Divided Iran on the Eve
Since the later 1990s the Jamkaran mosque near Qom in Iran has become one of the most visited Shi‘ite shrines, rivalling Karbala and Kufa in Iraq as pilgrim destinations. Here, thousands of believers pray for intercessions to their Messiah - the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam - whose return they believe to be imminent. Written petitions are placed in the ‘well of the Lord of the Age’, from which many believe the Imam will emerge to bring about universal justice and peace. Six months after his surprise election to the Iranian presidency in June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted that this momentous eschatological event would occur within two years. With the turmoil in neighbouring Iraq, where Shi‘ites continue to be attacked by Sunni extremists, expectations for the return retain their appeal.
While the Shi‘ite faithful (along with their Jewish and Christian counterparts) are still awaiting their Messiah, the Islamic Republic is investing heavily in the Jamkaran shrine, spending more than half a billion dollars on enlargements that rival those of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with vast interior courtyards and facilities - including offices, research centres, cultural departments, slaughterhouses and soup kitchens - not to mention the farms where Jamkaran raises its meat. In a country where the religious establishment dominates state institutions, Jamkaran’s burgeoning bureaucracy seems set to outstrip that of the longer-established shrine complexes of Mashhad and Qom.
While external observers perceive the struggle in Iran between conservatives and moderates in political terms, the Islamic Republic’s conflicting ideological currents also find expression in the age-old rhetoric of the apocalypse, which originated in the region more than 2,000 years ago. As Abbas Amanat explains in Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi‘ism, the Jamkaran makeover was part of the campaign orchestrated by conservative clerics in Qom against the government of former President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies.
Unlike many academics, Amanat, a professor of history at Yale, is willing to venture into regions outside his speciality of Iranian studies, which makes his book particularly valuable, as it is informed by the knowledge - all too rare among Islamicists - that Islam is one variant in a cluster of religions rather than a subject to be treated on its own. Messianic expectations are fundamental to all the West Asian religions, articulating forces that are both dynamic and dangerous:
The vast number of visitors to Jamkaran demonstrates the resurgence of interest in the Mahdi among Iranians of all classes - including the affluent middle classes in the capital - and the triumph of the Islamic Republic in capitalising on symbols of public piety.
Though these symbols, such as the Jamkaran shrine, are specific to Shi‘ism, their appeal - not to mention their mobilising power - is universal. As Amanat points out, apocalyptic movements have been motors of religious change throughout history. Christian origins are inseparable from the spirit of apocalypticism that consumed the Judao-Hellenistic world in late antiquity. Muhammad’s early mission cannot be explained without reference to the ‘apocalyptic admonitions, the foreseen calamities, and the terror of the Day of Judgement, apparent in the early suras [chapters] of the Qu’ran’. Later examples - to name but a few - include Martin Luther’s call for reform of the Catholic Church, and Sabbatai Zevi’s claim in the seventeenth century to be the Jewish Messiah. The Mormon Church, the most successful of the new American religions, was born in the millennial frenzy that swept through the ‘Burnt-Over District’ of upstate New York in the 1830s. Amanat sees all these as conscious attempts to fulfil messianic visions conceived on the ancient models preserved in Zoroastrian and biblical scriptures.
In a brief but masterful compression of insights gained from readings of the works of Norman Cohn, founding father of millennial studies, and other scholars in the field, Amanat reviews the dynamics of apocalyptic histories. On the positive side, the anticipation of imminent divine judgement can be translated into a message of social justice, with individual choice replacing dogmas handed down by ancestors, tribes or communities. Historically, apocalyptic movements tend to be socially inclusive, appealing in particular to the deprived, marginalised and dispossessed. The negative side is the demonisation of perceived enemies in a world where the People of God - the saved remnant of humanity - see themselves as the sole bearers of divine wisdom or knowledge. The utopian project of realising Paradise - when the Messiah’s followers choose to enact the millennial scenario in real historical time - may be as devastating as the earthquakes, fires, plagues and wars of apocalyptic imaginings.
Amanat’s approach to his subject matter is sometimes daunting. It is clear that he is more comfortable writing for fellow specialists than ordinary readers, which is a pity, because his insights have implications that extend far beyond Shi‘ism, showing how a particular event, such as a massacre or a crucifixion, becomes lodged in the historical memory.
In Twelver Shi‘ism - the majority sect in the minority tradition of Islam - the Messiah is 12th in the line of Imams, or spiritual leaders, descended from Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, whom the Shi‘a believe was cheated of the succession after the Prophet’s death in ce 632. In the Twelver version, the last of these 12 Imams ‘disappeared’ in 874; in the populist myth he is hiding in a cave in Samarra in Iraq awaiting his triumphant return. Shi‘ite devotion centres on the fate of the third Imam, Ali’s younger son, Hussain, who was massacred with his band of loyalist followers on the field of Karbala (in modern Iraq) by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid in 680.
Shi‘ism has for more than 13 centuries oscillated between revolutionary activism and quietist disengagement. In the early Muslim era, Ali’s loyalists (his Shi‘a, or partisans) instigated numerous revolts, challenging and sometimes toppling the military-tribal complexes that came to power in the wake of the Arab conquests. Many of these revolts were conducted in the name of the Mahdi (Messiah) or Qa’im (resurrector), an eschatological figure with more than a passing resemblance to the avenging Christ of the biblical Book of Revelation. The most enduring brought the Turkic Safavid dynasty to power in Iran in 1501, which made Shi‘ism the state religion and created a fusion of Persian and Shi‘a identities. The cult of Hussain’s martyrdom, for example, evokes the theme of mourning for the murder of the Iraj - the primordial hero of Iran.
Having ridden to power on a wave of messianic expectations, the Safavids succeeded in defusing its revolutionary dynamic. In the Imam’s absence, the Shi‘a ‘ulama - religious scholars - exercise spiritual authority on his behalf, lending them an authority and status superior to that of their Sunni counterparts. In the ensuing clergy-state equilibrium, the Hidden Imam was safely relegated to an ever-receding future, with speculations about his return dismissed as unorthodox, even heretical.
Millennial aspirations, however, are liable to escape from the grip of religious establishments, especially when current orthodoxies can be represented as a betrayal of pristine origins. As Amanat explains: ‘In a millennial momentum, common to all apocalyptic trends, a crucial shift occurs from dormant aspiration to keen ambition.’ In Iran this transition was overseen and manipulated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, a sophisticated theologian and consummate political operator. A vigorous opponent of the Shah’s reforms, Khomeini had argued that, in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the clerics should effectively exercise power on his behalf under the aegis of a ‘Guardian Jurist’. His doctrine represented a radical break with the tradition of de facto separation between religion and state that had grown up over previous centuries. The infallibility of the imam must be realised through action. As Amanat puts it:
Khomeini in effect appropriated the function of the Imam to himself though staying short of claiming divine inspiration and infallibility ... He was not merely a ‘vicegerent’ of the Imam, as he theoretically claimed to be, but an imam, as he was universally addressed in the Islamic Republic, an unprecedented honorific exclusively reserved for Shi‘i Imams and not assumed by any Shi‘i figure since the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam in the ninth century.
By taking power so spectacularly, Khomeini shook the traditions of Twelver Shi‘ism to their foundations. The culture fostered by the madrasas (religious seminaries) under the Pahlavis and their Qajar predecessors had been strong in rhetorical skills, but inward-looking theologically. Its hallmark was ‘a fetishistic avoidance and frowning defiance of anything new, novel and unfamiliar’ that appeared to threaten the ‘ulama's power or influence. Instead of finding ways of adjusting their tradition to meet the modern world and its challenges, the Shi‘ite scholars had focused obsessively on recondite issues such as the manner in which prayer may be nullified by ritual pollution. This approach served to foster a spirit of hostility to social and secular reforms enacted by the Pahlavis in areas such as land ownership, education and marriage.
A cliche of Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric is that the United States is the Great Satan bent on destroying the Islamic Republic. While there is a genuine historical grievance over the CIA-sponsored ‘countercoup’ that overthrew the nationalist Mossadegh government in 1953, the anti- Americanism that characterised Khomeini’s writings and still surfaces in Tehran street demonstrations seems closer to psychopathology than rational politics. Such frenzied antagonism, as Amanat suggests, owes more to Zoroastrian dualism than mainstream Qur’anic theology. In the Muslim scripture, Satan (shaytan) is a less than Miltonic figure. He is just one demon among others, who has the role of tempter or ethical tester.
In the Zoroastrian schema, however, eternal conflict rages between supporters of Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and those of the evil Ahriman. The cosmic battle is unending. One of Ahriman’s titles, the Demon of the
Demons, is strikingly comparable to the Great Satan. Unlike the rather docile shaytan of Qur’anic tradition, Ahriman’s scope of operations and powers are immense. Amanat argues that, during the early Islamic centuries, Iranian Shi‘ism absorbed the Zoroastrian view of a world divided between pure believers and polluting infidels, with bodies subject to constant danger. In the folk versions of Shi‘ism that still persist, the human body is subject to all kinds of satanic onslaughts and must constantly be guarded against the enemy’s insidious plots. In a patriarchal social order it is inevitable that women bear the brunt of such guardianship.
Muslims were sometimes shocked when first encountering unveiled females. Their horror was registered by a Persian visitor to Europe in 1838, who, scandalised by the way that women handled ‘unclean’ puppies, decided that women must be using their pets as sex toys: ‘The husbands of such women are very happy and content with this arrangement ... Women are so sexually aggressive in this country that no man, no matter what his potency and skill, can hope to satisfy them.’ The East-West battle over gender is brilliantly described by Janet Afary in her groundbreaking survey, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. As in other patrilineal societies, the woman is the ‘door of entry to the group’. Improper behaviour on her part can expose her community and family to all sorts of hidden dangers. Systems such as these exercise a double standard wherein a woman’s infidelity (but not a man’s) is seen to allow tangible and damaging impurities to infiltrate the family, both physically and morally. A woman’s sexual and reproductive functions turned her body into a contested site of potential and real ritual contamination. The concept of namus (honour) and the need to control women’s chastity may be related to this fear of sexual contamination.
The sexual double standard was effectively institutionalised in all the mainstream Islamic traditions: men were permitted up to four legal wives and the right of divorce by repudiation (talaq). However, in pre-modern Iran (prior to the 1920s), male prerogatives were enhanced by the practice of temporary marriage (sigheh), which was exclusive to Shi‘ism, and by the availability of concubines, which persisted after the formal abolition of slavery at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigheh was a sexual charter for men: the ease with which it was contracted meant that consensual affairs between men (married or unmarried) and single women could hardly ever be labelled as fornication, and therefore be subject to Islamic penalties.
Gender segregation - common to most Islamic societies - contributed to the prevalence of other practices that are rarely discussed in social histories of Islam: boy concubinage and paedophilia. Though liwat or lavat (sodomy) is condemned in the Qur’an (the word alludes to the Old Testament story of Lot), homosexual relationships between older men and boys were tolerated, not least because they posed a lesser threat to the patriarchal order than unregulated heterosexual interactions.
Afary’s book exposes the absurdity of claims by ideologues such as Ali Akbar Natiq-Nuri, a former Iranian minister of the interior and presidential candidate, who blame the West for ‘spreading corruption and obscenity, propagating debauchery and homosexuality’. She provides plenty of evidence to show that the prohibition against liwat was honoured in the breach. Beardless boys, not yet being men, could be ‘penetrated without losing their essential manliness, so long as they did not register pleasure in the act, which would suggest a pathology liable to continue into adulthood’. In a society where beards were de rigueur, the beardless European male was often thought to be an amrad (catamite). Institutionalised pederasty was part of a wider culture in which family security balanced or compensated for the turbulence prevailing in the public domain.
Under the Qajar dynasty, which took power in the 1790s, Iran had a rigidly hierarchical social order, with clearly defined class and ethnic boundaries, a coherent religious establishment, and above all a pattern of family obligations that fostered strong communal identities. Marriage - including child marriage - was nearly universal, with parents choosing spouses for children of both sexes.
The available records can only hint at the sexual culture that flourished in the privacy of homes: ‘Reported crimes were low in a world where girls, boys, and women endured or quietly resisted incest, sexual molestation, and rape.’ Yet, contrary to assumptions about the emancipatory effects of Westernisation, urban women in pre-modern Iran enjoyed a considerable amount of personal freedom. In the 1850s, the wife of Britain’s ambassador observed that women of all classes
enjoy abundance of liberty, more so, I think, than among us.
The complete envelopment of the face and person disguises them effectively from the nearest relatives, and destroying, when convenient, all distinction of rank, gives unrestrained freedom.
Afary points to references in the indigenous literature to pimps and love- brokers, and to the secret affairs of married, divorced or widowed women. In a patriarchal order where honour was defined by women’s conduct, and with sexual transgressions of respectable women being severely punished, it was the veil itself that provided opportunities for resistance.
Afary’s perspective throws useful, if unfamiliar, light on the impact and consequences of the social reforms instituted by Reza Shah Pahlavi - the Cossack Brigadier who rose to supreme power in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. The changes he imposed - European-style dress codes for men that reduced ethnic or religious distinctions, compulsory unveiling for women, and the desegregation of gender, along with measures such as raising the age of marriage to 18 and making improvements in public hygiene - were modelled on the perceived advantages enjoyed by people in the industrialised West. Mired in their medieval fortress mentality, religious leaders resisted adamantly, producing propaganda against vaccination, protesting against the installation of taps in public bathhouses, and forbidding the use of alcohol for sterilisation. The religious establishment instinctively recognised that, in enacting reforms in the realms of hygiene and dress, the state was appropriating their powers as the guardians of purity.
These reforms accelerated divisions that were cultural as well as social. A new middle class, exposed to modern education, comprising less than 10 per cent of the country’s labour force, became increasingly secular in outlook and distant from the dominant religious culture, while the majority - the rural peasantry and the small traders of the urban bazaars - remained attached to the instructions of their mullahs. The outcome may be described as an era of profound psychic discomfort for a majority of Iranians going about their daily lives. Afary concludes:
Modernity instituted a double life for pious Muslims. Outwardly, they behaved as modern citizens of the state, ignoring religious hierarchies and engaging not just in business and trade with women and non-Muslims, as they had always done, but also mingled socially, shaking hands and sharing tea or meals with them. Inwardly, many bazaaris harboured a constant sense of anxiety since they continued to believe that a pious Shi‘i Muslim who ignored the proper rituals of purification after encounters with najes (polluted) individuals had ‘nullified’ his prayers and supplications to God and the Imams.
Initially, Khomeini’s revolution upended the Pahlavi reforms, leading to a drastic reversal in women’s rights. The compulsory hijab (veil) was imposed for women in public, with even slight violations bringing severe punishment (74 lashes or a year’s imprisonment), though since the face was exposed, it no longer gave the advantage of anonymity. Women and men no longer enjoyed equality under the law, with evidence from a man being worth twice that of a woman. Lashing, amputation and stoning have been applied by the courts, with the latter punishment reserved for women convicted of adultery. The courts apply lighter sentences than previously for husbands, fathers and brothers accused of ‘honour killings’. There are even regulations against public displays of affection.
Under Khomeini, child marriage was allowed once more, with the age of marriage being reduced from 18 to nine for girls (revised, after protests, to 13) and 15 for boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive husbands. The husband’s right of unilateral divorce (limited under the Shah’s reforms) was reinstated. New policies encouraged temporary marriage as a ‘morally sanctioned substitute for Western dating’, with trial sigheh marriages recommended for high-school students, and sex workers being invited to enter short-term marriage contracts with returning war veterans.
In sum, Afary suggests that the sexual doctrines instituted by Khomeini vastly increased the authority of men and the state ‘over women’s sexual and reproductive capacities’. This was not a ‘minor side effect of the [revolution]. Rather, it formed an important, though often unspoken, reason for male support or acquiescence in the face of Islamisation’. At the same time, change is moving in the opposite direction. Paradoxically, the revolution released many young women from their family ties, which is why many found it attractive or expedient to join Islamist movements. During the war with Iraq, women were encouraged to enlist in the armed forces, with Khomeini urging women to ‘defend their Islamic and national honour’ and to complete ‘the military, partisan, and guerrilla training appropriate for a resurgent Muslim nation’. Female volunteers reported that years spent on the front, alongside their ‘brother warriors’, were the best in their lives.
Statistics reveal a picture that differs strikingly from the legal texts. Despite the formal reintroduction of child marriage, the mean age of first marriages for young women has continued to rise from around 19 before the revolution to 24 today - with nearly 80 per cent married after the age of 20. The revolution has maintained the momentum of the Shah’s literacy campaigns, with literacy rates greater than 95 per cent for both sexes. With young women from rural families seeing education as the path to economic independence, the majority of college students are now women. ‘Companionate marriage’, with couples freely choosing their partners, is becoming the norm. Modern social forces are universal and, despite its reactionary rhetoric, the Islamic revolution is being carried remorselessly along by them.
Nevertheless, it takes little imagination to see how contradictory psychic currents reflecting concerns over pollution and gender may have fuelled the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Chador-clad women were prominent in street demonstrations in Tehran, in which rituals commemorating the death of Hussain in 680 were taken from the relatively safe domain of
‘sacred time’ and given the urgency of Now! In his jeremiads from within Iran, later from Najaf in Iraq, and finally from his media-friendly chateau in a Paris suburb, Khomeini likened the Shah to the evil Yazid, a figure more akin to Ahriman than the flawed Umayyad caliph of Muslim historiography. Khomeini’s fulminations, however, were more than the barks of an angry mullah. As Ray Takeyh explains in Guardians of the Revolution, his elegant anatomy of Iran’s foreign policy since 1979, the ayatollah’s special genius lay in resisting the trend whereby revolutionary energies usually become dissipated.
Inspired by his success in overthrowing the Shah, Khomeini intended a ‘revolution without borders’ that would impose his Islamist template on Iran’s recalcitrant neighbours. The decadent princes of the Gulf, with their ostentatious lifestyles and sham ‘American Islam’, would be replaced by an ‘authentically Islamic’ popular movement, headed by Khomeini, which would re-politicise Islam. The Islamic aspiration of universal justice under the ‘government of God’ would finally be realised. The rhetoric was inspiring, not least because it masked age-old sectarian and national divisions, in particular the Sunni-Shi‘a divide that, despite the revolution’s provenance, its propaganda underplayed. Not only were neighbouring Shi‘ite communities galvanised - generating dangerous tensions in Iraq, Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shi‘as languished under harsh Sunni rule - so were Islamists in places without Shi‘ite communities, including Algeria and the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia.
The revolution’s outward momentum was blocked by external factors - most notably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which launched an unprovoked attack in 1980, leading to a war that cost as many as a million lives, two- thirds of them Iranian. Takeyh presents Khomeini as a ‘relentless ideologue willing to sacrifice his nation for the sake of his religious speculations’. He waged the war against Iraq apocalyptically, with a badly equipped and appallingly led army, confident that divine support would win over better- trained and better-equipped Iraqi divisions. Having sacrificed a generation of young martyrs to repel the Iraqis, he insisted, against reason and logic, on carrying the war on to Iraqi soil. It was, he said, to be the prelude to the Muslim Armageddon, with the ‘path to Jerusalem passing through Karbala’.
Takeyh argues, chillingly, that it was Saddam’s use of chemical weaponry - abetted, in effect, by the US Reagan administration - that finally punctured the old man’s apocalyptic zeal. Horrified by Saddam’s attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, where, as the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani put it, ‘people fell like autumn leaves’, the regime believed that ‘similar measures’ would be directed at front-line cities such as Tabriz and Kermanshah. Takeyh has no doubts about the outcome.
Saddam’s use of chemical weapons turned the tide of the war, and it was the trauma of this event that underpins Iran’s policy of developing a nuclear capability. Enrichment within the bounds of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty may provide a level of nuclear insurance, since materials developed for such peaceful uses can theoretically be ‘weaponised’ within months. Iran’s policy pre-dates the revolution. It was America’s ally, the Shah, who initiated Iran’s nuclear programme with the assistance of ‘the Washington establishment, which was nurturing the shah’s desire to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf’. Takeyh points out that the Islamic revolution at first viewed the programme as ‘another ploy for making Iran dependent on the West’, and greatly reduced its scope. The eight-year war that spanned the 1980s altered perceptions:
It is impossible to understand Iran’s nuclear calculations without considering its war with Iraq. That conflict shaped the Islamic Republic’s defense doctrine and molded its values and outlook ...
The fact that Saddam had used chemical weapons against Iran with impunity demonstrated that the Western powers’ hostility toward the clerical regime would always overcome their moral compunctions ... The fact that Iran had insufficient retaliatory power and could not protect its citizens from unconventional attacks was critical to its decision to end the war.
Takeyh is blunt in his condemnation of the Reagan administration’s complicity in Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, and especially critical of the opportunities that the Bush administration missed for improving Iran-US relations after the 9/11 attacks. The 1997 election that brought the moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power against the wishes of the clerical elite led by Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, should have demonstrated to Washington that the regime was far from monolithic, even if some of its agencies were engaged in terrorism.
There is no question, however, that the prospects for ‘one of the most intellectually vibrant democratic movements in the Middle East’ were thwarted by a combination of factors. One was Khatami’s personal dislike of confrontation: ‘Despite his deeply held democratic convictions, [he] proved too much a man of the system’ whose ‘penchant for order overwhelmed his desire for change’. Another was the constitutional straitjacket that Khomeini had left behind, giving the members of the conservative- dominated Guardian Council power to block the will of a parliament whose candidates they had already vetted ideologically. But external factors, driven by US policies, were decisive.
George W. Bush’s notorious ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002, linking Iran to its enemy Iraq and the maverick communist republic of North Korea, undermined many of Khatami’s achievements in improving Iran’s international profile, and convinced the hard-liners that the Islamic Republic would become the next target in Bush’s ‘war on terror’. The buildup to the US invasion of Iraq provided them with strong public support. In the local council elections of February 2003 - one month before the invasion - conservatives regained nearly all the seats they had lost in 1999, at the peak of the reformist movement. This was not a rigged poll: unlike the parliamentary and presidential races, candidates for municipal elections are not vetted for ‘Islamic suitability’. The right-wing victory was sealed two years later with Ahmadinejad’s election as president.
This month’s [July 2009] presidential elections will reveal if the New Right, as Takeyh terms the current incumbents, retains its grip on power. Khatami withdrew from the race earlier this year, giving his support to the former prime minister, Mir Hussein Moussavi, who enjoys some conservative support and is thought by many to have a better chance of unseating Ahmadinejad. Moussavi, however, has effectively been out of politics for two decades, and may have difficulty in connecting with younger voters. Ahmedinejad, in contrast, enjoys the advantages of incumbency and is thought - unofficially - to enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council has now approved two other candidates in addition to the front-runners Moussavi and Ahmadinejad: Mehdi Karroubi, former parliamentary speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who is wanted by Interpol for alleged involvement in the July 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died.
It will be a setback for the Supreme Leader if Ahmadinejad does not win the first round on 12 June. Khamenei, it is true, was effectively overruled by the electorate when Khatami won the presidency in both 1997 and 2001. Since 2005, however, the New Right, as Takeyh demonstrates, has consolidated its hold over Iran’s institutions, and the international situation is hardly encouraging for reformers. Despite President Obama’s expressed desire for dialogue, the new right-wing government in Israel regards Iran, with its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, as the principal obstacle to peace, and is seeking to buck the international consensus by deferring - it hopes indefinitely - any ‘two-state solution’ to the Palestinian problem. As one analyst in Tehran put it in an interview with Radio Free Europe, ‘look at the situation in Pakistan and the worsening violence in Iraq. Khamenei doesn’t want to send a pigeon to confront hawks in the region in the next four years’.
Apocalyptic talk by both sides is serving to ratchet up the temperature at a time when the Obama administration is trying to steady people’s nerves. Ahmadinejad’s threat to ‘remove Israel from the map of history’ needs to be taken seriously in light of his recent announcement that Iran had successfully tested a new solid fuel missile with a range of 1,900 kilometres (about 1,200 miles). In a speech doubtless intended to boost his poll ratings, he attributed this latest technological breakthrough to divine intervention and the assistance of the Lord of the Age. Counterthreats from Israel are even more alarming, not least because, unlike Iran, it already has formidable nuclear and conventional capacities. ‘You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview. ‘When the wideeyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.’
Ray Takeyh, a careful analyst, takes a much more sanguine view. It is reassuring that he has now been hired by the State Department, where his knowledge and skills will be invaluable if current diplomatic feelers are to yield positive results. He writes:
Iran’s rulers should not be caricatured as messianic politicians seeking to implement obscure scriptural dictates for ushering in the end of the world through conflict and disorder. As with most leaders, they are interested in staying in power and will recoil from conduct that jeopardises their domain.
With these New Safavids in power, the Hidden Imam will remain in his cave, the apocalypse safely postponed until a new generation arises, hungry for change.
Published in The New York Review of Books, 2 July 2009.
The books reviewed were:_
Janet Afary (2009) Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Abbas Amanat (2009) Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi'ism. London/New York: I.B.Tauris.
Ray Takeyh (2009) Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford UK/ New York: Oxford University Press.