in this regard is the creation of the Basij, a paramilitary
organization subordinate to the Revolutionary Guard (another paramilitary organization formed
around the revolution) which contained large numbers of young men and boys, who were sent into
the battlefield with little hope of survival.19 As one newspaper account from the period notes:
'''they ask for martyrdom,'' said Major Morteza Nabavi, describing how youths volunteer to walk
across mine fields to clear a path for the attack. 'This is a symbol of our victory'.''20 The quest for
Karbala thus sustained the imagery of Ashura, and promised a victory that would make right the
loss of Hussein centuries earlier. Campaigns were often begun on Shia holy days, such as the
death of the Imam Ali, and given such names as Karbala 1 (1986), at which the commander of the
Revolutionary Guard claimed that this time we shall move forward non-stop until we reach
Karbala.21 Although Karbala was never taken, it is worth noting that even at this late date in the
war the regime continued to sustain the argument that the war was one of liberation, rather than
defense. This was an important element of regime ideology, given that Iraq had been expelled
from its major Iranian positions, among them the major city of Khorramshahr, in 1982 (which was
taken through the use of human wave attacks). The call for liberation and the export of the

revolution also explains Irans unwillingness to accept a truce and possible end to the conflict.
This was offered by Iraq already in the first weeks of the war, when Saddam Hussein realized that
his gamble on a relatively painless advance into the neighboring country that would bring
Khomeini to his knees to sue for peace would not be realized.22
The battle of Khorramshahr also points to a secondary, and now largely forgotten, element
of Irans revolutionary ideology as it related to the Iran-Iraq war. We noted that in many cases
Iranian campaigns were framed within the context of Shia holy days or holy figures, and the war
itself imagined as a battle to avenge Hussein and restore the correct path of the Imams over Shia
lands and beyond. In addition, Iraq was not only viewed as a field of battle for the past and future
of Shiism, or even Islam, but as a path to Jerusalem, the next stage of the revolution following the
defeat of Iraq. Iranian propaganda emphasized that the wars ultimate objectives was the liberation
of Jerusalem, and the battle for Khorramshahr was named Operation Beit ol-Moqqaddas, or
Operation Jerusalem. Khomeini specifically claimed that the war would allow Iran to march on
to Jerusalem, and at one point even made safe passage of Iranian troops across Iraq to Israel a
condition for peace.23
It is easy to assert that the war was a part of a larger struggled toward the end times, one
that would ultimately liberate Jerusalem, where, according to some Islamic views, the final
apocalyptic battle between good and evil would take place. However, this argument was never
put forward by the regime. The rhetoric regarding Jerusalem was central to the expansive claims
of the Iranian Revolution as a means of mobilizing the public, but was just as much directed toward
an Arab audience, intended to portray Iran as the only true champion of the Palestinians and true
challenger to Israel. Then as now, Iran used the Palestinian issue as a way to bolster support across
the Middle East and overcome Sunni suspicions of Shiism. For Iran, the quest for Jerusalem

remained one largely grounded in regional politics and western imperialism rather than
eschatology. Iranian propaganda never suggested that the liberation of Jerusalem would somehow
lead to the end of days or the return of the Mahdi. Rather, in the eyes of many scholars (and
average Iranians), the road to Jerusalem was largely a ploy by Khomeini to expand his regional
authority and outflank other Arab leaders. This speaks more of strategic foreign policy than
religious zealotry.24

Martyrdom and Suicide Terrorism

A final ancillary discussion should be made of the emergence of suicide bombing, which
would come to shape Middle Eastern politics for the next thirty years and is often conflated with
the Iranian regime as evidence of its dangerous death cult ideology.25 As we noted, martyrdom
or suicide attacks were hallmarks of Iranian military tactics against Iraq, while terrorism was also
widespread across Iran before and after the revolution, much of it carried out by ideological or
ethnic minority opponents of the revolutionary regime. To take one example, a 1981 bombing of
Khomeini's Islamic Revolutionary Party killed 73 individuals, including the chief justice and
several cabinet members. But even during the chaos before and immediately after the revolution,
there were no examples of suicide attacks carried out either by opponents of the regime or by the
regime against its rivals.
However, it is well known that the first examples of suicide bombing in the Middle East were
carried out in Lebanon in 1982-1983 by the Shia group Hezbollah (Party of God), whose name
itself came from a similarly titled revolutionary organization in Iran. Hezbollahs actions would
come to transform the use of terrorism in the region that reverberates to this day, and its


justification for suicide attacks were founded on the example of the Imam Hussein and the Iranian
Revolutions call for self-sacrifice. Suicide bombing would become the core puzzle of any
discussion of terrorism in the subsequent decades, given the deeply irrational nature of this tactic
as viewed by a secular audience. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that the
justification for suicide bombings emerged not in the seminaries of Iran or Iraq, but among the
Shia leadership in Lebanon, drawing on their own experiences of civil war and Israeli invasion.26
Moreover, suicide attacks were used to a limited extent; after an initial rash of attacks from 1983
to 1985, they declined thereafter and were formally renounced in 1999. Although Iran has
frequently lauded suicide attacks by Hezbollah and Palestinians, it has never become a part of
Iranian state policy, unless we are to claim that the Hezbollahs suicide terrorism is directed by
Iran. While there is some evidence of this, scholars generally accept that most of Hezbollahs
attacks were of their own strategy and design. Even the 2012 bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria
appears to have been a Hezbollah bombing where the terrorist blew himself up by accident.27
Iranians have not directly participated in suicide attacks themselves, whether in Iraq, Israel,
Afghanistan, Lebanon, the West Bank/Israel or elsewhere, and beyond Hezbollah there is no
evidence that suicide attacks are essentially a tool of Iranian politics, but rather driven by local
actors and objectives. For what is viewed as an Iranian state striving for an apocalypse that will
usher in the messiah, the absence of this tactic is striking, and suggests instead a regime with a
more conservative and pragmatic understanding of the use of force.
The Waning of Revolutionary Iran
We have argued up to this point that even at the peak of Irans revolutionary zeal the ideology of
the Islamic Republic only drew on messianic claims to a limited degree and in a limited context.
Never did the regime assert that the revolution would usher in the Mahdi, nor that the war with

Iraq would achieve this outcome. Antipathy toward Israel and its control over Jerusalem, and
toward Iraq and its control over Shia holy cities, could be viewed in this light but this was never
explicit in the regimes ideology, despite its emphasis on martyrdom.
With the end of the Iran-Iraq War, even these limited expressions fell by the wayside as
the state and society concerned themselves with postwar and post-revolutionary reconstruction.
Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, leaving behind no clear successor who had his legitimacy or
charismatic authority; his presumed successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, fell out with Khomeini and
was stripped of his clerical title. Power largely fell to Ali Khamenei, who had been president from
1985 to 1989, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was speaker of parliament from 1980 to 1989.
Khamenei was promoted in clerical rank (to Grand Ayatollah) in order to make him eligible to
replace Khomeini as Supreme Leader, while Rafsanjani was elected to the presidency (where he
served from 1989 to 1997). During this period Iran underwent a period of normalization and
pragmatism. President Rafsanjani in particular pursued a moderate course, favoring economic
reforms that sought to roll back some of the centralization and nationalization that occurred after
the revolution. Rafsanjani also favored a course of increased engagement with the west and the
downplaying of revolutionary ideology. Khamenei was far less enthusiastic about these reforms,
but at the time his position as Supreme Leader was relatively weak. Many expected that following
the death of Khomeini the position of supreme leader would become largely ceremonial, and saw
Rafsanjanis rise to the presidency as evidence of where power would truly lie. Khamenei would,
of course, come to outflank Rafsanjani, coming to rely on his own cadre of religious leaders as
well as segments of the Revolutionary Guard.28
Khameneis power would not become fully evident until the presidency of Rafsanjanis
successor, Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), whose own reform program the Supreme Leader

managed to thwart. Khatami, relatively unknown before his election and strongly backed by
Rafsanjani, engaged on a course of political liberalization that saw a dramatic emergence of civil
society, greater social freedoms for women, and tentative steps toward political decentralization
all policies eventually stymied by the Supreme Leader. The postwar period was thus characterized
by a struggle over the limits to political change and whether reform represented a rejection of the
goals of the revolution. This is a standard challenge for all revolutionary regimes. Recapturing
the revolutionary moment, akin to Chinas Cultural Revolution, is rarely an option. Rather, postrevolutionary states tend to move toward increasing bureaucratization, an emphasis on
organizational loyalty (reds versus experts), and the use of patronage and corruption as a way
to build loyalty. Iran experienced all of these.

As Khamenei managed to beat back reform,

finalized in the presidential election of Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the system
had come to exhibit the classic features of a typical clientelist authoritarian system found elsewhere
in the Middle East, with a bureaucratic elite enriched by economic ties and backed by elements
within the military to ensure domestic repression.29
President Ahmadinejad: The Rise of Religious Nationalism
Mahmoud Ahmadinejads election in 2005 was viewed by many inside and outside Iran as
a dangerous turn for domestic and international politics. Ahmadinejad was not formally the
Supreme Leaders candidate (who refrains from directly endorsing any candidate to maintain his
image as standing above politics), though it was widely asserted by other presidential candidates,
including Rafsanjani, that individuals and organizations close to the Supreme Leader were
mobilized in support of Ahmadinejads campaign.30 Most notable and worrisome were charges
that the Revolutionary Guard, the paramilitary group which emerged from the 1979 revolution,
played an active role in this regard. However, it was also clear that Ahmadinejad had benefited

from his striking contrast to Rafsanjani, whose family wealth, suspected corruption and relative
pragmatism made him appear to many as little more than a cynical opportunist. Ahmadinejad was
known for his modest background and piety, which translated into a populism that resonated with
many. Is too simple to describe the 2005 elections as one where the regime simply pre-selected
its favored candidate and then manipulated the outcome. Ahmadinejad, at least in 2005, clearly
came to power through the support of many Iranians who felt disenfranchised less by theocratic
strictures than by their difficult economic circumstances and the rising gap between rich and poor,
those connected to the system and those lacking such connections. In that sense, the new president
staked out an ambiguous place between the regime and society, given that his populism served as
an implicit critique of the status quo, including those close to Khamenei.
In addition to Ahmadinejads populism, another important current was his particular
relationship to Shiism.

In contrast to the regimes formal cooptation of the faith as an

underpinning of conservative power, Ahmadinejad spoke of the relationship between politics and
Shiism in more radical and personal ways. In his election campaign he spoke of his desire for a
developed, powerful and Islamic society in Iran so that our country would become the beginning
of the justice-oriented movement of the Lord of the Age, meaning the Mahdi.31

This hint of

eschatology deviated from the regimes lack of emphasis on the Mahdi, except in the sense of his
absence as the regimes justification for rule. On the contrary, what the president was tapping
into was a resurgent messianic strand that apparently had been catalyzed by the 1997 election of
Khatami and his subsequent liberalization initiatives. While supported by some high ranking
ayatollahs, this mahdist cult did not help legitimize the regime, but rather served as a potential
challenge. Specifically, by emphasizing the Mahdi as an absolute sacred source of authority
for individuals and the nation as a whole it therefore diminished the status of Khomeini as a

central spiritual and political leader.32 One can see this tension as akin to the Roman Catholic
emphasis on centralized spiritual authority versus a Protestant view that emphasizes a direct
connection between the individual and the messiah.
Ahmadinejads role at home and abroad began to develop rapidly along several tracks. As
mentioned earlier, already within the first year of his election the president had spoken openly
about Israels future (or lack thereof), adding to this conspiracy theories that questioned the
Holocaust and the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. This was combined with a more overt
emphasis on Irans nuclear program, framed as a source of Iranian national pride and as evidence
of the countrys technical prowess in spite of decades of sanctions. At home, while Ahmadinejad
attempted to achieve his populist goals through such areas as job creation, housing support, and
ongoing subsidies for food and gasoline, he more broadly began to frame his leadership within the
context of the Mahdi and his return.
In one example, the president associated himself with the Mahdist focus on Jamkaran, a
heretofore obscure mosque associated with a purported vision of the Mahdi in the tenth century.
As in Iraq, where the Hussein fell and (where many believed the Mahdi still lives), Jamkaran was
seen by Mahdists as a possible means through which one could communicate with the messiah as
well as have wishes fulfilled and illnesses cured. It was also thought by some that the Mahdi
would eventually return at Jamkaran itself. Long disdained by the religious hierarchy, by the 1990s
Jamkaran rose from obscurity to become one of the most important and widely attended shrines in
Iran. The Supreme Leader initially supported the growth of the shrine, perhaps as a power base
against both reformers in Tehran and rival clerics in the nearby theological center of Qom, as well
as to coopt the growing messianic current.

However, upon coming to power President

Ahmadinejad became more closely associated with Jamkaran and its symbolism. Rumors had it

that while still mayor of Tehran Ahmadinejad put forward the idea of building a road from Tehran
to the mosque under the pretext that when the time for his grand reappearance comes, the 12th
Imam will need it to reach the capital.33 As president, one of Ahmadinejads early cabinet
decisions was to allocation $17 million for further development of the shrine.34 Jamkaran became
increasingly associated with end times writings that linked contemporary international politics and
organizations to the return of the Mahdi--not unlike the left behind literature found within
Christianity, including obsessions with Freemasons and world government. In fact, a recent
purview of a central Mahdist website finds dubbed videos on the New World Order originally
produced by American conspiracy theorists.35 This process of politicizing the Mahdi cult was
increasingly associated with Ahmadinejad.

According to Amanat, far less visible in these

Mahdist publications are references to Khamenei or even Ayatollah Khomeini, consistent with a
populist view that by nature questions existing political institutions in favor of charismatic action
During the course of Ahmadinejads first term and into his second this messianic and
populist message continued to deepen, aided by a cohort of similarly-minded individuals around
him. In 2005 the president used the United Nations General Assembly meeting as a stage to
propound these ideas, closing with the following obvious reference to the Mahdi:
From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality
and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a
world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all Divine religions will be fulfilled
with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He
will lead the world to justice and absolute peace. O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten


the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being,
the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.37
Similarly, in 2006 he concluded his UN speech with a similar Mahdist reference:
Almighty God, all men and women are Your creatures and You have ordained their
guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human
being promised to all by You, and make us among his followers and among those who
strive for his return and his cause.38
Ahmadinejad's rhetoric elicited strong responses, both inside and outside Iran. Inside Iran,
there was consternation when it emerged that, in conservation with Ayatollah Javadi Amoli,
Ahmadinejad claimed that during his 2005 speech he was surrounded by a halo of light,
suggesting that he had been in direct contact with, if not in some way directed by, the Mahdi
himself.39 Outside Iran, some observers pointed to speeches were evidence that the president
sought to actively hasten the Mahdis return, placing an apocalyptic frame around the presidency
and Irans nuclear weapons program. Conservative American commentators like Charles
Krauthammer asserted that Iran was arming for Armageddon and that this kind of man would
have, to put it gently, less inhibition about starting Armageddon than a normal person. Indeed,
with millennial bliss pending, he would have positive incentive to, as they say in Jewish
eschatology, hasten the end.40 This is, of course, a tremendous leap of logic to argue that any
political leader who believes in the coming of a savior by extension also favors being an agent of
his return. Similar arguments were made about George Bush Jr.'s evangelical Christianity.41
Ahmadinejad's public statements were not meant to announce to the world that he was
seeking to bring the world to an end. Rather, this rhetoric was part of Ahmadinejad's populist

campaign back home, seeking to use Mahdism as a powerbase through which he and his followers
could hold power following the end of his second term in 2013 (Iran has a two-term limit for the
presidency). The president and those around him have sought to build a long-lasting political
faction that could hold the presidency well past Ahmadinejad's second terma long term, rational
strategy.42 We will turn to this argument next.
On closer examination the Mahdism associated with Ahmadinejad appears more
complicated than a simple emphasis on eschatology suggests. Most intriguing in this regard has
been Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a figure tightly connected to the president through politics and
marriage (Mashaei's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son). Ahmadinejad has made it clear
that his preference was that Mashaei follow him as president, even suggesting that he himself
might return to the presidency once Mashaei completed his tenure, along the lines of the PutinMedvedev model.43 Mashaei's association with the Mahdist group is clearsome have argued
that he was one of the main supporters of the infrastructural improvements at Jamkaran. However,
his public statements and activities have been far more populist and at times clearly inconsistent
with a messianic vision of imminent global redemption. Mashaei's approach has been described
as religious nationalist, with a greater emphasis on the Iranian nation, pre-Islamic history, and
the potential role of Iran as a powerful state re-integrated into the global system.44
To that end, Mashaeis continued development of Mahdism has taken several interesting
turns. In 2005 Mashaei attended a cultural event in Turkey that featured a procession of female
drummers; while a relatively tame affair, video of the event drew consternation among many
Iranian clerics.45 Elsewhere, he curiously observed that God cannot be the fulcrum for the unity
of mankind, which was interpreted both as an attack on the clergy as well as a suggestion of the
primacy of national identities over internationalist political Islam.46 Along those lines, in 2008

Mashaei went much further, stating on television that Iran is a friend of the people in the United
States and in Israel, and this is an honor. In some translations the term nation was used instead
of people, though given his word choicemardom as opposed to mellat--the latter is more
accurate. This drew a sharp response from other political leaders, especially those long opposed
to Ahmadinejad. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani rejected the very notion of an Israeli people
as anyone other than Palestinians, while national television denounced Mashaei's statement as
scandalous. Rather than back down or clarify, Mashaei only reiterated his position, saying again
that my statement was that we, the Iranian people, are friends of the whole wide world, even the
people of Israel and America. There is no reason for us not to be friends. I did not deny having
made this statement--and I am not denying it now. Absolutely not. I am proud of what I said, and
I will say it again a thousand times.47 In spite of the outcry, Ahmadinejad rallied behind Mashaei.
In 2009 he attempted to appoint him first vice president. The president relented only after the the
Supreme Leader wrote directly to Ahmadinejad. Even then, the president did not respond until
state media publicized the letter several days later amid warnings that Ahmadinejad must heed
Khamenei's wishes.48 Mashaei's provocative comments continued. In 2010 at a conference for
Iranian expatriates sponsored by the president's office, he juxtaposed a school of Islam with a
school of Iran, emphasizing the importance of Islam within Iranian identity and concluding that
from now on, we should promote the school of Iran for the world. Mashaei stated that without
Iran, Islam would be lost, observing, as he had in past, that Iran had freed Islam from being carried
by the unenlightened (read: Arabs).49 In short, Mashaei was presenting Iran, through his Mahdist
framework, as a normal state with a national identity that seeks international legitimacy and is
willing to grant that legitimacy to other states in return.


What is the future of Mahdism, at least as put forth by Ahmadinejad, Mashaei, and their
supporters? It appears to be the case that, one scholar put it we are entering into a new stage in
the life cycle of the Islamic republic...where Iranian nationalism certainly dominates Islamic
interests and pan-Islamism.50

Under Ahmadinejad and with Mashaei the emphasis on the

Mahdi's return has been framed as paving the way for an Iranian Islama nationalism that in many
ways rejects the internationalism of 1979, and echoes the similar decay of revolutionary ideologies
into nationalism in such places as the Soviet Union and China. This understanding helps makes
sense of Ahmadinejad's focus on nuclear technology, in spite of his lack of control of this segment
of the state. Consistently Ahmadinejad placed this debate within the context of national pride, not
Islamic internationalism or the idea of an Islamic bomb.

Most illustrative, literally, in this

regard was the design of the 50000 Rial note unveiled in 2007. The reverse features the image of
Iran and the Persian Gulf (the latter clearly demarcated as such, in English, as a retort to those
Arab states that reject the name), an atomic symbol superimposed over the country, and finally, a
hadith from the Prophet to the effect that "Even if they put knowledge on a remote star, Persians
will find it.51
Our discussion of the rise of Mahdism as a form of religious nationalism has several
implications that are worth reiterating. First, contemporary Mahdism has been not a promulgation
of the clergy, but a lay movement. Second, these ideas have been taken up by political elites who
have married them to populist rhetoric, in order to build public support and a base of power. Third,
these same elites have sought to transform this populism into religious nationalism, as both a
counterweight to the religious bureaucracy and as a way to re-found the decaying regime. These
are not the elements of an end time-focused, irrational group, but one that is instrumental and


focused on gaining and keeping domestic power and international legitimacy.


nationalism, then, is the expression of the quest for a stable post-revolutionary state.

The Battle Against the Deviant Current

As this religious nationalism began to grow in power within Ahmadinejad's camp, rival
political factions and allies of the Supreme Leader went on the attack. This very factionalism is
yet another piece of evidence against the argument that Iran is controlled by a monolithic political
elite bent on the apocalypse.
The first major skirmish in this battle was with the aforementioned demand by the Supreme
Leader that Ahmadinejad rescind Mashaei's appointment as first vice-president.

The 2009

presidential election and subsequent Green movement weakened Ahmadinejad, who was forced
to turn to Khamenei to back his reelection (most likely through voter fraud). The president, who
in his first term seemed capable of eventually eclipsing the Supreme Leader, was now vulnerable.
Accordingly, the president's opponents went on the offensive, accusing those around the president
of corruption, much as Ahmadinejad had done of them in past. The faction around the president
was described as a pillar of sedition and a deviant current. This current was accused of
financial corruption, attempting to establish links with the US and Israel, plotting to steal the 2013
presidential elections and perhaps most telling, promoting Iranism, infidel nationalism,
fortunetelling and witchcraft. The deputy governor of the Central Bank, the director of the Islamic
Republic News Agency, a former deputy foreign minister and numerous others close to
Ahmadinejad and Mashaei were arrested.52 It appears that, at least for now, the current of religious


nationalism promoted through Mahdism has been blunted by the Supreme Leader and his allies.
The bigger war for the future of the Iranian regime, however, is likely not over.
We began this paper with the question of whether Iran is a rational state, or one governed
by an ideology that was more likely to court a risky foreign policy, particularly the use of nuclear
weapons. The view that Iran is an irrational state is typically based on the argument that the
regime's revolutionary religious ideology demands the expansion of the revolution, by force if
necessary. Related to this is the more specific assertion that Shia Islam, and within it the emphasis
on a messiah or Mahdi, imbues Iranian politics with an eschatology that views the end of days as
imminent. The rise of President Ahmadinejad and his supporters, alongside the progression of
Iran's nuclear program, is seen as the inevitable intersection between religious zealotry and the
capacity for mass destruction. Iran, the argument goes, sees the end of the world as imminent, and
itself as the harbinger of this change.
In this paper we have laid out a number of elements that refute this charge. First, while the
concept of the Hidden Imam is central to Shi'ism, there has long been a strong argument within
the clergy that the eventual return of the Mahdi was not a matter for humans to attend to. Second,
Khomeini justified his vision of clerical rule specifically around the idea that since the Mahdi was
in occultation, it was necessary to build and institutionalize a new regime that could serve on his
behalf. The revolution was not portrayed as a penultimate stage in the Mahdi's return except in
the most abstract sense. Third, although messianic symbols and rhetoric were deployed during the
Iran-Iraq War, complete with the call to liberate Jerusalem, this too was framed in terms of national
defense and the desire to liberate the Palestinians, the latter a calculated decision meant to rally


Arab support. Forth, while martyrdom operations were common in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,
suicide terrorism has relatively little connection to Iran, belying this piece of evidence of the
regime's supposed death cult. Fifth, upon the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, the major symbols
and rhetorical devices utilized by the regime to mobilize the war effort largely dissipated as some
political elites sought to normalize politics and move past the Revolution. Sixth, although
messianic views re-emerged strongly with the President Ahmadinejad and his allies, this was less
about fulfilling the destiny of Shia eschatology than building a powerbase of religious nationalism
that could rival the Supreme Leader and retain power, akin to the Putin model in Russia. Seventh,
evidence of the regime's actual hostility toward Mahdism has its attack on this faction, condemning
attempts to claim any direct connection to the Hidden Imam and branding such views as
tantamount of sorcery and heresy.
Is Iran a messianic state yearning toward an apocalypse? The evidence indicates that it is
not. To be certain, ongoing factionalization with the state can mean that its decision-making is
becoming less unitary and thus less rational. But this is an organizational problem, not a religious
or ideological one, and one that is probably exacerbated by international sanctions as resources are
closed off and insider connections become a powerful resource. International actors can do little
to improve the internal integrity of the Iranian state, beyond a grand bargain that reestablishes
relations between Iran and other countries, specifically the United States.

However, such

normalization is not only problematic because of the nuclear issue. As the vision of a world
transformed by the Iranian Revolution has dimmed, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his allies have
only their battle against American imperialism as the remaining justification for their rule.
Ironically, then, a resurgent religious nationalism may provide the best opportunity for a
rapprochement between Iran and the west.

The Price of Inaction: An Analysis of Energy and Economic Effects of a Nuclear Iran, Bipartisan Policy Center,

October 10, 2012, p. 21.


Ibid., p. 21.

See Stephen M. Walt, Revolution and War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 38.

Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader (Berkeley: University of California Press,

2008); see also Raymond Whitaker, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The Nuclear Prophet, The Independent, January 15,

Mark Hitchcock, The Apocalypse of Ahmadinejad: The Revelation of Iran's Nuclear Prophet (New York: Random

House, 2009); Yossi Melman, Meir Javedanfar , The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the
State of Iran (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Joel Rosenberg, Ahmadinejad's Apocalyptic Address, National Review Online, September 23, 2011, Ironically, this

view mirrors that of many evangelical Christians in the US, albeit with the roles of good and evil reversed and Iran
playing the role of the Anti-Christ.


Jeffrey Goldberg, The Point of No Return, The Atlantic, September 2010.

See Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism (London: IB Taurus, 2009), pp. 206-07.


Ibid., p. 50.


Roger Hardy, Confusion Surrounds Najaf Battle, BBC News, 31 January 2007; Louise Roug and Saad Fakhrildeen, Religious Cult Targeted

in Fierce Battle near Najaf, Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2007,

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government.


Kingshuk Chatterjee, Ali Shari'ati and the Shaping of Political Islam in Iran (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,

2011); Ali Shariati, Red Shi'ism


Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran (New York: I.B. Tauris,


Amanat, op. cit., p. 193


Qom Groups Call to Khomeyni to Accept Presidency, Tehran Home Service 5 July 1979; trans. BBC Summary

of World Broadcasts, 7 July 1979.


Fouad Ajami The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,


Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al

Qaeda (New York: Random House, 2007).



For an excellent discussion of the role of the Basij in Iran see Saeid Golkar, Organization of the Oppressed or

Organization for Oppressing: Analysing the Role of the Basij Militia of Iran, Politics, Religion & Ideology vol. 13,
no. 4 (2012) 455-471.

John Kiefer, "In Irans War, Youth and Islam." The New York Times (April 7, 1982).


Tehran Home Service 7 July 1986, excerpted in Revolutionary Guards Commander on Karbala 1 operation."

trans. BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 9 July 1986.


Loren Jenkins, "Khomeini Rejects New Truce Offer, Calls for Victory; Iraq Renews Truce Offer; Khomeini Calls

for Final Victory." The Washington Post, 5 October 1980.


James LeMoyne, "Khomeini's Holy War." Newsweek. 26 July 1982.


The role of the Palestinian cause in the Iranian Revolution is discussed in detail in Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival:

How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: WW Norton, 2007). See also Trita Parsi,
Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007), also
Martin, op. cit, p. 72.

See, for example, Ali Alfoneh, Iran's Suicide Brigades, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007, pp. 37-44.


Daniel Helmer, Hezbollah's Employment of Suicide Bombing During the 1980s: The Theological, Political, and

Operational Development of a New Tactic, Military Review, July-August 2006

Bus Bombing Suspects Stayed in Bulgaria, UPI, 7 Feburary 2013


For more on Khamenei's political objectives and worldview see Karim Sadjadpour, Reading Khamenei: The

World View of Iran's Most Powerful Leader, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 10, 2008.

An excellent discussion of clientelism in Iran can be found in Kazem Alamdari, The Power Structure of the

Islamic Republic of Iran: Transition from Populism to Clientelism, and Militarization of the Government, Third
World Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 2 (2005), 1285-1301.

Iran Loser Blasts 'Illegal' Poll, BBC News, 25 June 2005


Siyasat-e Ruz, Tehran, in Persian, 28 May 2005 p 2; trans. BBC Monitoring Middle East, 7 June 2005


Amanat, op. cit. p. 238


Ali Reza Eshraghi, Raha Tahami, Ahmadinejad Promoted Shrine Draws Millions Institute for War and Peace

Reporting, 4 May 2010,


Scott Peterson, Waiting for the Rapture in Iran, The Christian Science Monitor, 21 December 21, 2005

Amanat, op. cit pp 236-39; see the website for some examples of western conspiracy theory

documentaries that have been dubbed into Farsi.


Amanat, op. cit., p. 236.



Address by H.E. Dr. Mahmood Ahmadinejad President of the Islamic Republic of Iran before the Sixtieth

Session of the United Nations General Assembly New York 17 September 2005, Islamic Republic of Iran
Permanent Mission to the United Nations,

Transcript of Ahmadinejad's U.N. Speech, National Public Radio, 19 September 2006

Golnaz Esfandiari, Iran: President Says Light Surrounded Him During US Speech, Radio Free Europe/Radio

Liberty, 29 November 2005


Charles Krauthammer, In Iran, Arming for Armageddon, Washington Post, 16 December 2005

Joan Didion, Mr. Bush and the Divine, The New York Review of Books, 6 November 2003

See Robert Tait, Ahmadinejad Floored by Bugs, Spirits and Djinns, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 06 May


Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Who Will Succeed Ahmadinejad in Iran's Presidential Election Next Year? The

Guardian, 7 September 2012


US Embassy Cables: Mashaei Groomed as Possible Successor to Ahmadinejad in Iran, The Guardian, 21 April


A copy of the video can be found on YouTube under the title Quran and Drummer Women: Islam, Ahmadinejad

Style! (accessed 27 February 2013)


See Chronology of Controversy: Who is Esfandiar Mashaei?, 30 November 2010 This website appears to be associated

with Iranian politicians in the reformist camp.

Channel 2, Iran, 12 August 2008. This news item can be found, subtitled in English, at MemriTV.

US Embassy Cables, op cit.


Chronology of Controversy, op. cit.


Robert Tait, Iranian President's New 'Religious Nationalism' Alienates Hard-Line Constituency, 18 August


Iran's New 50,000-Rial Notes Bear Logo of Nuclear Energy, Fars News Agency, 3 March 2007; BBC

Worldwide Monitoring, 3 March 2007.


See Iran Guards Official Says Ahmadinezhad, Masha'i 'conjoined twin', Mehr News Agency, trans. BBC

Worldwide Monitoring, 21 June, 2011; It is the President's Turn Now, Javan, 16 May 2011, trans. BBC
Worldwide Monitoring, 20 May 2011.