It's both crazy and dangerous.
Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.
In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."
"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."
Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.
But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
Ahmadinejad and his supporters believe the best preparation for the Mahdi's reappearance is the consolidation of an absolutist regime that brutally suppresses all real and potential opposition, from moderate and reformist pro-regime forces to nationalist and democratic individuals and groups.
On the eve of the June presidential election, Yazdi said that the legitimacy of the Islamic regime does not stem from a popular vote but from its "divine mission." He also reportedly issued a fatwa, or religious decree, instructing election officials across the country that rigging the vote results to save the Islamic system from infiltration by what he called "anti-Islamic" forces is permitted.
After the much-disputed election that the opposition claimed was indeed widely rigged, millions of Iranians in different cities protested the election results. Hundreds were killed, jailed, and tortured. But Ahmadinejad told his supporters: "Let the inauguration pass, and we will hang them [the opponents] from the ceiling."
Both before, and even more intensively after, the election, political groups and newspapers that criticized Ahmadinejad were banned and websites blocked. Gradually, the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad's main support within the regime, took over all mass communication companies and started to intensify its surveillance of the Internet.
In 2005, after Ahmadinejad was elected president for his first term, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, another messianic supporter of Ahmadinejad, had said: "The last action has started. We have to move fast to clean up Iran internally in order to turn to the revolution's international tasks."
Ahmadinejad has already started to turn to those "international tasks."
Apart from supporting terrorist groups in the region, they defy increasing international pressure to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is indeed peaceful, as they claim. They hide their new nuclear sites and threaten to build 10 or more uranium-enrichment plants -- which according to experts is an empty provocation, or a dream that could be fulfilled only in 50 years.
The more pressure mounts on them, such as Russia and China joining other world powers in asking Iran to be open and cooperative, the more aggressive and provocative Ahmadinejad's clique becomes. To prepare the return of the Mahdi, they seem ready to risk reprisals that could logically endanger their own rule -- from tough sanctions to military action.
In Shi'ite Islam, as in other messianic traditions, the apocalypse precedes the coming of the savior. Ahmadinejad's aggressive and destructive messianism is trying its best to speed up the apocalypse.
For Iranians, the apocalypse began with Ahmadinejad coming to power more than four years ago. Maybe Iranians really need a worldly Mahdi of their own, an Iranian messiah, or just a few individuals who would save them and the world from the tyranny and saber-rattling of the Ahmadinejad regime.
Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL