War, then the second coming NZ Herald 19 April 2006


COMMENT: Tehran longs for a clash of civiIisations where nuclear arms will speed the return of the Hidden Imam, writes Amir Taheri


LAST Monday, just before he announced that Iran had gate-crashed "the nuclear club",President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disappeared for several hours. He was having a khaivat (tete-a-tete) with the "Hidden Imam", Muhammad Al-Mahdi, the 12th and last of the imams of Shiism who went into "grand occultation" in 941.


According to Shiite lore, the Imam is a messianic figure who, although in hiding, has been kept alive by God for more than a thousand years and is the true Sovereign of the World.


In every generation, the Imam chooses 36 men (and, for obvious reasons, no women), naming them the owtad, or "nails", whose presence, hammered into mankind's existence prevents the universe from falling.


Although the "nails" are not known to common mortals, it is, at times, possible to identify one thanks to his deeds. It is on that basis that some of Ahmadinejad's more passionate admirers insist that he is a "nail", a claim he has not discouraged.


Last September, as he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, he claimed the "Hidden Imam drenched the place in a sweet light".


Last year, it was after another khaivat that Ahmadinejad announced his intention to stand for president.


Now, he boasts that the Imam gave him the presidency for a single task provoking a "clash of civilisations" in which the Muslim world, led by Iran, takes on the "infidel" West, led by the US, and defeats it in a slow, but prolonged contest - something akin in current military jargon, to a low-intensity asymmetrical war.


In Ahmadinejad's analysis, the rising Islamic "superpower" has decisive advantages over the infidel. Islam has four times as many young men of fighting age as the West, with its ageing populations.


Hundreds of millions of Muslim "ghazis" (holy raiders) are keen to become martyrs while the infidel youths, loving life and fearing death, hate to fight. Islam also has four-fifths of the world's oil reserves, and so controls the lifeblood of the infidel.


More importantly, the US, the only infidel power still capable of fighting, is hated by most other nations.


According to this analysis, spelled out in commentaries by Ahmadinejad's strategic guru, Hassan Abassi, US President George W. Bush is an aberration, an exception to a rule under which all presidents since Truman, when faced with serious setbacks abroad, have "run away".


Iran's current strategy, therefore, is to wait Bush out. And that, by "divine coincidence", corresponds to the time Iran needs to develop its nuclear arsenal thus matching the only advantage that the infidel enjoys.


Moments after Ahmadinejad announced "the atomic miracle" this month, the head of Iran's nuclear project, Ghulamceza Aghazadeh, unveiled plans for manufacturing 54,000 centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for hundreds of nuclear warheads. "We are going into mass production," he boasted.


The Iranian plan is simple: playing the diplomatic game for another two years until Bush becomes a "lame duck", unable to take military action against the mullahs, while continuing to develop nuclear weapons.


Thus do not be surprised if, by the end of the scant few days left of the UN Security Council "deadline" (just over a week), Ahmadinejad reveals a "temporary suspension" of uranium enrichment as a "confidence-building measure".


Also, don't be surprised if some time in June he agrees to ask the Majlis (the Islamic parliament) to consider signing the additional protocols of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.


Such manoeuvres would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency director, Muhammad ElBaradei, and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to congratulate Iran for its "positive gestures" and denounce talk of sanctions, let alone military action.


The ''confidence-building measures" would never amount to anything, but their announcement would be enough to prevent the G8 summit, hosted by Russia in July, from moving against Iran.


While waiting Bush out, Iran is intent on doing all it can to consolidate its gains in the region. Regime changes in Kabul and Baghdad have altered the status quo in the Middle East. While Bush is determined to create a Middle East that is democratic and pro-Western, Ahmadinejad is equally determined that the region should remain Islamic and pro-Iranian.


Iran is now the strongest presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, after the US. It has turned Syria and Lebanon into its outer defences, which means that, for the first time since the 7th century Iran is militarily present on the coast of the Mediterranean.


In a massive political jamboree in Tehran last week, Ahmadinejad also assumed control of the "Jerusalem Cause", which includes annihilating the "dead tree" of Israel "in one storm", while launching a rescue package for the cash starved Hamas led Palestinian Government in the West Bank and Gaza.


Ahmadinejad has also reactivated Iran's network of Shiite organisations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, while resuming contact with Sunni fundamentalist groups in Turkey, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.


From childhood, Shiite boys are told to cultivate two qualities. The first is entezar, to patiently wait for the Imam to return. The second is taajil, the action needed to hasten the return.


For the Imam's return will coincide with an apocalyptic battle between the forces of evil and righteousness, with evil ultimately routed.


If the infidel loses its nuclear advantage, it could be worn down in a long war at the end of which surrender to Islam would appear the least bad of options. And that could be a signal for the Imam to reappear.


At the same time, not to forget the task of hastening the Mahdi's second coming, Ahmadinejad will pursue his provocations. Yesterday, he was as candid as ever "To those who are angry with us, we have one thing to say: Be angry until you die of anger!"


Hassan Abassi, his adviser, is rather more eloquent. "The Americans are impatient," he says. "At the first sight of a setback, they run. We, however, know how to be patient. We have been weaving carpets for thousands of years."




Amir Taheri is a former editor of Kayhan, Iran's largest newspaper.