The latest from Ahmadinejad

In his latest blast at the United States, one that will receive far too little attention, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the United States this week of trying to block the return of the “Hidden Imam” (or “Mahdi”), the messianic figure of Shia Islam who supposedly will bring Islamic justice to the world.

Referring to America’s recent military actions in and around the Middle East, Ahmadinejad said in a speech in Isfahan that “their motive… that they did not make public is that they know that there will come a day when a man descended from Prophet Mohammed, may peace be upon him, will appear in this region and he will eliminate all the wrong-doers in the world,” according to a report in Asharq Al-Awsat, the pan-Arab daily newspaper. “Iran,” he went on to say, “has the documents to prove it.”

To be sure, this was not the first instance of what Tariq Alhomayed, Asharq Al-Awsat’s editor in chief, called Ahmadinejad’s “political hallucination” – or his hallucination of any kind for that matter.

After his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in late 2005, Ahmadinejad was caught on tape telling a cleric, “I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed, and for 27 to 28 minutes the leaders did not blink. They were astonished…. it had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic.”

What are we to make of these ramblings? This is no academic question, for Ahmadinejad’s blast comes at a time when Washington is seeking a new relationship with Tehran, one that will convince the regime to come clean on its nuclear activities and abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weaponry.

Western experts tend to interpret such remarks from Ahmadinejad in one of three ways. Some think he believes what he says, just as Adolf Hitler acted upon what he had written in his autobiographical tome, Mein Kampf, years before taking power.  Others view Ahmadinejad as a wily politician who employs an anti-American narrative to rally public support behind an unpopular regime. Still others do not take Ahmadinejad seriously at all, saying that true power in Iran resides with the Supreme Leader and other forces.

None of these interpretations is particularly reassuring. Nor do any of them suggest that U.S. outreach will succeed.  Consider:

Interpretation #1: Ahmadinejad means what he says. 

If so, the storm clouds are gathering. Publicly and privately, Ahmadinejad speaks often and with great enthusiasm about the Mahdi’s return. With tutoring from radical Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad apparently believes that a violent confrontation between Iran and the West not only will be a harbinger of the Mahdi’s return, but that it also can speed up his date of arrival.

The implications are mind-boggling. To date, neither global condemnation nor financial sanctions has slowed Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry, and Tehran has reacted to the West’s latest pressure with stepped-up derision.

Israel, the subject of Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats of obliteration, is taking no chances.  As it makes clear for all to see, it is preparing for a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities that could come within months.

If Ahmadinejad means what he says, if he fully subscribes to a radical religious theology that promises better days ahead for the world, no cajoling from the United States (a.k.a. “the Great Satan”) will convince him otherwise.

Interpretation #2: Ahmadinejad is engaging in political rhetoric. 

Setting aside his religious beliefs for a moment, the Iranian president could be blaming all of the nation’s ills (e.g., a sinking economy, continuing demonstrations against the regime) on the United States for political reasons.

That is, heading a government that’s suffering a severe crisis of legitimacy after recent fraudulent elections gave him a second term in office, Ahmadinejad may be trying to divert attention from Iran’s domestic disarray and rally his constituents around a platform of confronting the nation’s enemies.

If so, then, once again, no cajoling from Washington will convince Tehran to mend its ways. Ahmadinejad and his colleagues will not abandon the only tool at their disposal to fortify their grassroots support.

Interpretation #3: Ahmadinejad does not matter. 

Clearly, Ahmadinejad is no one-man band. Ultimate power in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while former President Hashemi Rafsanjani heads an important competing power center.

But it was Khamenei who sought to end the post-election protests by certifying Ahmadinejad’s victory. If the Supreme Leader has the supreme power, then, by definition, the president is carrying out his wishes. That’s hardly reassuring.

Moreover, Khamenei shows no signs of re-thinking his own adamant anti-Americanism. He reportedly responded icily to a private letter from Obama, and his public rhetoric remains as hot as ever.

In the end, Washington can interpret Ahmadinejad’s bluster any way it wants. No interpretation, however, raises the prospect that Washington’s outreach to Tehran will bear the fruit that it seeks.

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