After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches, press conferences, and interviews in New York City last week, it’s obvious the Iranian president lives in a parallel universe. This has been difficult for many in the West to grasp. The Western reflex to believe that there are “universal truths” is irrepressible.
The desire to see common sense and shared interests in the worst ideologue strikes Republicans and Democrats with almost equal intensity. Ahmadinejad and his boss, supreme leader Ali Khamenei, also believe in universal truths and the “rational” conduct of affairs—they just use, to borrow from mathematics, a different base system that allows for little overlap with the way Westerners think. The result: When we see individual liberty squashed, they see divinely guided human freedom being fully expressed; when we see women oppressed, they see women being protected from male rapacity; when we see religious hubris, intolerance, and bad taste, they see man struggling hard, against terrible odds, to be a “sincere slave of God.” When President Barack Obama talks about his continuing desire for engagement with Tehran, the Iranian president talks about America’s sins against Islam and the world’s oppressed peoples.
Look at how Ahmadinejad opened his speeches to the United Nations General Assembly. It goes without saying that no Western leader would ever invoke the second coming of Jesus Christ at a big international conference not about religion. When we see Ahmadinejad solicit the arrival and “victory” of the Mahdi, who will usher in the end of time and paradise, our instinct is to pass over such words as a personal eccentricity or a pro forma invocation that must be a matter of politesse for pious Iranians. (Not all VIPs in the Islamic Republic, however, behave in this matter with the same zeal.)
But Ahmadinejad comes to the United Nations every fall to tell the truth, to share with us what he cherishes most. The General Assembly for him is the most important bully pulpit—a dais built by infidels who must give him, a devout Iranian peasant, the chance to speak for Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali and his descendents, and the glorious Iranian nation, the great bulwark against unbelief and Western oppression. After Ahmadinejad gave his first speech to the U.N. in 2005, he claimed that he felt bathed in a divine light that transfixed him and, more important, the entire General Assembly. He remarked:
I am not exaggerating when I say they did not blink; it’s not an exaggeration, because I was looking. . . .They were astonished as if a hand held them there and made them sit. It had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian president’s U.N. speeches, supplemented by his take-no-prisoners press conferences, give us an unparalleled opportunity to look into Ahmadinejad’s soul and, by extension, into Ali Khamenei’s. The supreme leader has advanced and protected this former member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps against a firestorm of protest inside the country, before and since the tumultuous elections in 2009. When Ahmadinejad speaks at the United Nations, he is speaking for the supreme leader.
And what he talks about most is values (akhlaq). In both his U.N. remarks last week, the Iranian president let loose broadsides against capitalism and its supposed primary benefactor, the United States. Harking back to the “red mullah” themes that defined the early years of Iran’s Marxist-Islamist revolution, Ahmadinejad again sounded the alarm against a system that violates “the true nature of mankind,” which is to become “a slave of God” and be one with “the pure and the righteous.” For Ahmadinejad, like other Islamic militants, history is alive in one continuous chain.
The great Muslim prophets—Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Jesus, and Muhammad—pointed the way to salvation, but the West (and Ahmadinejad is slightly original here in putting partial blame on Christendom’s failure to see the true path because of its religious “oppression” during the Middle Ages) followed the messengers of greed, self-absorption, and rampant individualism.
Man with his potential for understanding the secrets of this world, his instinct for seeking truth, his disposition for justice and perfection, his quest for purity and beauty, and his capacity to represent God on earth was reduced to a creature limited to the materialistic world, constantly seeking pleasure,
Ahmadinejad told us in New York. “Human instinct, thus, replaced true human nature, … the lust for capital and domination replaced monotheism, which is the gateway to love and man’s unity.” Ahmadinejad didn’t give us an exact breakdown of who did what to whom, but he conveyed some idea of those most culpable:
The widespread clash of egotists [Ahmadinejad uses the word khudkhahan, which means in context “those who love themselves more than God”] with divine values gave way to slavery and colonialism. … Tens of millions of people were taken to slavery. … Lands were occupied and the indigenous people were humiliated and mass-murdered.
Much like the intellectual founding father of the Islamic revolution, Ali Shariati, Ahmadinejad can blend discordant ideas and history into a seamless whole (seamless, that is, in his eyes). Western press coverage of Ahmadinejad’s suggestion last week that the American government orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attack generally underscored the president’s nuttiness. But this misses the Iranian president’s intellectual achievement, which he shares with many inside Khamenei’s inner circle: He effortlessly weaves together the past and the present, Islam’s glorious history of prophets, and the West’s continuing perfidy—most dangerously fueled by the oldest, cleverest, and most economically talented traitors to God’s cause, the Jews. He can zero in on the nuclear standoff, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or 9/11 and effortlessly glue them into the enormous civilization struggle between those who believe in Allah and those who don’t.
What seems hopelessly contradictory and just downright wacko to us is for him proof of the ingenuity and integrity of his thought. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have many things in common (they are a case of psychological opposites attracting), but perhaps the most important is how they see the struggle between the West and Islam. It is ultimately all about God—about man’s, not just Western man’s, tendency to fall from the righteous path. Islamic jurisprudence is full of the philosophical conviction that men are potentially ardent sinners, and the state must ensure through coercive means that “the good is commanded, and evil forbidden.” Ahmadinejad fairly often mentions the insan-e kamil, “the perfect person,” an age-old Islamic philosophical ideal, built upon neo-Platonic roots and popularized in the Shiite faith, which is in love with the charismatic power of special men. This is the lodestar for Ahmadinejad, as it is for Khamenei.
Although it sounds surreal for many Westerners and millions of Iranians who have essentially become Westerners in their habits, sentiments, and political preferences, the Islamic Republic’s deeply corrupt culture has not vitiated the ruling elite’s conception of Iran as a virtuous state, more intimately connected to God’s mission for man than any other nation. Indeed, the more corrupt the country becomes, and the richer the ruling elite of the Revolutionary Guards, the more determined Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are to maintain the nation’s virtue. The social rebellion of the reformist Green Movement has also increased their moral ardor.
For them, the insan-e kamil isn’t possible if Iran makes peace with the United States, the locomotive of evil in the modern world. Hostility towards Israel is a divine commandment, not subject to the negotiations of godless Palestinians (and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have made it crystal clear that Hamas are the only rightly guided believers among the Palestinians). And it’s a very good guess that the creation of the insan-e kamil now isn’t possible without nuclear weapons. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are modern men of faith: You must have the ultimate means of power to ensure God’s children can execute his mission and checkmate his enemies.
Barack Obama, who is quintessentially American in his temperament and laissez-faire attitude about religion, really had no idea about Iran before he became president. He must have had some notion of the intersection of politics and faith (it’s hard to imagine anyone attending the church of Jeremiah Wright for the pastor’s biblical insights). But this is a completely secularized faith, where man refashions God as he pleases every Sunday. Obama, like many who served in the Clinton administration and should have known better, saw George W. Bush and America’s troubled history with Iran (the CIA-aided 1953 coup) needlessly standing in the way of reconciliation. The president undoubtedly has learned since his inauguration. It’s hard to imagine three men with less in common culturally than Obama, Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei. And the president is sensitive about being spurned. Like no other leaders, the supreme leader and the Iranian president have told Obama to stick it.
It’s inevitable that the administration will keep trying to augment the sanctions regime against Tehran—they have no other choice since Khamenei will not compromise with the devil. It’s possible, given Ahmadinejad’s performances on the world stage, that more nations will join the 32 that have begun to implement increasingly serious sanctions against the regime. The closer we get to the supreme leader’s actually having a nuclear weapon, the more tangibly frightening the possibility becomes.
But a betting man would still go the other way. Those who can no longer see God’s hand in history will assume that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are “rational” men who won’t do a truly stupid thing that would bring disaster on their country. Sanctions will increase, but not as they would if we all truly feared a nuclear-armed Tehran. Perhaps before Obama leaves office, we will get to see whether “perfect men” handle nuclear weapons better than capitalists and Communists.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.