The Debate

Why Iran’s Mullahs Fear Ahmadinejad’s Messianism

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The Debate

Why Iran’s Mullahs Fear Ahmadinejad’s Messianism

How Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using Islamic concepts to challenge the power of the clerics.

Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has once again infuriated the clerical establishment by accompanying his close aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to register as a candidate in the presidential election next month. Not only is it illegal for a sitting president to endorse a candidate, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies have made it abundantly clear they opposed Mashaei candidacy. 

Unsurprisingly, Mashaei’s registration has prompted immediate and fierce criticism from many members of the Iranian regime, particularly those close to Supreme Leader Khamenei. It has also sparked media reports that he could face “74 lashes” if found guilty of having violated Iran’s election laws. However, one point of criticism made by Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the head of Iran’s national police force, is particularly noteworthy.

Earlier this week, Moghaddam took Ahmadinejad and Mashaei to task for their constant worship of Shi’a Islam’s Messiah figure, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th or Hidden Imam. Specifically the police chief said: “The new deviant sect [a euphemism used to refer to Ahmadinejad and his allies] claim that they receive their orders from Imam of the Age [12th Shia Imam]. It has been eight years that they are speaking about this matter but it is not clear who is their deputy [of the 12 Shia Imam].”

Ahmadinejad’s reverence of the Hidden Imam is well known and goes at least as far back as his time as Mayor of Tehran. Many in the West have used Ahmadinejad’s proclaimed belief that the Messiah’s return is imminent as evidence that Iran would precipitate a nuclear armed conflict if it acquires nuclear weapons.

But the fact that the clerical elite in the Islamic Republic fear Ahmadinejad’s “Mahdism” underscores what these commentators overlook; namely, Ahmadinejad’s reverence of the Messiah figure is primarily (though not entirely) used for domestic political purposes. He does this in two ways.

The first is in bolstering his populist credentials and image as an ordinary man struggling against powerful and corrupt regime stalwarts like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Although most Shi’ites don’t actually believe al-Mahdi’s return is imminent, many view the Mahdi’s reappearance in an allegorical sense of meaning an end to all the injustices that plagued Shi’ites and Iranians from Husayn’s martyrdom in the 7th century to present times.

Ahmadinejad has seized on this narrative to portray his struggle against corrupt and powerful rivals in terms of a defining moment in Shi’a Islam. This gives it instant appeal among his most important constituencies—primarily lower class and rural Iranians—and makes it more difficult for members of the Iranian regime to challenge. After all, a self-proclaimed Islamic Republic shouldn’t oppose someone deferring to one of Shi’a Islam’s most revered figures. Indeed, when some regime members, including clerics, have challenged Ahmadinejad’s worship of al-Mahdi in the past, his allies have countered by labeling them "opponents of the Imam of the Era," referring to al-Mahdi.

Of more concern to Supreme Leader Khamenei, however, is the ways in which Ahmadinejad conjures up the image of al-Mahdi’s return to directly challenge the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader’s rule.

In accordance with the speeches and writings of Revolutionary leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic is based on the principle of Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), which holds that a senior Shi’a jurisprudent (faqih), as a man learned in the teachings of Islam, is best able to interpret the al-Mahdi’s will in his absence. As such, this faqih— which in the Islamic Republic is the Supreme Leader—should act as al-Mahdi’s deputy in governing the Shi’a faithful.

Implicit in Velayat-e faqih, however, is the notion that once al-Mahdi returns there will no longer be a need for the Supreme Leader to interpret his will, as the Imam can directly govern his followers. Therefore, Velayat-e faqih will cease to exist upon the Hidden Imam’s reemergence on earth.

Ahmadinejad has a vested interest in seeing the end to the Velayat-e faqih system. After all, unlike nearly all his predecessors in the Islamic Republic, with the exception of its first president following the revolution, Ahmadinejad isn’t a cleric himself. Thus, the only way the highly ambitious Ahmadinejad is ever going to reign supreme in Iran is if he can discredit the Velayat-e faqih system.

Openly calling for the end to the Velayat-e faqih is obviously not possible, however, as he would quickly be imprisoned and possibly executed. Ahmadinejad must therefore mount a more subtle challenge to the system. Through the Hidden Imam’s return, Ahmadinejad is again couching his challenge to the Islamic Republic in the language of Shi’a Islam itself. This makes it difficult for Supreme Leader Khamenei and his clerical and layman allies to root out.

Moreover, given the continued importance of Shi’a Islam to most Iranians, and the important role clerics and Islam have played in all major political and social movements in modern Iran, Ahmadinejad’s “Mahdism” is an effective tool in trying to bring the masses to his side. For that reason, it remains a potent danger to Khamenei and the Iranian regime.

The irony of course is that Ahmadinejad is seeking to use Shi’a Islam’s Messiah figure to usher in an “Iran minus the clergy.”