An Apocalyptic Religious Zealot Takes on the World

This article offers unique insights into this mans life  -- There are many prophetic things to consider in this piece.  I do not feel I am to comment here on what I see in these words.

Iran's mullah-run theocracy is on a seemingly unstoppable course to becoming a nuclear power. The country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a pious zealot with a penchant for visions, is doing his best to provoke the West. Faced with a choice between acceptance and intervention, America and Europe have opted for diplomacy -- for now, that is.

It's only a quarter past eight in the morning, just after the early news, and the radio station is already discussing the apocalypse. Radio Jawan's interviewers are out on the streets questioning a handful of Tehranians about their views on their country's nuclear program. It's a tough issue for commuters in a minibus on the Resalat Expressway, who are stuck in traffic and, like millions of others, listening to the radio.


"So," the reporter asks, "are you for or against nuclear energy?" Views on the issue differ widely, with censorship hardly an issue. "Why do we need this nuclear program?" one interviewee asks in response, "It will only cause problems for us. Don't we have enough trouble in Iran, as it is?" But another respondent disagrees. "Pakistan has nuclear weapons and so do India and Israel. Why shouldn't we?" Yet another respondent is a touch more aggressive: "We have a right to nuclear weapons. They will show the world how strong we are. Look, we've already forced the West to its knees." But then music begins to play and the bus driver adds his opinion to the conversation -- gloomy commentary on an otherwise ordinary Monday morning.

"The end of time is near," he says. It is written, he says, that 50 signs will herald the impending end of the world, and he is convinced that he has already detected 33. The men will dress as women, say the scriptures. "And? Isn't this city sinking into moral decay?" the driver asks. According to another prophecy of doom, the river flowing through the holy city will run dry. "Hasn't the river through Ghom dried up completely?" he asks, as if to affirm the prophecy. And the fact that everyone is talking about the nuclear bomb these days fits perfectly with the bus driver's doomsday scenario. That too, he says, is a sign of "achar-esaman" -- the end of time and the return of the Mahdi, the so-called 12th or hidden imam.

Talk of messianic, apocalyptic visions is becoming increasingly common on the streets of Tehran these days. This phenomenon has, on the one hand, something to do with the fact that it's part of the Shiite worldview. But on the other hand -- and this is what's setting off alarm bells in the West -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is practically promoting such scenarios.

After all, he mentioned the Mahdi, the Promised One, as far back as last September, when he first took to the largest stage in global politics, the podium at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. In his speech before the UN, Ahmadinejad, 49, didn't just take the opportunity to complain about the world's injustices and about countries that have already used nuclear weapons and yet seek to bar others from acquiring them -- creating a system of "nuclear apartheid" in which countries like Iran are at a disadvantage. Before the world's assembled delegates, he also called upon the Almighty "to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being" -- none other than the Mahdi, or Messiah.

Ahmadinejad's words likely instilled an apocalyptic mood of a different ilk in the representatives of the West -- a sense of impending doom.

But instead of subsiding, the West's collective dismay has only grown since Ahmadinejad's UN appearance. This pious fan of the apocalypse is currently making the rounds in his country, giving almost daily speeches that are always triumphant, appearances in which Ahmadinejad is always surrounded by religious dignitaries, high-ranking officers and national symbols, and in which the president's words always meet with enthusiastic applause from carefully vetted audiences. He tells his supporters that "through the grace of God the Almighty, and thanks to the efforts of our scientists, we have mastered the nuclear cycle." He says that "our people have spoken out in favor of (nuclear energy) again and again," he asserts Iran's right to join the club of nuclear powers and reports that its efforts have born fruit.

He speaks as if in a trance, like a man filled with a divine spirit, like a prophet. He strikes up a great cry of triumph, a cry into which he immerses himself again and again and in which he conjures up a great confrontation, be it with Israel, which he insists must be "wiped off the map," or be it with America and all other enemies of Iran, whose "hands must be severed." In Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, the nations of the West have become nothing but "aging lions with matted fur and rotting manes."

Where is this going? Is Ahmadinejad, the apocalyptic who believes in the coming of the Mahdi, eager to bring about the great clash -- Armageddon? Or is he merely the bluffing president of a country that isn't nearly as far along on the nuclear stage as he claims?

Conditions in Iran are already nightmarish, a blend of the sermons of hate and efforts to develop the Bomb, a weapon this state, all denials to the contrary, clearly seeks to possess. Iran poses a far greater threat than nuclear powers Pakistan or India because the mullah-dominated state brings together a far-reaching Islamist ideology and an image of the enemy -- that of the Great Satan, the United States, and a smaller Satan, Israel (The write skips here that this man has said the same of the US and the EU also) -- all the while promoting a calculated anti-Semitism aimed at building Islamic solidarity in the Arab world.

Iran is also far more dangerous than Iraq or North Korea. The theocracy stands a good chance of successfully building weapons of mass destruction. The kind of weapons that, in a figment of Western imagination, Saddam Hussein had supposedly come close to obtaining. Moreover, Ahmadinejad's realm is no starving, poverty-stricken North Korea. Instead, the country possesses a diversified military system that includes both an arsenal of conventional weapons and control over terrorist groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

Iran has considerable economic strength and, as Ahmadinejad claims, it "possesses the necessary means to defend itself." Indeed, Ahmadinejad is so confident in Iran's military prowess and economic might that he has not hesitated to threaten that "those who use harsh and illegal language against Iran need relations with Iran 10 times more than we need relations with them." Besides suggesting that Iran could bring home the oil billions it has invested abroad, his comments are clearly aimed at the industrialized world's energy supply.

Iran is in fact one of the leading players in the international energy game. It has the world's third-largest petroleum reserves and its second-largest stores of natural gas. Iran's mullahs see the jump in the price of oil caused by the brewing crisis over the country's nuclear program as proof positive of their global leverage.

The implicit question behind the growing nuclear conflict of the past few months is this: If all diplomatic efforts to put a stop to an Iranian Bomb fail, will there be an American or Israeli military strike?

Or, if Iran indeed manages to become a nuclear power, will nuclear weapons in the Middle East have the same deterrent effect as they did in Europe after World War II? Could deterrence work in the Middle East? Are nuclear weapons truly political weapons whose purpose lies in their possession, not in their use? Almost as if to validate this theory, the US government has consulted leading Middle East experts on the question of whether nuclear deterrence could work with Iran's mullahs.

If a level-headed regime were at the controls in Tehran, it would be easier to believe that that would be the case. But Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is characterized by a foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Israel -- wouldn't he be more likely to use the Bomb? And just who is this man? Until last year, he was unknown to Western diplomats. As mayor of Tehran, a city of 12 million, he hardly seemed worth the attention of those same diplomats or even his own dossier.

Ahmadinejad is a short, slow-moving man. He has a penchant for inexpensive beige-colored jackets and never wears a tie, which he sees as a sign of Western decadence. His hair is always carefully combed and he generally wears a three-day beard. These are all signs of modesty and simplicity, carefully orchestrated to differentiate Ahmadinejad from the country's elegant mullahs in their turbans, sand-colored suits and black robes.

And despite the fact that, in his political appearances, he clearly intends to come across as a spokesman for the entire Islamic world -- as a spiritual leader, or imam, for the entire religion, and as a Grand Ayatollah in the style of former Iranian leader and father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini -- and not just the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad is no Islamic religious scholar. And although he is said to enjoy intense debate in small circles, he is no intellectual.

Making enemies in no time at all

He was long underestimated -- far too long -- and now he is doing his utmost, clearly with relish, to ensure that the world gets to know the new Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has only recently embarked on trips abroad, including visits to Syria and Indonesia. He bases his understanding of the world and what it needs on his religious convictions and his engineering knowledge, and he is apparently convinced that the time has now come to send missives out into the world. His condescending, 18- page letter to US President George W. Bush was just the beginning. A letter to Pope Benedict XVI is said to be in the works, and Ahmadinejad has told SPIEGEL that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be the next world leader to receive one of his communications.

In office for less than a year, Ahmadinejad has already transformed himself into a pivotal figure on the world stage. He speaks as if Iran were already the world power he intends it to become. He tells the Jews that they have no right to be in Palestine. He tells the Germans that there is no historical proof that the Holocaust ever took place, while at the same time proposing that the Israelis be resettled on German soil. He preaches to US President George W. Bush about Christianity and the fiasco in Iraq, and he informs America -- and essentially the entire West -- that its concept of democracy and liberalism has failed.

Compromise has no place in this worldview, one in which compromise is a show of weakness. Iran is devoid of any constructive proposals to bring peace to the Middle East. Ahmadinejad issues demands and refuses to negotiate. He has a high opinion of himself and of Iran.

Recently, Khamenei inadvertently bolstered Ahmadinejad's position in a minor but highly symbolic issue. In an attention-grabbing soccer match between two female teams, one from Tehran and the other from Berlin, the Iranian players were -- of course -- covered from head to toe. Shortly after the match the president, an avid and apparently decent soccer player himself, suggested that perhaps women ought to be allowed entry to soccer stadiums -- as spectators -- in the future.

In a country as deeply conservative as Iran, where women are routinely treated as second-class citizens, such an innovation is essentially inconceivable. As such, Ahmadinejad's suggestion was perceived as an aggressive effort on the part of the president to provoke the ayatollahs, who intervened and made it clear to Ahmadinejad that he should withdraw his recommendation. It was only then that the president decided to back off. The controversy ultimately enhanced Ahmadinejad's position, reinforcing his carefully cultivated image of the unorthodox revolutionary and innovator.

The fact that Ahmadinejad appears willing to butt heads with the "fat cats," as Iran's established mullahs are called, has only helped his approval ratings. It seems abundantly clear that Ahmadinejad is consolidating power, albeit in a power structure that is as diffused as it is confusing.

Part of the lack of transparency in Iran's power structure stems from its many competing factions, both secular and religious. In this odd amalgam of rival religious scholars, militias and technocrats, the president is meant to serve as the establishment's political representative. Ahmadinejad owes his election victory to Khamenei, who instructed the Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, and their counterparts within the religious militias, the Bassij, to vote for this eccentric, self-declared saint. But the president has chosen to be neither grateful nor obedient, recognizing no one but his idol, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as his true authority. He has embarked on his own path, essentially creating his own biography and deriving the strength for his own global mission from it.

On the rare occasions when he has revealed aspects of his personal life, Ahmadinejad has portrayed his family as being not particularly God-fearing, but instead a highly average product of South Tehran. His wife, who, naturally, is not permitted to appear in public, studied engineering and education and works as a teacher. His daughter and eldest son are enrolled in electrical engineering and construction programs at the university, while Ahmadinejad's youngest son has just completed high school and has yet to decide on a future course of study.

Almost as if he were nothing but an ordinary father with ordinary worries, the president complains about high telephone bills brought on by his children spending too much time surfing the net. He fiercely rejects as slanderous the rumors that he is as stubborn as he is hot-tempered, as well as persistent gossip over his supposedly poor personal hygiene. Though adept at playing the part of the Muslim everyman, Ahmadinejad's gestures of contriteness, his show of loyally kissing the hand of revolutionary leader Khamenei after winning the presidential election in June -- something his predecessors never did -- have done little to conceal his religious zeal and political fanaticism.

Ahmadinejad firmly believes that he has divine Providence to thank for his journey to his current high-ranking position. " Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen," he announced upon winning the election. "if God wills," he added, this revolution will "cut off the roots of injustice in the world."

His speeches -- sermons, really -- are characterized by the powerful oratorical style of Khomeini, a man he appears obsessed to imitate. Ahmadinejad is adept at drawing on the rhetoric of Iran's sinister former leader, both in proclaiming that he aims to "wipe Israel off the map" and in taking the stance that, as president and social revolutionary, he intends to fill the "plates of the poor" with profits from the country's oil exports. "The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny and injustice has reached its end," he told his supporters, as if he were a reincarnation of the man who brought down the Shah. One of his first official acts was to visit Khomeini's mausoleum in southern Tehran to offer a prayer of thanks.

Fellow students at the Daneshmand School, which Ahmadinejad attended in the 1970s, remember him as acutely ambitious. The private school in eastern Tehran, with roughly 500 students, was considered one of the city's better educational institutions, hence its high tuition fees.

But Mahmoud's tuition fees did not impose a financial on the Ahmadinejad family. The father, described as a "simple blacksmith" from the country in the president's official hagiography, had also acquired a small metalworking business which, thanks to Iran's oil boom, became a highly profitable enterprise through major construction contracts.

"No, the family wasn't poor, just simple and uneducated," says a former classmate who now lives in exile in the West. He adds that Ahmadinejad was already odd in those days, that he was "cold, even aggressive toward other students."

Nevertheless, this outsider status did not adversely affect the 17-year-old's academic performance. "He was one of the five best students in the class," the former classmate recalls. Ahmadinejad, who also attended a special language school in the afternoons, was well ahead of his classmates in the subject of English. "He liked to brag about his better grades and about the fact that he could speak English properly. But it's true that he was well ahead of the class when it came to English."

Ahmadinejad already developed a reputation as a religious zealot as an engineering student at Tehran's Elm-o-Sanaat University. He also proved to be a brilliant organizer when the fever of revolution came to Tehran, and he was one of the founding members of the Islamic Students Association at his university.

Launching a political career

Ahmadinejad launched his political career in 1979, when he was named his university's representative to the "Office for Strengthening of Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries." Officially the organization, under the leadership of radical Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, who had run the Hamburg Islamic Center and was one of Khomeini's close confidantes, served as liaison between the universities and the most influential theological seminaries.

In reality, the members of the office quickly developed a reputation for forcibly promoting Islamization in the country's universities. Fellow students with diverging political views, such as those in favor of a democratic state, soon came to fear Ahmadinejad and his group, because of their penchant for using clubs to back up their arguments.

The number of victims of this bloody Islamic cultural revolution numbered about 25,000 at universities alone. To prevent further violent excesses, Iran's universities were ultimately closed for three years.

A few months later, Ahmadinejad demonstrated that he was also willing to put his life on the line for the revolution. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in September 1982, he promptly enlisted in the Pasdaran. He spent the next nine years as a member of the theocracy's elite force, a period that to this days counts as one of the darkest episodes in the president's life.

According to statements made -- though not substantiated -- by members of the exiled opposition, the revolutionary fanatic made a name for himself as an interrogation specialist and torture expert in the Pasdaran's internal security division. The exiles claim that Ahmadinejad earned the nickname "1,000 Bullet Man" during his stint at the notorious Evin Prison outside Tehran, where countless opponents of the Khomeini regime were put to death.

Beginning in 1986, Ahmadinejad apparently received what amounted to terrorist training when he was reassigned to a special unit at the Ramadan garrison near the western Iranian city of Kermanshah. Ramadan was officially a supply outpost for troops fighting on the Iraqi front, and the president himself claims that his role in the war was that of a logistics specialist. But many soldiers at Ramadan specialized in missions behind enemy lines, including terrorist attacks in Iraq, as well as the assassination of Khomeini's enemies in Western Europe.

While Ahmadinejad has apparently reported with some satisfaction on his involvement in operations in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, he claims to have had nothing to do with missions against enemies of the theocracy on European soil. But these missions were precisely the specialty of the Kuds (Jerusalem) unit he later commanded.

Following the Iran-Iraq War, Ahmadinejad began a career as a government bureaucrat. During the Rafsanjani administration, Ahmadinejad, who had since earned a doctorate in transportation planning, served as vice-governor and governor of the provincial cities of Maku and Khoy near Iran's border with Azerbaijan. In 1993, Ali Larijani, then the Minister of Islamic Leadership and today Iran's chief negotiator in its nuclear standoff with the West, appointed Ahmadinejad to his team of advisors. A few months later, he was made governor of Ardebil Province on the Turkish border, where he would likely still be serving as the government's moral policeman today if reformist President Mohammad Khatami hadn't forced the inconvenient radical out of office following his 1997 landslide victory.

Paving the way for a second Islamic revolution

Ahmadinejad returned to Tehran, where he took a position as an assistant professor of urban and transportation planning at his alma mater. He was also instrumental in organizing the resurgence of the Iranian Hezbollah, a group of thugs and informants who had developed a notorious reputation for brutality in the Khomeini years but were later marginalized.

Ever the fanatic, Ahmadinejad drew on his undisputed organizational talents and co-founded the "Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution," a group that quickly turned into a catchall for hardliners. He then focused his efforts on exacting revenge on the reformers and seized his opportunity in the 2003 communal elections, when he was elected mayor of Tehran. His two years in office provided a taste of the direction into which the president now appears to be attempting to lead the entire country: into a second Islamic revolution.

The pious mayor promptly embarked on a series of major symbolic acts. With an eye toward his constituents in poor urban neighborhoods, he declared war on corruption and excesses within the upper class. To set an example, he sold his official residence and earmarked the proceeds for the construction of low-income housing and the distribution of hot meals in the city's slums.

Ahmadinejad, (in those days) often disguised as a garbage collector, set out on a campaign to uncover mismanagement and corruption. In his campaign for president, he characterized himself as "Iran's little servant and street sweeper," but also as a man for whom mercy was not an option. He let it be known that if he had his way, he would publicly hack off the hands of corrupt government officials.

He also proposed special programs for Iran's millions of war injured and the families of those who had fallen in the Iran-Iraq War, announcing that he planned to erect a memorial to each martyr on the capital's major squares. He used a memorial in front of the German embassy in Tehran to draw attention to German involvement in Iraqi poison gas production.

Most of all, however, the mayor persecuted his liberal opponents wherever they had enjoyed some influence within the city administration. He used the Pasdaran and the Bassij to shut down cultural centers and the fast-food restaurants frequented by Iran's youth, which he decried as "hotbeds of immorality."

During the month-long Ramadan fast, he ordered art galleries converted into prayer rooms. He fired reform-minded editors and ordered male employees in the city's administration to wear long-sleeved shirts, even during Tehran's unbearably hot summers. And because he saw soccer player David Beckham's shorts as a violation of morality, he ordered the removal of all advertisements depicting the star.

Reformers quickly derided Ahmadinejad as an "Iranian Taliban fighter" and amused themselves over his Stone Age version of Islam. But Ahmadinejad, who is now able to continue as president where he left off as mayor, has clearly had the last laugh.

As a sign of modesty, the new president had costly carpets removed from his office and banned the display of his likeness in government offices. Claiming that aristocrats have no place in his administration, he turned over the former Shah's opulent Saadabad Palace to the people. Eschewing expensive cars, he has himself driven to Friday prayers in an old Japanese SUV.

In a departure from his early days as president, Ahmadinejad no longer stands alone in fighting his battles. He has created a powerful Ahmadinejad generation, filling key ministerial positions with war veterans and revolutionary guards and giving a new face to the mullah state. While the oligarchy of religious scholars remains as unpopular as ever, the Pasdaran, once considered the clerics' proprietary military force, are now assuming power on their own. Indeed, more than two-thirds of cabinet members are linked to the Pasdaran. The Pasdaran -- and the Bassij -- have remained the Islamic Republic's most loyal defenders, but for differing reasons. Some are ideologically motivated in supporting Ahmadinejad, while others are pursuing their own ambitions, hoping to gain access to the spoils of power within the upper reaches of government. Indeed, the Pasdaran already control a network of the country's major corporations.