The looming nuclearization of Iran is often analyzed ad hominem, focusing on the personality of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, who is often compared to Hitler in both his dreams of grandeur and his visceral anti-Semitism; or ad rem, emphasizing Iran’s technological achievements and its quest for regional power. However, the nuclearization of Iran must also be discussed in the context of the Islamic Revolution, which was dubbed by Ayatollah Khomeini not merely as a domestic anti-Shah upheaval in Iran, but as a global Islamic movement designed to extricate Islam from its submissive torpor and launch it to prominence as a world power. In this pursuit, Iran has become one of Israel’s most vehement enemies, framing its grievances around religious doctrine and anti-Semitic invective, making conflict with the Jewish state all the more insoluble. Indeed, injecting these elements into an already difficult political situation makes finding solutions seemingly impossible due the absolute demands made by defenders of their faith who refuse to negotiate or compromise.
The Basiji Ideology
To understand why Ahmadinejad has chosen his dangerous path, one must understand his origins. In his youth, the Iranian president was a member of the basij, a radical paramilitary movement built by Khomeini at the onset of the Revolution. Literally translated as “Mobilized Resistance Force,” the basij became a zealous arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) where devotion and sacrifice were the basis of “human wave” surges during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), leading to hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths. Khomeini taught that survival of the fighters was irrelevant; they were participating in a battle for Allah, which was to provide ultimate fulfillment and gratification. Thus, when Ahmadinejad entered public life, first as the mayor of Tehran and then as head of state, he injected basiji irrationality into politics. In the name of revolution, Ahmadinejad seeks to achieve Iranian grandeur via nuclearization, and to fearlessly spread anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, even if leads to war.
Ahmadinejad’s actions and statements also stem from his absolute belief in the coming of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, Shi’ite Islam’s messiah. To this end, his contradictory statements and actions buy him time as the West weighs its limited options. He boasts about his country’s nuclear facilities and its innate right to develop them, but also denies any intent to develop nuclear weapons. All the while, he refuses to allow international controls, or to cease his nuclear effort. He refuses to relent on his plans to wipe Israel off the map, or to submit to world sanctions. Ahmadinejad is persuaded that Western guilt over the Holocaust was what led to the creation of the state of Israel. He therefore believes that denial of the Holocaust and delegitimation of the Jewish state is one step toward its inevitable elimination.
One cannot help but think of the Iranian president’s close parallels to Hitler, who ultimately brought disaster upon the world, his own people, and himself. Ahmadinejad’s blunt anti-Semitism and unabashed anti-Israel views have been overshadowed on the world stage by the threat of an Iranian nuclear program. Just as the West today fears that nuclear weapons in the hands of this irrational leader could lead to a worldwide apocalypse, the West also feared expanded Nazi military aggression so much that it put Hitler’s systematic annihilation of the Jews on the backburner.
Like Hitler, Ahmadinejad has a plan that he pursues doggedly. This includes: strengthening Shi’ite Islam in its confrontation with the Sunni majority in the Muslim world; becoming a regional power equipped with nuclear weapons; eliminating the only other regional power that may stand in Iran’s way – Israel; and using oil money to finance these goals, even at the expense of the welfare of his own people.
Ideology and Praxis
Underlying all of this is Ahmadinejad’s dedication to the ideology of Khomeini’s revolution. Indeed, the Iranian president is committed to exporting the Iranian revolution to other Muslim countries – and not just the Shi’ite nations. He does not seek to accomplish this through talks and diplomacy, economic influence or political arm-twisting. Rather, to reach his goals, he employs a strategy of military growth, intimidation, inflammatory rhetoric, duplicity, terrorism, arms supplies, training, and ideological indoctrination.
Ahmadinejad’s short- and medium-term strategy is the creation of a “Shi’ite Crescent,” stretching from Iran via Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. With the impending American withdrawal from Iraq, the embattled country will almost certainly fall into Tehran’s orbit. Syria is ruled by an Alawi minority whose survival hinges upon Iran’s financial and military support, while the Shi’ites in Lebanon are virtual puppets of the Iranian government. The Iran-backed Hizbullah has been effective in imposing its anti-Western ideology on the rest of Lebanon, and now has a formidable coalition of pro-Iran forces that serve Ahmadinejad’s strategy.
Complementing this strategy is Ahmadinejad’s position that Iran’s Sunni rivals “sold out” to the United States. He assails “moderate” regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and lately even Pakistan, for engaging in talks with Israel. He contends that his Shi’ite alliance remains the only viable force that challenges Israel and defies America. Indeed, he justifies Iran’s cultivation of a nuclear program as a necessary tool in that struggle. Admittedly, Ahmadinejad has made overtures to the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states to allay their fears, but the end result is that the Sunnis are thoroughly fearful of Iran’s growing power.
The Oil Factor
It is with no small amount of irony that Ahmadinejad uses oil money, the lifeblood of his Sunni rivals, to finance his plans to expand Iranian power. His intensified efforts to conclude new energy deals with China, India, and Western Europe, which are thirsty for his oil and gas, could form a permanent bloc of support for the nuclearization of Iran. This strategy has already borne fruit. China and Russia are demonstrably reluctant to enforce tougher sanctions on Iran. The trade exchange prospects in 2007 between Iran and China reached $16 billion, while Russia sees an energy-based relationship with Iran as a means to check American power. President Vladimir Putin’s tenuous alliance with Iran can potentially influence the flow of oil to the West and Japan. This, in turn, could influence policies in the Middle East, and possibly further Iran’s interests and aspirations.
Meanwhile, Iran’s other economic and energy alliances continue to expand. In April 2007, Tehran concluded a $30 billion deal with Austria for the supply of gas to Europe. Iran has further established a joint investment committee with South Korea, expanded economic ties with Turkey, and lured Indian companies to invest $15 billion in Iran. These are all strong indications that Ahmadinejad has created a safety net of international support that could counter American attempts to thwart his nuclear plans.
“Israel must be destroyed”
Ahmadinejad plans to use the Shi’ite Crescent, the bomb, and his deepening ties with resource-hungry nations to eliminate Israel, the only regional power that may stand in his way. Exactly like Hitler, who vowed to extinguish the Jewish race even at the price of causing world destruction, Ahmadinejad regards the elimination of Israel not merely as a political tool, or as a means to revive Islam and spread the message of the Islamic Revolution, but as an imperative. Learning from the lessons of World War II, when few lifted a finger to save the Jews from annihilation, he is persuaded that with enough material incentives he can lure most powers to abandon the Jews once again.
Ahmadinejad’s calculations of the international community are likely on target. Israel will almost certainly not be able to rely on the United Nations for support or assistance in neutralizing the Iranian threat. True, the international body has denied Iran’s right to go nuclear. However, Iran’s repeated threats to “eliminate from the map” the state of Israel, a member of the U.N., have elicited rather neutral responses from other U.N. member states. Few have gone beyond the perfunctory labeling of these statements as “unacceptable.”
To be sure, Jewish communities worldwide have condemned Iran’s threats. A cottage industry of American publications, websites, and think tanks warns of the dangers of Iran. Israel’s foreign ministry is working feverishly to gain understanding allies in a looming confrontation. Even some Arab and Muslim media have criticized Iran’s threats to Israel and Jews because they “inflict damage to the Muslim cause.” As one December 2006 article in the London-based ash-Sharq al-Awsat explains:
“[Ahmadinejad] may have gained some points in his vocal propaganda in the hate-mongering satellite channels, but diplomatically he… also caused severe damage to the Muslims by creating a political-cultural climate in which feelings of hate drown out the Muslims’ noble and humane sentiments…
“Ahmadinejad and his ideological followers are misleading themselves and the media when they say that the [2006 Holocaust denial] conference was held for historical research, and that it put to the test the West’s receptiveness of free speech and academic research… Those evil and despicable figures… Ahmadinejad is using them as a fig leaf to cover up his moral shame, since he wants to wipe Israel off the map…”
Israel’s ultimate security lies in the fact that the United States is committed to its defense, and that the Jewish state wields enough military power to fend for itself. However, Iran’s president is so blinded by his obsession with the elimination of Israel that his spiteful goals could eventually lead to a war that precipitates his own demise. Indeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears intent to embody the basiji adage of self-immolation, which is reminiscent of Samson’s famous biblical quote: “Let my soul die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30). Should the Iranian president continue on his present course, he may yet fulfill that destiny.
Raphael Israeli is professor of Islamic and Chinese History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored numerous books on the Middle East and Islam, including Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology (Frank Cass, 2003) and The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue (Sussex Academic Press, 2004).