Thank goodness for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In five short months, Iran's radical new president has managed to do what legions of policy analysts and intelligence warnings have not: jolt the world awake to the growing global threat posed by an ascendant Iran.
Since taking office on August 4, 2005, Ahmadinejad has unapologetically steered Iran onto an all-too-familiar foreign-policy course. In October, he caused an international furor when, speaking at a major anti-Zionism conference in Tehran, he declared that the state of Israel was a "tumor" that should be "wiped off the map." Undeterred, Ahmadinejad used a subsequent televised address in early December to undertake a debunking of the "myth" of the Holocaust. Most recently, he has launched a rhetorical war on Israel, calling for the "relocation" of the Jewish state from the Middle East to either Canada or Europe.
But Ahmadinejad's animus isn't simply directed toward Israel. To hear Iran's president tell it, a titanic struggle is underway between Islam and the West, and his country is on the front lines. "The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny . . . a historic war between the oppressor [Christians] and the world of Islam," Ahmadinejad has announced.
To American and European ears, this harsh rhetoric certainly seems unsophisticated. But it would be a mistake to write off Iran's radical-in-chief as a political novice. After all, Ahmadinejad is a seasoned strategic operator.
Depending on which account one believes, he was either one of the original student radicals that seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in the opening days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, or one of the men who subsequently interrogated the American hostages in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Thereafter, Ahmadinejad served as a commander in the Pasdaran, the feared clerical army created by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to serve as the "shock troops" of the Islamic Revolution.
He is still very much a believer. Ahead of the June presidential elections that catapulted him to power, Ahmadinejad reportedly took a pilgrimage to Khomeini's tomb, where he publicly declared his devotion to the founder of the Islamic republic. And he has been quick to prove it. In the months since his election, the Iranian president has launched a full-bore offensive against foreign influence and domestic "corruption." Over the past three months, his administration has issued new restrictions on foreign travel for government officials, banned Western music from Iran's radio and television stations, and effectively frozen the publication of any new books in the country.
But Ahmadinejad is more than just a retrograde radical; he is also a messianic missionary. Iran's president is a disciple of the Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, an obscure Iranian cleric who preaches a radical strain of Shiite liberation theology. Ahmadinejad, like his mentor, believes fervently in the return of the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam — a second coming that many are convinced will occur as a result a regional conflagration.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Ahmadinejad is actively courting a crisis with the West. In a recent closed-door session of the foreign policy and national security committee of the majles, Iran's parliament, Ahmadinejad laid out the cornerstone of his foreign-policy strategy. The past decade-and-a-half of "détente," Ahmadinejad told lawmakers, had cost the Islamic republic dearly. The message was unmistakable: It is now time for confrontation.
Even more ominously, the Iranian leader is succeeding in marrying this radical worldview with 21st-century weaponry. Under Ahmadinejad's guidance, Iranian officials have noticeably hardened their stance on the central issue of the looming showdown between Iran and the West: the regime's nuclear program. Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's powerful supreme national security council and the Iranian regime's point-man on nuclear issues, recently threatened Europe with dire consequences should nuclear negotiations not turn out to the Islamic republic's liking. "If we lose," Larijani told reporters in Tehran in early January, "the same will also happen to [Europe] and they will have to prepare themselves to live in a hell."
In his seminal manifesto, Islamic Government, written in exile and published just two weeks before his triumphant return to Iran in February 1979, Khomeini outlined what would be come the guiding philosophy of his regime: "To create a victorious and triumphant Islamic political revolution . . . to unite the Moslem nation, [and] to liberate [all] its lands." Today, fueled by messianic fervor, his most prominent follower is openly and methodically putting these principles into practice — and making progress.
If Ahmadinejad has his way, the whole world will soon feel the consequences.