Ahmadinejad’s Messianism

Winds of change in the conservative camp of the Iranian regime can be detected in a series of rows about the paranormal.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken one step further to galvanize the world. The new claims are so eccentric that one cannot conceivably relate them to the socio-political particularities of the twenty-first century. The Iranian president has been accused of using paranormal activities to enforce his policies. Indeed, he is accused of attempting to control an army of genies to run the country. As strange as these claims may sound, they have not come from the margin of the Iranian political spectrum: the president has been accused by mainstream political figures in Iran.

Over the last six years, many of Ahmadinejad’s idiosyncratic sentiments have been making international headlines. However, observers have not been quite sure if they should take his statements as a reflection of his personal views or as part of his political mandate to run the government. His deep belief in Messianism and statements about the return of the Hidden Imam to change the new world order are now familiar, but I was particularly shocked, when I heard his theory for the American invasion of Iraq in which he claimed that this was based on a national strategy to prevent the occultation of the Imam who has been in hiding since the 9th century.

Lately, the Iranian judiciary has announced that a man called Ghaffari has been arrested over his alleged paranormal activities. Ghaffari is said to be an exorcist close to the president. Of course, this is not the first time that Ahmadinejad is accused of resorting to exorcism for political means: his electoral opponent Mir-Hussain Mousavi, currently under house arrest, accused him of governing the country through paranormal activity. However, back then the Supreme Leader, who was Ahmadinejad’s key supporter, described these accusations as ‘shameful’ in an important Friday prayer. He strongly defended Ahmadinejad and refuted the accusations. Two years after the Supreme Leader’s sermon, the president is under pressure for the same allegations again, but this time the charges are not coming from his traditional opponents, but from high profile hard-liners close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The Supreme Leader, now considered the key power broker in the country, has not commented. 

 

Last month, some of the hard-liners criticized the release of a controversial documentary which predicted an imminent occultation of the Hidden Imam. There is a widespread belief that the documentary was funded and supported by forces close to Ahmadinejad’s camp. It claims that the Supreme Leader is Seyyed Khorasani, the figure who according to prophecy will hand over the state to the Hidden Imam and that Ahmadinejad will be the major general in his army. Many pro-Khamenei figures have dismissed the claim, while still reserving the ‘possibility’ that the Leader is indeed Seyyed Khorasani. People such as Mojtaba Zolnour, Leader’s Deputy Representative to the Revolutionary Guard, said it is possible that Ayatollah Khamenei is that long-awaited man, but denied Ahmadinejad his role. The Office of the Supreme Leader maintained its silence, a silence which can be interpreted as wishing to avoid contradicting the prophecy.

But the arrest of Ghaffari, an exorcist close to the president, and the strong criticism from the pro-Khamenei hard-liners indicate that a wind of change is stirring in the conservative camp. The current pressure on the president is probably a repercussion of a recent disagreement between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad over the control of the Ministry of Intelligence. As Ahmadinejad digs his heels in, powerful figures close to the Supreme Leader use any pretext to discredit him. However, attacking Ahmadinejad for having “superstitious” ideas is quite ironic, since people close to the camp of the Supreme Leader use similar narratives to give the head of state transcendental legitimacy. By attacking these ideas to undermine Ahmadinejad, they undermine the basis of  the regime. Of course, before Ahmadinejad no other president has been accused of attempting to control the army of genies. Nonetheless, the “genie” as a paranormal creature is acknowledged by the Koran. The state which claims to have a  “divine Islamic mandate” and represent Islam in its entirety cannot afford to reject this concept as a mere superstition.

For many years prior to the arrival of Ahmadinejad, references to the Hidden Imam were ubiquitous in everyday politics. Over the last thirty years, the Hidden Imam has been more than an abstract messianic figure. He has been part and parcel of the political structure of the post-revolutionary order in everything from the constitution, to the political slogans incorporated into the role of the Islamic Savior. Hence, the pro-Khamenei hard-liners find themselves in a delicate position. 

However, paranormal forces do not seem to be effective in helping any side of the spectrum to address the regime’s crisis of legitimacy. Indeed, as the economy goes out of control, poverty widens its circle   and the hope for political reform diminishes even the army of genies seems to be powerless to prevent the unpredictable challenges facing the Islamic state.   

About the author

Afshin Shahi is a lecturer in Middle East Politics and International Relations at the University of Bradford. He tweets @AfshinShahi