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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Emergence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Regime

Filed under: Iran
Publication: Special Reports

Iran’s increasingly confrontational stance with the West coincided with the surprise victory on June 24, 2005, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran, in a runoff election for the Iranian presidency. His biography was considerably different than his most prominent predecessors. He had no clerical background. His formative years were during the Iran-Iraq War when he was attached for a brief period to an engineering unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Later, he joined a Revolutionary Guards intelligence unit, although he was never technically one of their officers, since he was seconded to Revolutionary Guards from the popular Basij paramilitary. Details surrounding his exact combat background remain murky. Nevertheless, his name came to be connected with one of the most daring commando operations in the Iran-Iraq War when the Revolutionary Guards infiltrated over 100 miles inside Iraqi territory in 1987 to sabotage the Iraqi oil refineries in Kirkuk.1

During this period, Ahmadinejad established close ties with commanders in the Revolutionary Guards who would later become important political allies. Indeed, two decades later, Ahmadinejad would turn to his fellow veterans from the Revolutionary Guards to take up key positions in his government. He gave veterans from the 1980 Iran-Iraq war nine of twenty-one ministerial portfolios.2 His first Minister of Defense, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar had been a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards, while his successor, during Ahmadinejad’s second term, Ahmad Vahidi, had been the commander of the Quds Force, the elite foreign operations unit of the Revolutionary Guards.

Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2005 through 2010, Manouchehr Mottaki, had served as a liaison officer between the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Finally, Ahmadinejad replaced Hassan Rowhani, a cleric, as the Secretary to the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator with Ali Larijani, who also came out of the Revolutionary Guards. Larijani was succeeded in late 2007 by Saeed Jalili whose background was in the Revolution Guards Basij militia.

Ahmadinejad swept the provincial governors who had been appointed by President Rafsanjani and President Khatami in Iran’s thirty provinces from power, replacing them with Revolutionary Guard officers and other officials who came out of the Iranian security services. More than any of his predecessors, Ahmadinejad opened the door to the Revolutionary Guards to emerge as another power center in the Iranian governing system, whose importance would continue beyond Ahmadinejad’s term in office.

A former prosecutor-general of the Islamic Republic called this massive entry of the Revolutionary Guards into the Iranian political world nothing less than a “military takeover.” Ahmadinejad’s support of the Revolutionary Guards was very much a reciprocal relationship – he gave them important appointments, and they fully backed him politically. In fact, during the 2005 campaign, the Revolutionary Guard command and its Basij militia functioned like party activists in a western presidential race: they turned out the vote, acted as election monitors, and even got into the business of buying votes.3

After his victory, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Yahya Rahim Safavi, commented: “President-elect Ahmadinejad is a son of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.” He then added: “It is our duty to make sure that he succeeds.”4 For his part, Ahmadinejad interpreted his election mandate as an expression of the people’s desire to see “a revival of the Islamic Revolution’s ideals.” He believed his rise to power marked a turning point for Iranian history because, in his words: “A new Islamic revolution had arisen.”5

In the legislative branch of the Iranian system, the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guards was also accompanied by a decline in the power of Iran’s clerics, which constituted a majority in Iran’s first Majlis, or Parliament, but by 2008, only had 30 representatives out of 290.6 At the same time, the Council of Guardians, which screens candidates for the Majlis, gave preference for war veterans from the Iran-Iraq War when they gave approval for those seeking to run in Iran’s parliamentary election. Iran looked less like a theocracy and more like a country ruled by military elites.7 They not only assured Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election victory on the second ballot, but also his re-election in 2009 on the first ballot, setting off mass demonstrations over voting irregularities.

The Adoption of Apocalyptic Ideologies by the New Elites

Besides the escalation of Ahmadinjad’s anti-western incendiary rhetoric, the second feature of his presidency that has received enormous attention has been his repeated references to the imminent return of the Twelfth or Hidden Imam. In Twelver Shiite tradition, Muhammad ibn Hasan was the twelfth descendent of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was born in 868, but at the age of six, he disappeared into an underground dungeon in Samarra, Iraq. According to Shiite tradition he is expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment, when a new era of divine justice will prevail, and Shiite Islam will be recognized as the true global faith. The Mahdi is also called by other names, like Imam al-Zaman, sometimes translated as the “Lord of the Age.” For a time in the tenth century, Shiites believed they could be in contact with him through intermediaries, but even this connection was severed in 941.

Ahmadinejad made the re-appearance of the Twelfth Imam as the Mahdi into a hallmark of his presidency. He declared in an address to the Iranian nation shortly after his 2005 election victory: “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.”8 What he meant was that government policy should seek to hasten his return.9 In September, he sponsored in Tehran the first annual International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine.10 He required his cabinet members to sign a symbolic pledge of allegiance to the Twelfth Imam.11 And in the years that followed, he invoked the Mahdi’s name at special historical events for Iran, like the launch of the first Iranian satellite into orbit on an Iranian rocket.

The Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, promoted by the Iranian regime under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a pilgrimage site where the Hidden Imam is expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi. (Mohammad Akhlaghi, Fars News Agency)
The Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, promoted by the Iranian regime under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a pilgrimage site where the Hidden Imam is expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi. (Mohammad Akhlaghi, Fars News Agency)

Ahmadinejad made well-publicized visits to the Jamkaran Mosque, which was built on the basis of a tradition that the Hidden Imam re-appeared in 984 and ordered its construction; in the past, it had been a site of pilgrimage for those anticipating his arrival and who make requests to him by dropping petitions into the Jamkaran well. According to some Shiite traditions, the Mahdi will emerge at the site by coming out of the very same Jamkaran well. Despite his government’s economic struggles with unemployment at 30 percent, Ahmadinejad allocated $20 million in 2005 to expand the mosque complex at Jamkaran, and further funds for commemorating the Mahdi’s birthday. Until the 1990s, Jamkaran had actually been a minor pilgrimage site. By 2000, it evolved into a major center of Shiite pilgrimage. Its small mosque was replaced in the following years with an enormous shrine. The Iranians planned on building a facility for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.12 There is no question that Ahmadinejad and his supporters were exploiting this decade-long trend and adding to it a new state-sponsored Mahdism for purposes of political mobilization, especially in Iran’s rural areas.

Ahmadinejad took his beliefs abroad, as well. In his debut before the UN General Assembly on September 17, 2005, Ahmadinejad ended his address with a clear reference to the Mahdi:

From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all Divine religions will be fulfilled with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace. O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.13

Upon his return to Iran, Ahmadinejad visited Qom, the religious center of Shiite learning, and shared with the ayatollahs with whom he met that a “halo-like light” enveloped him during his UN address. He told them that someone in the audience told him that the halo formed around him as he began to speak and remained with him until he finished. He confided to the religious leaders: “I felt it myself too.” He then explained: “I felt all of a sudden the atmosphere changed, and for 27-28 minutes none of the leaders blinked.” The importance of what had happened according to Ahmadinejad was as follows: “They were astonished, as if a hand held them there and made them sit. It had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic.”14

Ahmadinejad’s beliefs about the Mahdi’s arrival had two distinctive characteristics. First, this is not an event for some day in the distant future; it is imminent. It was reported in November 2006 that Ahmadinejad told a visiting foreign minister from an unnamed Islamic country that the current crisis in Iran “presaged the coming of the Hidden Imam, who would appear within two years.”15 Presumably he was referring to the Iranian nuclear crisis with the West. On another occasion he said that it was his mission to hand over Iran to the Mahdi at the end of his presidency.16 He completely rejected the view of his critics, who said that the arrival of the Mahdi was a matter for the distant future: “It is very bad to say that the imam will not emerge for another few hundred years; who are you to say that?”17

Second, under conditions of global conflict and even chaos, the Mahdi’s arrival can be accelerated.18 For example, in a meeting with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and two other EU foreign ministers in New York on September 15, 2005, Ahmadinejad shifted the focus of their conversation unexpectedly and asked the European diplomats: “Do you know why we should wish for chaos at any price?” He then answered his own rhetorical question: “Because after chaos, we can see the greatness of Allah.”19 Given this belief structure, the more confrontational Iran becomes in its relations with the West, the more its religious objective of bringing about the Mahdi’s arrival is served.

Belief in a Messiah is part of the religious doctrine of the other monotheistic faiths, as well. Traditionally, Shiites have not been messianic enthusiasts to the extent of Ahmadinejad and his followers, preferring to pursue a more quietist approach to their religion in which they are not trying to manipulate the timing of the end of days.20 In fact Shiism’s mainstream leaders have voiced serious reservations about Mahdism. The same can be said for parts of the Iranian establishment. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani attacked the rising interest in the arrival of the Mahdi when it appeared it was becoming more popular under Ahmadinejad: “The affairs of a country and nation cannot be run on the basis of a claim made by someone that the Lord of the Age is pleased. No one has met the Lord of the Age and we haven’t heard him. So how can such a claim be made?”21

It is the combination of these two features of his world view that have very disturbing implications. According to Shiite apocalyptic thought, after the Hidden Imam returns, the world will be enveloped by war and plague. Mehdi Khaliji, an Iranian Shiite scholar who was trained in the Iranian religious seminaries of Qom, has noted that there are apocalyptic hadiths (received Shiite traditions) that the Mahdi will not return unless one-third of the world’s population is killed and another third dies.22 But Ahmadinejad and his followers believe man can actively create the conditions for the Mahdi’s arrival in the here and now, rather than at some distant date at the end of time. What is unclear is whether creating the pre-conditions for his appearance includes instigating violent scenarios that have been traditionally reserved for the period after he arrives.

Where did Ahmadinejad obtain this world view and how prevalent was it among the Iranian elites? While Mahdism was not promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini at the start of the Islamic Revolution, it seemed to have been given a boost during the Iran-Iraq War, among officers serving with the Revolutionary Guards. References that the Mahdi would help Iran win the war became common. Iranian state media carried stories of soldiers who claimed to have seen the Mahdi on a white horse leading them into battle.

Khomeini’s government used belief in the Mahdi to motivate hundreds of thousands of volunteers who were part of the Revolutionary Guards’ Basij militia. It even hired professional actors to play the role of the Mahdi on the front lines; they would wear a white shroud and ride a white horse while blessing the troops. This technique helped boost morale and provide young recruits with the motivation to become martyrs in human wave attacks against the Iraqi Army.23

Just before his death, Khomeini spoke openly about the arrival of the Mahdi as the near-term development, connected to the hegemonic ambitions of the Islamic Republic: “our revolution is not specific to Iran’ the revolution of the Iranian people is a point of beginning for the flaring of the great Islamic revolution in the Muslim world under the banner of the Guardian Imam (Mahdi).” He then expressed his hope that the Mahdi’s “reappearance take place in our present times.” The function of the Islamic Republic, according to Khomeini, was to prepare for the advent of the Mahdi and the objective of establishing “a global Islamic Government.”24 Hence, the ideology of Ahmadinejad and his regime did not represent a sharp break from what Khomeini himself declared in his final years.

It should have come as no surprise that high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards continued to believe in the coming of the Mahdi well after their service along the Iraqi front in the 1980s. Indeed, the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War became an important reserve for the spread of Mahdism especially within the Revolutionary Guards. Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who replaced General Safavi as commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told his fellow officers from the Revolutionary Guards in January 2008: “Our Imam did not limit the movement of the Islamic Revolution to this country, but drew greater horizons. Our duty is to prepare the way for an Islamic world government and the rule of the Lord of the Time [the Hidden Imam].”25 The Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Seyed Hassan Firuzabadi, was also a veteran of the Revolutionary Guards; on July 12, 2009, the Iranian news agency published a letter by Firuzabadi addressed to the Hidden Imam.26

Given this background, the prevalence of Mahdism and apocalyptic religious beliefs among Ahmadinejad’s allies in the Revolutionary Guards makes sense. It is also significant given that the Revolutionary Guards have developed detailed programs for political and religious indoctrination of its soldiers and officers.27 This ideological training includes courses in the fundamentals of Islamic belief which stress, inter alia, studies on the imamate and the Hidden Imam.28 Thus the Revolutionary Guards’ control of Iran’s most sensitive weapons systems, like its ballistic missiles forces, and especially its nuclear program, might be cause for special concern if they do, in fact, believe it is their destiny to hasten the return of the Mahdi by inciting world chaos.29 It has been observed that there are factions among its mid-ranking commanders who have apocalyptic views and who regard themselves as “soldiers of the Mahdi.”30 This element believes in actively taking measures to prepare for the Mahdi. Because of a lack of documentation, it is difficult to establish the extent to which Mahdism has penetrated the Revolutionary Guards officer corps. Nevertheless, it would be an error to rule out the influence of these doctrines at multiple levels of the Revolutionary Guards’ chain of command.

Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism was not only a religious tradition that he adopted from his time with the Revolutionary Guards. During his student days in the late 1970s, he was linked with a secretive Islamist movement known as the Hujjatiyya Society.31 Founded in 1954, its twofold mission was to fight the Bahai faith and pave the way for the appearance of the Mahdi. It did not accept Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, the rule of the jurisprudent, since the imminent arrival of the Mahdi make a cleric to represent him in the interim unnecessary.

Khomeini cracked down on the movement in 1983, but it had already gained adherents among significant Iranian elites, including two future foreign ministers of the Islamic Republic: Kamal Kharrazi, who served under President Khatami, and Ali Akbar Velayeti, who would continue to exercise influence as the diplomatic advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.32 At the time the Hujjatiyya was banned, two ministers of the Iranian government were dismissed because of their association with the movement.33 Moreover, the purge of Hujjatiyya members led to the dismissal of eight of the provincial governors in the Islamic Republic. Yet, despite the moves against the Hujjatiyya, it continued to have influence on certain sectors of the Iranian government and on key individuals who would take on important positions in the Islamic Republic in the years to come.

When Ahmadinejad came into power, one of the few high-level officials from the previous Khatami government he did not seek to replace was Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. Aghazadeh is rumored also to be a Hujjatiyya member.34 The Hujjatiyya was organized through secret societies and under different organizational names, so the extent of its membership is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, there are indications that the Hujjatiyya has penetrated some of the most sensitive positions in the Iranian political establishment.

Regardless of the level of support in the Islamic Republic for Ahmadinejad’s advance of Mahdism in public discourse, Iranian officials noted the renewed political activity of the Hujjatiyya even before the 2005 presidential elections. President Khatami’s spokesman said openly in early 2003 that there were Hujjatiyya Society members who were infiltrating the Iranian government.35 His minister of the interior went so far as to say that the Hujjatiyya represented “a clear and present danger for national security.”36 Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism had been advanced and supported by those who served as his religious mentors, particularly Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, who attributed Ahmadinejad’s victory in the presidential elections to the will of the Mahdi.37 Like his predecessors, after he won the elections, Ahmadinejad headed for the city of Qom to meet with Iran’s top clerics. Yet before sitting with the grand ayatollahs, it was noticeable that he went to consult first with Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi, where the two had a high-profile exchange in a large conference room meeting that was well attended. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s confidential advisor, Mojtabi Samarah Hashemi, is also known to be very close to Mesbah-e Yazdi. Therefore, his views are particularly important to consider.

In 2005, Mesbah-e Yazdi’s monthly publication argued that the Koran “calls on believers to wage war against unbelievers and prepare the way for the advent of the Mahdi and conquering the world.”38 In other words, he made an explicit link between armed conflict and the Mahdi’s arrival. He has been quoted making statements that extol violence more generally: “We must wipe away the shameful stain whereby some people imagine that violence has no place in Islam.”39 One of his disciples, Mohsen Gharavian, gave a lecture at the religious seminary in Qom providing the religious justification for actually using nuclear weapons, according to Islamic Law. The reformist Internet daily, Rooz, noted that it was the first time any of the top religious leaders in Iran had given explicit authorization for the use of nuclear weapons. It was the first public policy change to come out of “the Mesbah Yazdi group.”40

Mesbah-e Yazdi’s own lectures repeatedly stressed the theme of hastening the coming of the Mahdi. He spoke at an event in October 2006, marking the Mahdi’s birthday. Among the actions that he considered to be the “noblest duty” were those that “weaken the control of the oppressive and tyrannical regimes over the oppressed” – which was a new religious justification of the export of the Iranian revolution. He let his audience understand that these actions can hasten “the return of the Hidden Imam.” He continued: “If we wish to expedite the Mahdi’s coming, we must remove any obstacles.”41 In the same address, he stressed that the “greatest obligation of those awaiting the appearance of the Mahdi is fighting heresy and global arrogance” (emphasis added). (Global arrogance is a euphemism, used by Ahmadinejad as well, for the West as a whole, but primarily the United States.)42

Mesbah-e Yazdi is portrayed by his opponents as an isolated figure whose impact on past Iranian political life was very limited. This assessment does not take into account that Mesbah-e Yazdi did not operate overtly, but rather behind the scenes. He quietly built up his influence with key Revolutionary Guards and Basij figures over many years.43 Moreover, he seems to have slowly erected a network of supporters and allies from his teaching position at the Haqqani School in Qom, which graduates attended before entering top positions in the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, as well as in the Iranian Judiciary.44 The Haqqani School was also known to have employed faculty who came out of the Hujjatiyya. It provided many high officials to the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who supported the hard-line faction in the Revolutionary Guards, was a Haqqani graduate.45 Moreover, three Haqqani graduates became Ministers of Intelligence and Security: the infamous Ali Fallahian (from the Mykonos attack in Germany and AMIA operation in Argentina), Ali Younesi, and Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei.46 The latter, an Ahmadinejad appointee, was believed to have a Hujjatiyya background, as well.47 The belief in the imminent arrival of the Mahdi made many inroads into Ahmadinejad’s government.

Mesbah-e Yazdi also had influential allies like the Iranian professor, Ahmad Fardid, who, while a specialist in German philosophy, subsequently became a devoted supporter of Mahdism as well as an advocate of neo-Nazi anti-Semitic theories.48 He may be one of the contributors to Ahmadinejad’s outspoken anti-Semitism. As in the case of Mesbah-e Yazdi, Fardid’s students were appointed to top positions in Iranian press and cultural institutions.49 Fardid also served as a lecturer in the Political Bureau of the Revolutionary Guards, whose mission was to ideologically inculcate its elite personnel.50 By 2011, there appeared to be a growing rift between Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-e Yazdi, who began to join the chorus of religious leaders who attacked Ahmadinejad for saying that he was directly connected to the Hidden Imam.51

There were other important religious authorities with whom Ahmadinejad met, who took strong positions advocating the study of Mahdism. One of Iran’s leading hard-line clerics who supported speculation about the Mahdi was Grand Ayatollah Nouri-Hamedani from Qom. He explicitly asserted in one of his sermons that one of the pre-conditions for the Mahdi’s appearance is the killing of the Jews: “One should fight the Jews and vanquish them so that conditions for the advent of the Hidden Imam can be met [emphasis added].”52 This might help explain how in Ahmadinejad’s circles, the preoccupation with the arrival of the Mahdi and the destruction of Israel appeared at times to be mutually supportive. Internally, Nouri-Hamedani called on the Shiite religious seminaries in Qom to do more research into religious texts concerning the Hidden Imam. In 2008, the former president of Iran, Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani, described the penetration of Mahdist beliefs in the Islamic Republic as a whole saying, “we find it to be very widespread in Iran today.53

Ahmadinejad’s focus on the arrival of the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, was not initially opposed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Prior to Khamenei’s entry into politics, he received his religious education not in Qom, but rather in Mashhad, where it is not uncommon to find clerics who claimed to be in direct contact with the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the founder of the Hujjatiyya, Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi, came out of the Mashhad seminary. Khamenei thus would not find Mahdism alien in any way. Reportedly, he told former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar back in 2004, before Ahmadinejad’s election, that the Islamic Republic was waiting for the return of the Hidden Imam, at which time he expected the destruction of Israel.54 Khamenei described Mesbah-e Yazdi as “one of the leading scholars of Islam.”55

A revealing exchange between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad disclosed what were the real potential sources of tension between them. Khameini mocked Ahmadinejad’s observation that he would only serve as president for two years until the arrival of the “Lord of the Age.” Ahmadinejad retorted that while the Supreme Leader thinks that he appoints the Iranian president, in fact, it was the “Lord of the Age” who made the appointment.56 In 2011 Khamenei openly attacked those who said they were taking instructions from the Mahdi, or that they were in contact with him. The commander of the Basij, Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, was even more explicit about criticizing Ahmadinejad’s use of messianism for political purposes in their quarrels with Iran’s Supreme Leader; he issued a warning to the Iranian public against “those with apparent interest in Messianism [Mahdaviat] who may fight against the Guardianship [of the jurist].”57 This was clearly not an attack against the idea of the returning Hidden Imam, but rather it was directed against those who exploit it for their own political purposes – namely President Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad, The Revolutionary Guards, and the Destruction of Israel

Another trademark of Ahmadinejad’s presidency was his call for the destruction of Israel. During his speech at a conference entitled the “World without Zionism,” held in Tehran on October 26, 2005, Ahmadinejad declared: “Our dear Imam ordered this Jerusalem-occupying regime must be erased from the page of time.” The New York Times translated his words as meaning that Israel “must be wiped off the map.” Just like the case of his talk about the Mahdi, the call for the destruction of Israel was widespread among Iranian elites and especially at the command level of the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared in a Friday sermon on December 15, 2000: “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.”

The Revolutionary Guards, as defenders of the Iranian regime, adopted the ideological positions of the Supreme Leader faithfully. Thus their former commander, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, gave a speech in February 2008 in which he said: “With God’s help the time has come for the Zionist regime’s death sentence.” His successor, General Muhammad Ali Jafari, picked up on Khamenei’s theme of Israel being cancerous in a message to the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah: “In the near future, we will witness the destruction of the cancerous microbe Israel by the strong and capable hands of the nation of Hizbullah.”58

The Revolutionary Guards had many opportunities to express their position that Israel must be destroyed. At a Tehran center of the Basij Resistance, the mobilization forces of the Revolutionary Guards, the Iranians hung a banner saying in Farsi and English: “Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world.” The Revolutionary Guards had operational responsibility for Iran’s missile forces. It was therefore noteworthy that they repeatedly placed billboards on the side of transport trucks that carried Shahab-3 missiles, which called for eliminating Israel. For example, Iranian television broadcast a parade in Tehran on September 22, 2004, in which one of these billboards stated in Farsi and even in English: “Israel must be wiped off the map.” Since the Shahab-3 had sufficient range to strike Israel, the Revolutionary Guards were essentially linking their military capabilities with their intentions against Israel rather explicitly.

More recently, after the November 2011 death of Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a senior commander from the Revolutionary Guards who pioneered Iran’s missile program, it was revealed that he wrote in his will that he wanted it written on his tombstone: “Here lies buried the man who wanted to destroy Israel.”59 Thus the idea that Iran’s missile forces were being developed for the purposed of destroying Israel was well-embedded in the thinking of Ahmadinejad’s allies in the Revolutionary Guards.


Footage from Tehran military parade, Channel 1 (Iran), IRINN TV (Iran), September 22, 2004
Footage from Tehran military parade, Channel 1 (Iran), IRINN TV (Iran), September 22, 2004


Footage of Shahab-3 missile transport vehicles on parade. Visible on the front is a draped slogan stating “Israel Must Be Destroyed.” Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Islamic year 1389 (March 2010-March 2011)
Footage of Shahab-3 missile transport vehicles on parade. Visible on the front is a draped slogan stating “Israel Must Be Destroyed.” Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Islamic year 1389 (March 2010-March 2011)

Ahmadinejad’s Rivalry with Khamenei

To the extent that Khamenei would have problems with Ahmadinejad, they ultimately would emanate from their potential political rivalry, for the Iranian president’s Revolutionary Guards regime has progressively become an increasingly stronger center of power that could pose a challenge in the future to the clerics, especially if an alternative cleric to Khamenei were chosen to lead them. These tensions turned into an open clash on April 17, 2011, when Ahmadinejad fired his Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, who was close to Khamenei. Within a week, Khamenei forced Ahmadinejad to reinstate him. The leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who had been instrumental in bringing Ahmadinejad to power, clearly sided with Khamenei in this contest for power, but had also proven again that they were the real force in Iran deciding who would lead.60

With Ahmadinejad’s second term coming to an end in 2013, it is not clear who his replacement might be or even if Khamenei might just eliminate the presidency, preferring instead a stronger prime minister. But however this issue is resolved, it is likely that the Revolutionary Guards will have a pivotal role in the next Iranian regime, making it necessary to understand their orientation concerning the issues at the top of Iran’s national security agenda.

The Mahdist Narrative and Deterrence

Despite these political struggles, the Mahdist narrative advanced by Ahmadinejad received a boost from the Arab uprisings in 2011. This was the theme of a DVD entitled The Appearance Is Imminent, which was issued by a Mahdist institute in Iran that distributed several million copies of the film.61 The film analyzes the fall of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, and the chaos in Iraq as part of the pre-conditions for the Mahdi’s arrival. The cult of the Mahdi was still very much alive, affecting all levels of the Iranian system from the Revolutionary Guards to significant parts of the general populace. While these beliefs might have been ridiculed by many urbanized Iranians, especially those who had undergone a degree of secularization, they still had appeal for those residing in small towns and villages across Iran. Thus while Ahmadinejad was in his second and final term, his cult-like obsession with Mahdism, which had served as a central theme in his religious style of governance, would continue to influence the Iranian political system in the future.

How does Mahdism affect the nuclear issue? The Iranian internet daily Rooz tried to analyze the link between the two subjects: “Some of those close to Ahmadinejad, who frequently speak [of the need] to prepare the ground for the Mahdi’s return, explicitly link the [fate of] the Iranian nuclear dossier to this need.”62 The article described how in private meetings, these associates of the Iranian president stressed that Iran’s resistance to global pressure on the nuclear front was one of the ways to prepare the ground for the era of the Mahdi.

The question of whether Iran’s nuclear capabilities would help bring about the Mahdi’s arrival or be used in the violent era which he would usher in is somewhat academic, since in Ahmadinejad’s view, the Mahdi is to join this world imminently, and not at some distant date at the end of history. In any case, the Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated a propensity to be willing to absorb enormous losses in the battlefield rather than to accept a rational reading of its national interests.

For this reason it continued its war on Iraq for six years, even though it recovered all its lost territories that had been occupied by Saddam Hussein by 1982. Moreover, in 1988 when Iran accepted a cease-fire, it was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards who opposed stopping the Iran-Iraq War and wanted to go on fighting.63 Thus the ideological proclivities of the Revolutionary Guards must be taken into account when trying to calculate how Iran might behave with nuclear weapons, especially as its political power in Iran is on the ascendancy.

Given the heavy indoctrination of the Revolutionary Guards and the ongoing influence of Iran’s most hard-line clerics on their officer corps, it would be an error to assume that their emergence in Iranian politics as a dominant internal force will make Iran more pragmatic and rational, if it gets into a confrontation with the West. Moreover, their religious and ideological training raises serious questions over whether Western deterrence doctrines can be expected to work with a nuclear Iran.

* * *


1. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 32.
2. Ali Alfoneh, “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall, 2008.
3. Ali M. Ansari, Iran Under Ahmadinejad: The Politics of Confrontation, Adelphi Paper 393, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies with Routledge, 2007).
4. Amir Taheri, “Ahmadinejad: Muscular Style,” Arab News, July 9, 2005.
5. Robin Wright, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 317.
6. Raz Zimmt, “Has the Status of Iranian Clerics been Eroded,” Iran-Pulse, September 22, 2008.
7. Ali Alfoneh, “Iran’s Parliamentary Elections and the Revolutionary Guards: Creeping Coup d’Etat,” AEI Online, February 21, 2008.
8. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 92.
9. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: Norton, 2007), 134.
10. Mohebat Ahdiyyih, “Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2008.
11. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival, 134.
12. Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism (London: I. B. Taurus, 2009) p. 230.
13. Islamic Republic News Agency, September 17, 2005.
14. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 94–95.
15. A. Savyon and Y. Mansharof, “The Doctrine of Mahdism: In the Ideological and Political Philosphy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi,” MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis #357, May 2007.
16. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 93.
17. Nazila Fathi, “Iranian Clerics Tell the President to Leave the Theology to Them,” New York Times, May 20, 2008.
18. Mehdi Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2008). Khalaji notes on page 26: “Certain Shiite traditions state that the Imam’s return will come at a time of world chaos, and Ahmadinejad seems at times to promote chaos for that end.”
19. “Paper: French FM in Memoir – Ahmadinejad Tells European FMs in 2005 Meeting, ‘After the Chaos We Can See the Greatness of Allah,'” MEMRI Blog, February 2, 2007 (Source: al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, February 2, 2007).
20. Ze’ev Maghen, “Occulation in Perpetuum: Shi’ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Journal, Spring, 2008.
21. Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Network 2, November 1, 2008.
22. Mehdi Khalaji, “Apocalyptic Visions and Iran’s Security Policy,” Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, eds. Deterring the Ayatollahs: Complications in Applying Cold War Strategy to Iran (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2007), 32. See especially footnote 6.
23. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival, 132; and Matthias Kuntzel, “Ahmadinejad’s Demons: A Child of the Revolution Takes Over,” New Republic, April 24, 2006.
24. Rashid Yahuh, “Mahdism in Contemporary Iran: Ahmadinejad and the Occult Imam,” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, June 2011.
25. Amir Taheri, The Persian Night, 209.
27. Ali Alfoneh, “Indoctrination of the Revolutionary Guards, American Enterprise Institute, AEI Online, February 20, 2009.
28. Dr. Saeid Golkar, “The Ideological-Political Training of Iran’s Basij,” Middle East Brief, Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies, September 2010, No. 44.
29. Mehdi Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics, viii.
30. Mehdi Khalaji, “Apocalyptic Visions and Iran’s Security Policy,” Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, eds. Deterring the Ayatollahs: Complications in Applying Cold War Strategy to Iran (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2007), 31.
31. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 15.
32. Ibid., 11.
33. Anoushiravan Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (London: Routeledge, 1995), 8–9.
34. Amir Taheri, The Persian Night, 273.
35. Bill Samii, “Is the Hajjatieh Society Making a Comeback?” Iran Report, Radio Free Europe–Radio Liberty, September 13, 2004.
36. Amir Taheri.
37. “Iran’s Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi; Mentor, Leader, Power Broker,” BBC Monitoring Service, February 5, 2006. Ahdiyyih, op. cit.
38. Mohebat Ahdiyyih, “Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2008, pp. 27-36,
39. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 98.
40. “Reformist Iranian Internet Daily: A New Fatwa States that Religious Law Does Not Forbid Use of Nuclear Weapons,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch – No. 1096, February 17, 2006.
41. Savyon and Mansharof, op. cit.
42. Ibid.
43. “Iran Politics: Tehran University Scholar Stresses Role of Messbah-Yazdi” WikiLeaks, September 2, 2009.
44. “Iran’s Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi; Mentor, Leader, Power Broker,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, February, 5, 2006.
45. Shmuel Bar, Rachel Machtiger, and Shmuel Bachar, Iranian Nuclear Decision Making under Ahmadinejad (Herzliya: Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, 2008), 17. See also: “New IRGC Head Jafari Described as Better Soldier and Moderate than Safavi,” Wikileaks, September 4, 2007.
46. Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of the Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution (London: I.B. Taurus, 2007), 183.
47. “Shi’ite Supremists Emerge from Iran’s Shadows,” Asia Times, September 9, 2005.
48. Abbas Milani, “Pious Populist,” Boston Review, November/December 2007.
49. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad, 109.
50. Frederic Wehrey, Jerrold D. Green, Brian Nichiporuk, Alireza Nader, Lydia Hansell, Rasool Nafisi, and S. R. Bohandi, The Rise of the Pasdaran:Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009), 36.
51. Ali Chenar, “The Politics of the Hidden Imam,” PBS Frontline, Tehran Bureau, July 27, 2011.
52. “Ayatollah Nouri-Hamedani: ‘Fight the Jews and Vanquish Them So As To Hasten the Coming of the Hidden Imam,'” MEMRI, Special Dispatch – No. 897, April 22, 2005.
53. Yahuh, op. cit.
54. Amir Taheri, The Persian Night, 310.
55. Kasra Naji. Ahmadinehad, 102.
56. Mohebat Ahadiyyih, “Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi,” op. cit.
57. Ali Alfoneh, “Ahmadinejad Versus Khamenei: IRGC Wins, Civilians Lose,” Middle East Outlook, American Enterprise Institute, May 25, 2011.
58. Joshua Teitelbaum, What Iranian Leaders Really Say About Doing Away with Israel: A Refutation of the Campaign to Excuse Ahmadinejad’s Incitement to Genocide (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008),.pp. 15-17.
59. “The Will of an Iranian Hero: ‘To Destroy Israel'” Ynet (Hebrew), November 29, 2011. For the original quote in Farsi, see periodical of the Basij:
60. Aliverza Nader, “Ahmadinejad vs. the Revolutionary Guards,” RAND Commentary, July 2011.
61. Yahuh, op. cit.
62. A. Savyon and Y. Mansharof, “The Doctrine of Mahdism,” op. cit.
63. Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 105.