Solving the Riddles of Iran

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If you think Iran is a difficult country to understand, you're absolutely right. It is a place, after all, that has inspired books entitled "Who Runs Iran?", where Western diplomats hold cocktail parties to discuss how baffled they are, where no one conducts opinion polls (the last person who tried went to prison for producing unwelcome results). Such a climate is unhelpful to those seeking to get behind the contradictory and opaque face that Iran displays to the world. The country presents no shortage of paradoxes. In the past eight years, Iranians have elected both a Kant-quoting liberalizer, and a conservative firebrand Holocaust-denier. Both figures came to power through arguably free elections, in itself a strange practice for a repressive Islamic theocracy.

Then consider Iranians themselves. The majority are weary of political Islam, dislike the current regime, favor improved ties with the West, and lack the anti-American rage so prevalent in the Arab world. At the same time, they're seduced by the nationalist appeal of a nuclear program, and support hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who promises Iranian strength through atomic technology.

Later this month, Iran will respond to the West's incentives package to negotiate over its nuclear program. In all likelihood, it will either say no or hedge, and the stage will be set for a drawn-out confrontation whose outcome will be determining to the Middle East. Eager to forecast what will happen, and to clarify what kind of threat Iran proposes, observers are grasping for clues everywhere, from Iran's ancient history to its religious practices. Many of these arguments lead away, not toward, the very real tensions dividing the country. Here are two analytical pitfalls to avoid, and two keys to getting Iran right.

PITFALLS

1) President Ahmadinejad is a messianic madman

Iran's president is fond of folksy mysticism, but that doesn't drive his policies. Since his election last year, many have argued that Ahmadinejad's religious beliefs are apocalyptic, and that he seeks to hasten the end of time by acquiring and using nuclear weapons. The paranoia is so real that when he said Iran would respond to the West's nuclear offer on August 22, one established expert suggested Ahmadinejad might deliver Armageddon instead. This speculation grew from an anniversary date on the Islamic calendar deemed as auspicious, should one happen to be an apocalyptic leader who happened to be looking for a good date to end the world sometime mid-summer. Iranians do not use the Islamic calendar, and August 22 happens to be the last day of the Persian month. Of course, that might be the na´ve explanation.

Some have also suggested that the principle of deterrence known as MAD (mutual assured destruction) would not ward off confrontation between a nuclear-armed Iran and its foes. This misunderstands both the role of Shi'ite mysticism in Iranian culture, and Ahmadinejad's real political motivations. Like the majority of Shi'ite Muslims around the world, Ahmadinejad believes that Shi'ism's Twelfth Imam will emerge near the end of time to do apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil. This is pedestrian Shi'ite piety, not a cause for international alarm. The majority of Shi'ites believe this, and such views are not unique to Islam; other prophetic religions have their own messiahs, and beliefs about the end of time.

It is true that Ahmadinejad is more preoccupied with Tweltfh Imam than most Iranian officials. That's because he is younger, and belongs to a generation for whom such devotional piety is commonplace. Such mysticism was forged in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq War, a war that was fought on the Iranian side by poor young men indoctrinated to believe they were fighting for Islam; legends developed at the front of the Twelfth Imam riding past on horseback, and when the fighting stopped, such myths found their way into popular culture. Ahmadinejad fought in this war, and absorbed its sensibilities. What matters is that this mysticism is much like saint worship; it does not insist the apocalypse is now, or imminent. No sane, educated person in Iran believes that Ahmadinejad wants a nuclear program to hasten the apocalypse, because they know his real motivation: nationalism.

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