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A Particular Madness
Understanding Iran's Ahmadinejad.


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David Pryce-Jones

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 8, 2006, issue of National Review.

Elected less than a year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a president unlike any other. He is doing his utmost to alienate the entire West, mobilizing as much military technology as possible, and now enriching uranium in quantities apparently enough for hundreds of nuclear warheads. “This is the result of the Iranian nation’s resistance,” he boasts, and the work of “young scientists,” adding that the nation does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals, but “relies on the sublime beliefs that lie within the Iranian and Islamic culture.” Far from deterring him, the prospect of war, and perhaps Armageddon, is an encouragement. Those who live in democracies have become unwilling or unable to fathom anyone gambling with peace in this way–it took years to realize that Hitler and Stalin meant what they said. A huge leap of the imagination is now required to take the measure of Ahmadinejad.

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The son of a blacksmith, he grew up in the provinces, and owes his career exclusively to the Islamic revolution and membership in the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary body responsible for the regime’s security, the equivalent of the KGB or the SS. Personally he seems honest, a rare quality in Iran where corruption rules, among the clerics especially. At any rate, the ayatollahs parachuted him into the presidency to do their bidding, rather as Boris Yeltsin once promoted the then unknown Vladimir Putin. The analogy is not quite exact, since in Iran power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president has the subsidiary role of ensuring the governing doctrine that “any action that weakens the sacred Islamic republic is not permissible.”

To someone of such limited background and experience, the outside world is an unknown quantity. Ahmadinejad’s religious beliefs are no doubt as sincere as they are narrow, and they prompt regular pronouncements in a messianic style: “The wave of the Islamist revolution will soon reach the entire world.” Or again, “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi.” In the middle of the 10th century, this imam went into hiding, supposedly in a well in Jamkaran, south of Tehran, but it is an article of Shiite faith that he will return and herald the End of Days. Ahmadinejad and his cabinet signed a petition to the hidden imam, proceeded to Jamkaran, and threw it down the well for his attention. Similarly unself-conscious, he claimed that while speaking at the United Nations “I became surrounded by a green light,” so that for 27 to 28 minutes all the attentive listeners did not blink–the chronological exactitude is a touch a thriller writer might envy. And he closed that speech by urging God to “hasten the emergence of Your last repository, the Promised One, that perfect and pure human being, the one who will fill the world with justice and peace.”

History has produced in Iran a volatile compound of self-regarding nationalism and religiosity, a superiority complex that switches easily into its opposite of inferiority and martyrdom. . . .

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