Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches at the United Nations and his utterances elsewhere in New York are, again, proof that the Marxist-Islamist Molotov cocktail that produced the Islamic revolution is rebelliously alive among Iran’s ruling elite. Most of my Iranian friends have an extremely hard time watching the man speak. He uses religious language and allusion constantly, more so than any political figure in the Saudi royal family—the only other religio-political missionary–enamored elite in the Muslim world. Ahmadinejad is embarrassing to these Westernized Iranians, as he is to millions of Iranians in the motherland. They assume immediately that the man is a charlatan because he is bright (he is clever) and thus can’t possibly believe what he says about the coming of the Mahdi, the denial of the Holocaust, his anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist conspiracies about world domination (Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have far, far to go), and the conspiracy unleashed yesterday at the U.N., one widely shared throughout the Middle East, about the U.S. government bombing America on September 11.
But Ahmadinejad is a soulful man. He's both an Iranian peasant—his commitment to his faith is simple, straightforward, and mystical—and a religious revolutionary. Lay Iranian revolutionaries, unlike some of their clerical compatriots, have never been fond of the Shia practice of taqiyya, the habit—it’s actually an art form—of dissimulation that aided Shiites against their Sunni oppressors. Ahmadinejad is a warrior. His faith is inconceivable without action. It’s difficult to know exactly what Ahmadinejad did in the Revolutionary Guards, the regime’s praetorians, during the Iran-Iraq war. There’s no reason to believe, however, that he did not fight bravely in that ghastly conflict. There’s every reason to believe that he and other Guards of his generation who survived the war see themselves as God’s chosen. This sense of “purity”—Ahmadinejad zealously uses this very Shia word—and purpose transcends the mundane reality that the elite of the Corps have become a mafia of vast wealth. The mind-blowing corruption of the Islamic Republic is actually a religious catalyst for those on top of the system. This is especially true now, after the first-generation revolutionary leaders of the Green Movement spiritually challenged them so publicly. Americans always assume that corruption breeds pragmatism; in Iran, it also does the opposite—powerfully.
Iran’s ruler—Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader—unquestionably cleared both of Ahmadinejad’s speeches before the U.N. General Assembly. Iran’s president is to the supreme leader what the Marseilles soccer baron Bernard Tapie was to the effete François Mitterrand: a man of action and violence who expresses mundanely what the more ethereal and physically timid alter ego could not. It was said of Tapie (born in 1943) that President Mitterrand could easily imagine him machine-gunning Nazis in a French café—something not at all possible of the Vichy-comfortable, money-eschewing, bookshop-loving leader of the Socialist Party.
Khamenei has really had no spiritual brothers since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s right-hand man, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, gave him the mantle of leadership in 1989. Rafsanjani picked Khamenei to succeed “the Imam” because he was a charisma-free, mediocre cleric who could not possibly challenge the influence of Khomeini’s more-trusted lieutenants. Few men who have not been created by Khamenei admire the current ruler of Iran. But Ahmadinejad does (at least more than most). He mirrors Khamenei’s inner self, his revolutionary essence: the Islamic utopianism married to Iranian nationalism married to Third World socialism. Inelegantly but sincerely, Ahmadinejad managed to get all of these themes into his Tuesday speech. Through Ahmadinejad, Khameneh’i can see a rebirth of the Islamic revolution. He is a lower-class affirmation of the revolution’s core virtue—anti-Westernization and its three intertwined subsets: anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism—at a time when much of Iran’s upper and middle classes have abandoned Khamenehi’s Islamic way of life for the Green Movement.
Ahmadinejad and the organization that spawned him, the Revolutionary Guards, are the bulwarks against Persian recidivism—that irrepressible Iranian desire to have fun. They are the only powerful countervailing force against democracy, which would make mincemeat of many sacred verities, especially the God-ordained and essential second-class status of women. Unlike many in Iran’s well-educated elite, Ahmadinejad can openly—without the slightest embarrassment—talk about “divine Justice and Truth” (think Franz Fanon via the Mahdi). Khamenei loves this in a Muslim man. With shining eyes, Ahmadinejad can talk about Islam’s special mission to all humanity. He can tie together the "Prophet Adam ... to the Prophet Moses ... to the Prophet Jesus ... to the Prophet Muhammad" (all Muslims according to Islamic theology) to the “real savior” (the Mahdi) in a sincere call to global conversion when so many Iranians, especially within the unreliable establishment and reformist clergy (increasingly, the two are the same), have gone all ecumenical and wishy-washy. A backer of the Green Movement, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, undoubtedly a devout Muslim, would rather talk about Aristotle, Kant, and Karl Popper. Mir-Hosein Musavi, a leader of the Greens, just doesn’t care all that much about prophetic mandates and Shi’ite eschatology.
Ahmadinejad’s speech also ought to make us reflect on how poorly secularized Westerners encounter men of faith, especially those who believe profoundly in a “clash of civilizations” (as Khamenei and Ahmadinejad do). President Barack Obama came into office believing that the principal problem between the United States and Iran was George W. Bush. This view was shared by a wide swath of the foreign policy establishment. Senior officials in the Bush State Department who thought that Khamenei really, truly wanted better relations with the United States differ little from the Obama crowd, who hoped that their boss would have a magic touch with the supreme leader, who responded to Obama’s early felicitous outreach by referring to America as “Satan Incarnate.”
Even among Iran devotees, who follow the country in its native language, there was an astonishing naivete or, to put it another, politer way, a determined hopefulness about where U.S.-Iranian relations could go. Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, who briefly served in the Obama administration, deserves praise for announcing clearly what few among the more liberal Iran cognoscenti have been willing to do: the debate is over. Iran under KhameneI remains a highly ideological state. Engagement as envisioned by Obama and so many others was an (appealing) illusion.
President Obama may now realize the error of his ways. So, too, may others in Washington. So the question remains: what are we willing to do to stop Khamenei and his Guards from having nuclear weapons? Are we willing to get damn serious about sanctions? Go to the mat with the Chinese, Russians, Turks, Venezuelans, and Swiss who try to augment their trade with the Islamic Republic? Are we willing to start talking about an oil embargo? Are we willing, finally, to support those Iranian democratic dissidents who’ve quietly asked for our assistance? Start the hard and dangerous work that’s necessary to support dissidents in a denied area where transgressions will get them raped or killed? Are we willing to credibly threaten the use of force against Khamenei if he does not stop the nuclear program? (I find this inconceivable with President Obama—it’s just doesn’t seem within the man—but perhaps that’s an unfair reading of him and his advisors.)
There’s one thing for certain. Ahmadinejad’s loquacity in New York tells us a lot about him and his boss. They sense that they have the upper-hand. And the two men—in so many ways psychological opposites—are accomplished predators. They’re probably not wrong.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.