Michael Ledeen — now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies after being “purged” from the American Enterprise Institute — had a very weird op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that Iran’s satellite launch last week was an attempt by the regime to immanentize the eschaton. “The terror masters in Tehran,” Ledeen wrote, believe the satellite represents “another step toward the return of the Shiite messiah, or Mahdi, the long-vanished 12th Imam”:
According to medieval Shiite texts, a message announcing the Mahdi’s return will be carried to the four corners of the world so that none will be able to say he did not know that the Last Days were soon to arrive.
Eerily, the rocket that carried the telecommunications satellite into space was named “Safir” (message) and the satellite itself “Omid” (hope). In short order we can expect to hear Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announcing the imminent return of the Mahdi. He has already described the launch as a “holy event.” These believers see the launch of Omid as the fulfillment of the Mahdi prophecy.
It’s true that many Iranian leaders, including President Ahmadinejad, believe in the return of the Hidden Imam and the Last Days (many American leaders believe similar things about Jesus Christ.) It’s also true that Ahmadinejad, a pious conservative Muslim, lards his speeches with references to the Hidden Imam, so much so that he was chastised last year by several Iranian scholars, who told him he “would be better off concentrating on Iran’s social problems…than indulging in such mystical rhetoric.” There is no evidence, however, that Iranian policy is guided by a strategy to hasten the Imam’s return. Iran’s actual policy choices over the last three decades indicate rational strategic calculations.
According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — who, not Ahmadinejad, actually controls Iranian foreign policy — is much more concerned with the here and now:
Not one of [Khamenei's] speeches refers to any apocalyptic sign or reveals any special eagerness for the return of the Hidden Imam. As the theory of the guardianship of the jurist requires, the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law. Therefore, it seems like Khamenei, unlike the Iranian president, does not welcome and military confrontation with the West, the United States, or Israel.
Preservation of the Islamic Republic, not some crazy desire to trigger the apocalypse, is what guides Iranian policy. This is not to defend the regime’s oppression of its people or its support for extremism. Iran certainly behaves in troubling ways, but in order to develop a U.S. policy that can effectively change that behavior, it’s important to understand what Iran’s actual goals are, and here Ledeen is no help. He is utterly committed to his vision of Iran as irrational, undeterable, and, in regard to international terrorism, omnipotent. Just as his fellow neocon eccentric Laurie Mylroie saw Saddam Hussein behind every act of anti-American terrorism from 1991 onward, so Ledeen perceives an Iranian finger on every Middle East trigger. Back in 2006, Ledeen went so far as to claim that Iran “now exercises effective control over” al Qaeda.
Personal anecdote: Last spring I was on a press call with an Army colonel to discuss Iranian support for Shia militias in Iraq. Ledeen was also on the call, he kept pestering the colonel to talk about “Iranian support for Al Qaeda in Iraq. I want to know about Iranian support for Al Qaeda in Iraq,” he said. The exasperated colonel had to keep telling Ledeen that there was no real evidence of Iranian support for Al Qaeda. Undeterred by that, or by the fact that both General David Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno statements that there is “no evidence” of Iranian support for Al Qaeda in Iraq, in yesterday’s WSJ piece Ledeen simply asserted “Iran’s considerable support for al Qaeda in Iraq.”
This is crackpot stuff. It’s pretty amazing that, while even the American Enterprise Institute now considers Ledeen’s views too marginal, the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mind airing them.