Friday, January 05, 2007
The Iranian who wants an Apocalypse
By Michael Burleigh UK Times Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 05/01/2007 One person we will be hearing much about in 2007 will be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's the hollow-eyed engineer and town planner (and former Revolutionary Guard) who in 2005 went from being Teheran's answer to Ken Livingstone to President of Iran. He's the fellow stringing along the international community while his scientists try to manufacture a nuclear bomb before America or Israel decides to degrade or destroy key experimental sites. He says appalling things with demented glee in his eyes. According to today's Spectator, Ahmadinejad may actually welcome such an attack, since this will "justify" a retaliatory strike against Israel with nuclear weapons acquired from the former Soviet Union. Certainly, Iran's dark role in arming Hizbollah, and even darker machinations in Iraq, suggest an almost wilful disregard for consequences. Who is Ahmadinejad? In some respects, he resembles those with whom he consorts to ramble on about American imperialism and the wretched of the earth: Hugo Chávez, Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro. Actually, Ahmadinejad is subtly different: you have to grasp a fusion of apocalyptic piety and politics to get what he is about.Among the lesser-known godfathers of the 1979 Iranian Revolution was the French educated Ali Sharati, who died of a heart attack two years before Khomeni came to power. Sharati's story reminds us of the extent to which various "indigenous" radicalisms are indebted to intellectual contaminants from Western academe.Just as Pol Pot was a product of academic craziness imbibed at the Sorbonne, so Sharati was much taken with how Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre tried to revive Marxism through talk of cathartic revolutionary violence and the return to the supposed purity of the pre-modern collective. Sharati incorporated these worldly concerns with the Shia longing for the return of the Twelfth Hidden Imam, who departed this earth in 874. The one cleric not to denounce Sharati as a heretic was Khomeni, himself responsible for the slogan "Islam is politics". Ahmadinejad is unique, not because of his pronouncements about Israel, which he wishes wiped off the face of the earth, but because he actively seeks to bring about an apocalyptic struggle between the righteous and the wicked to accelerate the return of the mahdi or Hidden Imam. One might think that the prospect of US or Israeli bombs raining down on Iran might sober this visionary. That would be a mistake. Khomeni actually incited war with Iraq in 1980, rejecting Saddam's offers of an armistice two years later. During the eight-year war, an enormous militia, called the Basij, was created under the aegis of the Revolutionary Guard. Boys aged 12 to 17 were dispatched against the Iraqi army, each armed with a plastic key to paradise, manufactured in bulk in Taiwan. A ghostly pale rider occasionally appeared, whose phosphorous-painted face was supposed to be that of the Hidden Imam, to urge these suicide waves on. Mowing these children down — and perhaps as many as 100,000 were killed — was so traumatic that even battle-hardened Iraqi veterans declined to fire. No Western-style commissions of inquiry have investigated these state-decreed mass suicides between 1980 and 1988. Instead, the Basji are celebrated, with the countenance of one 15-year-old suicide, who detonated himself against an Iraqi tank, evident in the watermark of 500 Rial bank notes. The Basji have become part of Iran's morality police, poking into cars to sniff out drinkers or women wearing cosmetics, and this time last year cutting off the tongue of Massoud Osanlou, a bus driver who led a transport strike. These youths have also been recruited into a putative army of 54,000 potential suicide bombers, or into university science faculties to bolster Iran's "national security". If Ahmadinejad and the Basji represent the apocalyptic strain in the Iranian Revolution, what of the so-called moderates, such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani? Unfortunately, when Ahmadinejad uttered his nuclear threats against Israel, Rafsanjani remarked, "The application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damage in the Muslim world", although he forbore to mention that the desired fate of Israel would be shared by much of Jordan, southern Lebanon and, above all, the Palestinians about whose plight Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani are wont to emote. How the West responds to these threats is an unavoidable question. It is likely that, within 12 months, Iran's technicians will complete the nuclear cycle needed to produce weapons grade uranium. There are slight grounds for optimism. Because of Iran's Byzantine dual politico-religious power structures, Ahmadinejad is not in the same position as a Hitler or Saddam. Maybe wiser counsels will draw Iran back from the brink, if only because it would be a casualty of any war. That is why there is some point in exhausting every avenue of Western diplomacy. Given the lies told about WMD and Iraq, it may be that diplomacy will have to continue until Iran has tested a nuclear device, but before it achieves "weaponisation". That calculation excludes the possibility of Iran supplying terrorist organisations with materials to construct a "dirty bomb". There is widespread resentment among Iranian students about the regime's interference in university life, many of the protests focused on Ahmadinejad himself. Many middle-class Iranians are fed up with having their tastes for whisky or satellite television curbed by interfering clerics, in a country that, despite the morality police, has two million heroin addicts. So far the international community has passed "lite" sanctions, although whether these will deter German or Russian businessmen remains debateable. Stepped-up sanctions could deprive Iran of credit or damage Iran's already creaking oil refining capacity. Meanwhile, American warships will converge on the Persian Gulf while Israeli submarines practise firing missiles powerful enough to penetrate bunkers buried hundreds of feet underground. One person will have brought the world to that epochal pass: the serenely smiling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.