The Magazine

Why Is Ahmadinejad Smiling?

The intellectual sources of his apocalyptic vision.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is often smiling, as if he knows something we don't, or at least not yet. It is tempting to view him as a madman. That way, when he speaks of wiping Israel off the face of the earth, we might convince ourselves that he is no more than a fanatical front man for the Iranian Republic's desire to possess nuclear weapons so as to assert itself in the manner of China or any other aspiring great power.

Unfortunately, whether mad or not, Ahmadinejad has a coherent ideological vision in which the call to wipe out Israel is no ordinary manifestation of anti-Semitism. Instead, it is the beckoning of an apocalyptic event that will usher in a millennium of bliss for all believers, indeed all mankind. Nuclear weapons are the indispensable means to this end since they are the most reliable way of exterminating the Jewish state. They are therefore not to be negotiated away in exchange for other economic or security benefits. The revolution needs nuclear weapons to carry out its utopian mission.

How dangerous is Ahmadinejad? He has made his aims clear many times in public. At a "World Without Zionism" conference in Tehran in October 2005, at which his supporters chanted "Death to America," he said: "They [ask]: 'Is it possible for us to witness a world without America and Zionism?' But you had best know that this slogan and this goal are attainable, and surely can be achieved." At the same conference, he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," adding that "very soon, this stain of disgrace will vanish from the center of the Islamic world. This is attainable." Iran's senior-most Islamic leaders gave their full support to this genocidal aim. Ahmadinejad has announced that he intends to return Iran to the purity of the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. The annihilation of Israel, he claimed, was a goal first announced by Khomeini himself, thus a project endowed with the highest possible revolutionary authority.

We would do well to take the Iranian president seriously, for he is proving himself a charismatic and clever leader. As he demonstrated recently at the United Nations, Ahmadinejad is adroit at putting aside Islamist themes when convenient and joining secular dictators like Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe in their Marxist cant protesting American imperialism and economic hege mony. Like many totalitarian rulers, including Hitler and Stalin, he professes a love for mankind and world peace. In these ways, Ahmadinejad reflects the Iranian revolution's assimilation of traditional Islamic categories of faith to a Marxist lexicon of violent revolution. It is therefore more important than ever to realize that the Iranian revolution's brand of jihadism has close structural similarities to--and is historically descended from--strains of European revolutionary nihilism, including that of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and the Nazis, and extending to later third world offshoots like the Khmer Rouge.

All of these revolutionary movements have a common set of genocidal aims, now reemerging in Ahmadinejad's lethal rhetoric. They all envision a return to what the Jacobins called the Year One, a grimly repressive collectivist utopia in which individual freedom is obliterated in the name of the common good, and people are purged of their vices, including property, freedom of thought, and the satisfactions of family and private life. Returning to a past so pure and distant requires the destruction of all received tradition, including religious traditions, extending back centuries, and so is, paradoxically, at the same time a radical leap into the future. That is why neither the purportedly Sunni vision of the Taliban nor the purportedly Shiite vision of the Iranian revolution bears any close resemblance to the traditions and restraints imposed by those faiths, especially restraints on this-worldly political extremism, terrorism, and the slaughter of noncombatants.

The second aim that all these revolutionary movements share is the identification of one class or race enemy whose extermination is the crucial step necessary to bring about the utopian community where all alienation and vice will end forever. The class or race enemy becomes the embodiment of all human evil, whose destruction will cleanse the planet. In Ahmadinejad's flirtation with nuclear Armageddon, the destruction of Israel plays the same apocalyptic role that the Nazis assigned to the destruction of European Jewry. Stalin assigned the identical role to the destruction of the "kulaks," the so-called rich peasants--an utterly fictitious category bearing no closer resemblance to actual Russian peasants than the Nazis' demonized Jews bore to actual Jews. Now it is the Jews' turn again. When Ahmadinejad promises Muslims "a world without Zionism," he means it quite literally.