With negotiations over Iran's nuclear program looming once again, understanding Iran's newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is critically important. Perhaps the best place to start is with the moment the world first gained a glimpse of Ahmadinejad's character and hard-line program.
When Ahmadinejad addressed the UN in New York last September, he suddenly felt himself to be surrounded by light. It was not the stage lighting, he said. It was light from heaven.
Ahmadinejad related his otherworldly experience in a videotaped meeting with a prominent ayatollah in Tehran.
A transcript of his comments and sections of the videotape wound up on the hard-line, pro-Iranian regime Web site baztab.com. According to the transcript, Ahmadinejad said that a member of his entourage at the UN meeting first told him about the light.
"When you began with the words `in the name of God' ... I saw a light coming, surrounding you and protecting you to the end [of the speech]," Ahmadinejad quoted the delegation member as saying.
The Iranian President confirmed that he sensed a similar presence.
"I felt it myself, too, that suddenly the atmosphere changed and for 27 to 28 minutes the leaders could not blink ... They had their eyes and ears open for the message from the Islamic Republic," the Web site reported him as telling Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli.
Ahmadinejad's "vision" at the UN could be dismissed as political posturing if it wasn't for a string of similar statements and actions that suggest Ahmadinejad believes that he is destined to bring about the "End Times" -- the end of the world -- by paving the way for the return of the Shia Muslim Messiah.
Given that Iran is suspected of continuing a nuclear weapons program, which could bring the Islamic Republic dangerously close to weapons capability, the presence of a leader with messianic visions is worrying.
After all, this is the same man who recently pledged to use Iran's newfound powers to "wipe Israel off the map" and to "destroy America."
In a Nov. 16 speech in Tehran to senior clerics who had come from throughout Iran to hear him, the new president said that the main mission of his government was to "pave the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi [May God hasten his reappearance]."
The mystical 12th Imam of Shia Islam disappeared as a child in 941 CE, and Shia Muslims have waited for his reappearance ever since, believing that when he returns, he will reign on earth for seven years, before bringing about the Last Judgment and the end of the world.
In order to prepare for the arrival of the Mahdi, Ahmadinejad said, "Iran should turn into a mighty, advanced, and model Islamic society." Iranians should "refrain from leaning toward any Western school of thought" and abstain from "luxurious lives" and other excesses.
Three months into Ahmadinejad's presidency, his views about the 12th Imam are being widely discussed in Tehran.
According to one rumor, as mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad drew up a new city plan for the Imam's return.
In recent weeks, Ahmadinejad's aides have denied another rumor that he ordered his Cabinet to write a pact of loyalty with the 12th Imam and throw it down a well near the holy city of Qom, where some believe the Imam is hiding. Those who give credence to the rumor point to an early decision of his Cabinet to allocate US$17 million to renovate the Jamkaran Mosque, where devotees of the 12th Imam have prayed for centuries.
Similarly, reports in government media outlets in Tehran have quoted Ahmadinejad telling regime officials that the Hidden Imam will reappear in two years. This proved too much for one legislator, Akbar Alami, who publicly questioned Ahmadinejad's judgment, saying that even Islam's holiest figures have never made such claims.
While many Shia Muslims worship the 12th Imam, a formerly secret society of powerful clerics, now openly advising the new president, are transforming these messianic beliefs into government policies. Led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who frequently appears with the Ahmadinejad, the Hojatieh Society is considered by many Shia as the lunatic fringe. During the early years of the Islamic Revolution, even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini found their beliefs too extreme and sent them scurrying underground.
Since assuming office last August, Ahmadinejad has installed Hojatieh devotees in his cabinet and throughout the bureaucracy. The Ministry of Information and Security, largely sidelined by former president Mohammed Khatami, has re-emerged as a powerful repressive force, using plain-clothes agents, allied with paramilitary and non-government vigilantes, to crack down on potential opponents of the regime.
As the world prepares to confront an Iranian regime that continues to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency with its suspected nuclear weapons program, we must listen to what Iran's leaders say and watch what they do. A religious zealot with nuclear weapons provides a dangerous combination that the world cannot afford to tolerate.
Kenneth Timmerman is executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, www.iran.org, and author of Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
Copyright: Project Syndicate