Opinion: Do Western analysts ignore Iran’s apocalyptic vision?

The Islamist Shia doctrine embraced by the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran heralds the arrival of a messianic figure whose apocalyptic appearance will be preceded by violence, chaos and warfare.

By Lela Gilbert

Most American pundits write that current threats of violence and warnings of war are Iran’s boastful way of defying the U.S, and not only regarding its harsh economic sanctions, which presently have a strangle-hold on their leaders and institutions. Iran is also attempting to disrupt international oil shipments in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

But there is, perhaps, a less obvious reason as well. The Islamist Shia doctrine, embraced by the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran, heralds the arrival of a messianic figure known as the Twelfth or Hidden Imam. His apocalyptic appearance will be preceded by violence, chaos and warfare.

Most observers and pundits have concluded that Iran’s escalating threats of violence and drumbeats of war represent their defiant response to U.S. economic sanctions, which seem to have a strangle-hold on Iranian leaders and institutions. Meanwhile, upticks in Iran’s military activities have been widely reported and continue to be analyzed by U.S. military leaders.

However, on Aug. 6, the invaluable MEMRI news site – which translates and broadcasts speeches, sermons or other pronouncements by sheikhs, imams and mullahs –  reported the words of senior Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri: “In order for the Hidden Imam to reappear, we must engage in widespread fighting with the West.”

By daybreak on Sunday morning, Aug. 25, virtually every Middle East news source was headlining the same story: An unprecedented direct attack by Israeli forces on an Iranian Quds Force base had taken place in Syria. The attack was preemptive, in advance of an assault by a number of Iranian “killer drones,” which Israeli military intelligence had detected.

For months, Middle East news sources have reported a mounting crescendo of hostility emanating from Iran, along with encroachment of its tentacle-like militias into several nearby countries – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, tensions surrounding shipping routes in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz have not abated for weeks.

Along with ever-increasing efforts to magnify their power and prowess, Iran’s ceaseless antagonism continues to be amplified by repeated chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

Iran’s ambitions for regional supremacy are nothing new. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the regime has proved itself a dangerous foe to any and all who do not embrace its radical ayatollahs’ views.

Its response has played out in international terrorism, state-funded violence by numerous proxies and horrendous human rights abuses.

In recent years, Iran’s thinly veiled efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, along with its accompanying ballistic missile delivery system, has elevated global concerns to an urgent level. In response, former U.S. President Barack Obama tried to slow down the nuke development process by negotiating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while handing over untold billions of U.S. dollars to assuage the mullahs’ antagonism.

The results of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections reflected considerable push-back against Obama’s strategy. Many Americans and Israelis viewed the JCPOA it as a flawed and unenforceable agreement.

In May 2018,  President Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and subsequently slammed heavy financial sanctions on Iran’s leadership, military and oil exports. That September, the discovery by Israeli intelligence of a warehouse-sized cache of nuclear-related files inside Iran was revealed, which cast even deeper doubt on the veracity of the Iranian regime’s denials of nuclear ambitions.

The Hidden Imam

Some observers are aware of the deeply religious nature of Iran’s regime. However, in the U.S. and Western Europe, references to religious influences in international affairs are often disregarded.

But some declarations should not be overlooked. And that includes references – particularly among Iran’s highest levels of leadership – to the Hidden Imam.

The Hidden, or Twelfth Imam plays a dominant role in one specific form of Shi’ite Islamic theology, called “Twelverism” – which happens to be the primary belief system of Iran’s leadership.  There is a messianic belief that, at the end of days, the Hidden Imam will appear in the midst of a violent apocalyptic scenario, played out on a battleground stained with infidels’ blood.

About a month before Mirbagheri’s sermon, Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah declared that while “life and death are in the hands of God, logic points to me praying in Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Bear in mind that while serving as Iran’s most influential religious and political emissary in Lebanon, Nasrallah has been living in a secret underground “bunker” ever since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.

Meanwhile, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holy sites, is located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And that has remained Judaism’s most holy site, where the Jewish Temple stood until 70 CE. Nasrallah’s prediction essentially meant that, at some point, Israel would no longer be able to prevent his emergence from his Lebanese hideout and entrance into the Holy City.

Just days after Nasrallah’s declaration, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei affirmed that prediction:  “The return of this holy land [Israel] to the World of Islam is not a strange and unattainable matter.” He declared Nasrallah’s goal of praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque “an absolutely practical and achievable aspiration for us.”

More recently, as I reflected on the intensifying tension between the West, Israel and Iran, I came across a blog post by Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iranian scholar who is now in the West, serving as a fellow at Washington, D.C.’s highly respected Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

In 2013, he penned an article titled “Iran’s Apocalyptic Policy Makers.”  He wrote:

Two of the most lunatic and apocalyptic high-ranking figures in Iran are Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself and his now disgraced one-time protégé, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad… While many experts tell us Iran is a rational, pragmatic regime like any other in the world, all the facts shout that it is not.

“A large number of Iranian officials and decision makers have deeply rooted apocalyptic beliefs. Underestimating this radical ideology even as the Iranian regime is on its way to building a nuclear bomb can lead to dangerously wrong conclusions. The suggestion taking hold of late that a nuclear armed Iran is not the end of the world may unfortunately be dead wrong.

He also wrote, “To IRGC officers, Mahdi may be hidden, but he is far from absent. In a rare public appearance at Qum, Ghassem Soleimani, the notorious commander of the Quds force, said that during the Iran-Iraq war some IRGC commanders in war-fronts were in contact with the Hidden Imam.”

Apocalyptic thought ‘overlooked’

With all this in mind, I contacted Ghasseminejad to learn more about how these apocalyptic convictions may be affecting Iran’s current aggressions.

“This apocalyptic aspect of the Islamic regime in Tehran is usually overlooked by analysts in the West,” he explained, “probably because God is more or less dead among the elite in the West, and it is hard for them to imagine that apocalyptic religious thought can turn into actual policies pursued by the State.”

Clearly in much of the Middle East, however, belief in God is very much alive, and deeply held dogmas can influence decisions made by policymakers. As with Judaism and Christianity, the idea of a coming Messiah and apocalypse is a central Islamic belief.

“The key,” Ghasseminejad told me, “is that Khomeini belonged to a minority school of thought in the Twelver Shia community who believe that Ulama (clerics) should rule, and their rule would be legitimate because they were deputies of the hidden Imam and they were preparing the world for his reappearance of the hidden Imam.

“So what does that have to do,” I asked, “with Tehran’s extremely aggressive anti-Israel and anti-Saudi foreign policy?”

“I think it can be explained, at least partly, by the importance of Jerusalem in the apocalyptic Shia literature. And the same is true about Mecca, which is the place where the Hidden Imam will reappear.”

“To summarize,” Ghasseminejad concluded, “I think the Islamic Republic of Iran and its leadership’s apocalyptic vision can explain a good part of what Tehran is doing in the region. And ignoring it leads to misinterpretation of Tehran’s decisions.

“While I do not believe the apocalyptic ideology is the only force behind the regime’s decision-making process, I think it plays a significant role in how the Supreme Leader and the IRGC see the world.”

Lela Gilbert is an award-winning writer who has authored or co-authored more than 60 books. She lived in Israel for ten years, is a fellow at Hudson Institute and also writes for Jerusalem Post, Fox News, World Israel News and various other publications. This article was first published by Religion Unplugged.