Sunday, August 06, 2006

Is Hezbollah launching Iran's Armageddon?

Omar Fadhil,
It's common wisdom to say that the war between Hezbollah and Israel is a regional struggle that also includes Iran and Syria, who have supported and supplied Hezbollah. What seems to be less understood is that this is the first war between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel, via Iran's proxy Hezbollah, and that its overarching purpose is to advance Iran's ambitions to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East.

Thus, while religion has always played an important role in prior Arab-Israeli wars, this time it has moved to center stage. It is the theological aspect of this conflict that makes it so explosive and could lead to its expansion.

As an observer of the conflict from Iraq, I see the signs that Iran may be starting to launch the mullahs' version of an Armageddon, exploiting the religious beliefs of devout Shiites in the region. While this may sound more the stuff of prophecies than international relations, it is important to understand - especially in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq that have large Shiite populations. READ MORE

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq are both devout believers in the "Imam" of Shia Islam. Also known as "Imam Mehdi" - hence the name of Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army - he was the 12th grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. According to certain branches of Shia Islam, the return of the "hidden Imam" must be prepared by his followers, in a particular sequence of events. Chaos and rampant violence in the region are supposed to be among signs leading to the main battle in which the Imam will return to lead Shiites to victory.

Whether Ahmadinejad and Sadr personally believe that it is their duty to prepare the ground for the rise of the Imam, or whether they are merely exploiting religious mythology for their own political purposes, Iran and its agents in Iraq are starting to make the connection between the current conflict and the return of Imam Mehdi.

In eastern Baghdad, where Sadr's militias are based, there has been a sudden appearance of banners and writings on the walls carrying religious messages that refer specifically to Imam Mehdi. A large number can be seen near the Interior Ministry complex, home to police forces loyal to Sadr. And reports are surfacing that Sadr's militia is recruiting fighters to travel to Lebanon.

It is not coincidental that these banners appeared within 24 hours of Hezbollah's kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers. The messages on these banners, with their unstable mixture of religion and policy, are ominous, written in a tone that invokes the rise of the Imam. One reads: "By renouncing sin and by integration for the sake of afterlife, we become the best soldiers to our leader and savior, the Mehdi." Integration is one of those words Sadr often uses in reference to preparations for the afterlife.

Throughout Islamic history, rulers have used divine texts to consolidate their power. They did this either by twisting the meaning of the written texts, or by inventing thousands of alleged sayings of the prophet. In this case, it looks like the way is being paved for the "imminent" arrival of the Imam to be announced through the Mumahidoon (those who pave the way for the Imam), which is how Sadr and his followers describe themselves.

In the last quarter of a century, Iran's dreams of exporting the Islamic revolution were stopped by the once strong pan-Arab nationalism in the region. No more. Once the mullahs consolidated their power in Iran through their recent "electoral coup," in which they prohibited close to a thousand candidates from running in the last parliamentary elections and thus eliminated the reformist movement from the political scene, they were able to look outward. Now they are positioning themselves to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of pan-Arabist socialist ideologies with Islamic fundamentalism.

Iran's ambitions present a danger not only to Israel, but also to the free world, whose values are fundamentally opposed to those of radical Islamic fundamentalism. It is therefore critical that the West unite behind a clear strategy to thwart Iran's ambitions.

A first step is to recognize that Iran's calculations, which may seem irrational, factor in its potential to exploit deep religious feelings and mobilize Shiite followers to fight in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in preparation for the return of the Savior Imam. It is a wily strategy that must be recognized and addressed by the West, lest Iran's Armageddon Day become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Omar Fadhil ( is a member of Friends of Democracy, a Baghdad-based organization to promote democratic values, and cofounder of the blog Iraq the Model (