Iran’s False Prophet
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran is a visionary of sorts: He has predicted the destruction of Israel and a mass conversion of Americans to Islam, as well as uncovered that “American hands” orchestrated the September 11, 2001, attacks – more commonly attributed to Al Qaeda.
Another of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visions is apocalyptic in nature.
He speaks of the return to Earth during his presidential term of Shiite Islam’s 12th imam. Sometime during the next two years, the holy man will oversee the end of the world from the center of Shiite theology, Qom, Iran, according to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Indeed, Shiite scriptures predict a homecoming for the “hidden imam” who ascended to heaven at age 5.While some Shiites read the religious texts literally, just as some Christians believe the Messiah will preside over Armageddon, the vast majority of the world’s 110 million Shiites accept the imam tale as mythology.
Not Mr. Ahmadinejad. Last year, after addressing the United Nations, he asserted that for about 20 minutes, he felt the presence of the hidden imam over the East River. To prepare for his arrival, Mr. Ahmadinejad has launched a complete overhaul of the holy city of Qom, building roads and erecting hotels at tremendous expense.
If intelligence organizations are doing their work on the ground, their agents ought to be reporting back to Washington, Paris, London, Moscow, Berlin, and Beijing that most Iranians think their president is a rather simpleminded fanatic, not someone to be taken seriously. Citizens likely would say that Qom, a grand city of mosques, religious institutes, and learned men, is due for renovation work, but that its elder statesmen agree that Mr. Ahmadinejad is nuts.
The intelligence gatherers should also be conveying that those cunning Grand Ayatollahs – while silent for the moment – are not at all amused by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s shenanigans. As with his predecessor, Mohammed Khatemi, a man intensely disliked by the ayatollahs, their strategy is to give the president a rope with which to hang himself.
I hope this time around, unlike with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Western strategists will undermine the Iranian leader from within, disregarding his saber-rattling. Talk of attacking Iran is letting loose a bull in a china shop.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is a joke who should not be legitimized by attacks from the West. Policy leaders might do well to take a cue from Iran’s wise men and let him twist in the wind.
I have spent enough time in Iran to know not to rush to judgment. The country is not on the verge of military action, even though its government is working to acquire nuclear technologies. Mr. Ahmadinejad may be unbalanced, but his elders are not. They recognize that their whole country will be destroyed if they ever use, or almost use, a weapon of mass destruction.
Instead, Iran likes to negotiate, extract, blackmail. It will fight only when absolutely necessary, as when Saddam attacked in 1980. When checkmated, Iran caves.
I lived there as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times before, during, and after the revolution of 1979 and have visited at least 20 times since. It is a complicated kaleidoscope of opinions, centers of power, and varying views that, collectively, stand beyond the ability of any one party to control. Although the Mullahs have ruled for 25 years, they do not own Iran. A country with 5,000 years of civilization does not succumb so easily.
It is a great country of 70 million, a font of empires and huge civilizations. A closer look will reveal a citizenry far more eager to go forward with economic development than follow Mr. Ahmadinejad to any war, especially one against America or Israel. The Grand Ayatollahs know Iran would not stand a chance in any nuclear confrontation, but they would like to milk the tension for all it is worth.
Instead of saber-rattling, now is a time to divide and conquer.
Iran wants to be recognized as a power in the Persian Gulf, which it already is. In return, the Grand Ayatollahs would gladly serve up Mr. Ahmadinejad for dessert.
American, Israeli, and European policy makers should help them make the move.