There's method in the Mahdi madness of Iran's president
Charles Moore, Telegraph:
Iran has "broken the seals". The phrase refers to the seals placed by UN nuclear inspectors on equipment that, unsealed, enables uranium enrichment, making possible the development of a nuclear bomb. It has a suitably apocalyptic ring. READ MORE
In the Book of Revelation, the Lamb breaks the seven seals and earth-shattering violence ensues: "…the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together… And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men… hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains".
Our own not-quite-chief captain, Jack Straw, took refuge instead in a BBC studio. It is almost physically impossible to keep one's attention on the Foreign Secretary as he smothers meaning in his blanket of official phrases about IAEA governing bodies and Chapter Seven UN Resolutions and "prior stages" before anything like sanctions actually happens, but I did hear him yesterday venture the opinion that "in Iran things are difficult". You've got to give it to the man: he's right.
It is just a pity that Mr Straw recognises it only now. Ever since he became Foreign Secretary in 2001, Mr Straw - and British policy more generally - has been devoted to the idea that we can make friends with Iran.
Mr Straw went there five times on those expeditions that the Foreign Office loves as much as botanists love the search for rare seeds in the Karakoram - hunting for the "moderates". Our eggs were placed in the fragile basket of former President Khatami's "reformists" and were duly addled. In the presidential election last year, Britain decided that the winner would be another "moderate", Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Mr Rafsanjani is "moderate" only in the sense that Molotov was more moderate than Stalin or Goering than Hitler, but anyway, this man of Straw did not win. The victor was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Teheran.
Since coming to power, Mr Ahmadinejad has organised an international conference designed to prove that the Holocaust never happened and has declared it the aim of Iranian policy to "wipe Israel off the map". Now he is fulfilling his country's long-planned strategy of making the means to do just that: he has broken the seals. Iran can have its own Bomb in four years or so.
Relentless media attention in the West has focused on the errors of the Coalition in Iraq, and plenty of errors there have been. But almost no scrutiny from press or Opposition has been given to the way that the supposedly intransigent George Bush has actually been so accommodating to European sensibilities that he has delegated the policy on Iran to Europe. This has produced the current disaster.
For years now, the "EU Three" - Britain, France and Germany - have been in charge, emboldened since 2005 by the personal support of Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state. They have wanted to believe that they were dealing with a power that was negotiating in good faith. They have spurred that power on to greater excesses by declaring that Western military action was (Mr Straw's word) "inconceivable". They have hoped against hope and against evidence. Only this week did they finally admit defeat. They agreed, which earlier they had refused, to try to take Iran's behaviour to the Security Council.
What is the West facing in the government of Iran?
I read in yesterday's Times that President Ahmadinejad is a "naïve extremist". It is an assumption of Western foreign policy elites that extremists are, by definition, naïve, but is it so?
The point about Iran since 1979 is that it has been governed by revolutionaries; and the history of revolutionaries - successful ones, anyway - is that they are often mad and bad and incredibly skilful all at the same time.
Thus Hitler could genuinely believe in crazed racial theory and outmanoeuvre the chancelleries of Europe. Thus Chairman Mao could promote deranged, famine-inducing economics, while at the same time keeping a grip on power for a quarter of a century.
Westerners tend to see the Iranian revolution as "medieval", but this is a slander on the Middle Ages. "Twentieth century" would be the more accurate description. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, he encouraged his lieutenants to be well versed in the history of revolutions, particularly the communist revolution in Russia.
If you look at Iranian "democracy" today, you will see that the only candidates allowed are those committed to the constitution's idea of the "guardianship of the clergy" (a rule which, at the last parliamentary election, permitted the Council of Guardians to disqualify 6,000 of the 7,000 who wanted to stand).
This is a religious version of the Leninist idea of the "leading role of the party". In 1979, Khomeini said that his revolution was the first step ''in correcting the past of Muslim history''. He meant radicalising Shiism to take over the Muslim world.
That's what Ahmadinejad means, too. Last September, he addressed the United Nations in a speech that called on God to hurry up and send along his "Promised One". This was a reference to the strong Shi'ite belief in a Mahdi, or Hidden Messenger, who will reappear in the world to rule it aright.
Recalling his own speech afterwards, Mr Ahmadinejad said: "One of our group told me that, when I started to say 'In the name of God, the almighty, the merciful', he saw a light around me and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change and, for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink."
By putting himself inside this aura, Mr Ahmadinejad may be at once sincere and cynical. He may truly think that God is bringing the Mahdi his way, but he will also know that by identifying with this strand of Shi'ism he can seem to be a Robin Hood for the poor against corruption. He may also be hinting, some experts believe, that, if the Hidden Messenger is coming, the increasingly unpopular clergy and their Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) could be superseded by truly holy, non-clerical persons, eg himself and his Revolutionary Guard.
The Bomb, blessed by God, will make Iran proud. It will force the West to let Iran dictate terms in the region, give Mr Ahmadinejad the prestige to crush dissent in his own country and help him grab world Muslim leadership, taking over Iraq. Mad, perhaps, terrifying, certainly, but perfectly sane as a way of staying on top.
What can we do? There may be sanctions and other forms of isolation that would work. For instance, although full of crude oil, Iran is short of petrol and has to import a great deal from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Without that, it would be in trouble.
But the bigger question concerns the West's extraordinary indulgence (Mr Straw calls it "patience") towards the regime. Why don't we distinguish government from people and reach out to the latter? In the contest of the West with revolutionaries, we win in the end when we help their victims rise up against them, when the people themselves, not our tanks, take down the Berlin Wall.