In late November, the world learned that an interim nuclear agreement had been reached in Geneva between the P5 +1 countries–the five UN Security Council members plus Germany–and Iran. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has agreed to dilute its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to no more than 5 percent enriched uranium. In return, Iran will gain access to previously blocked overseas funds valued at $7 billion. Access to these funds will be linked to Iran’s progress in completing the dilution process. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the accord.
It would be a profound relief to think that, with this agreement, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been eliminated. But unless Iran’s leadership has given up its ‘Twelver’ eschatology along with its right to enrich uranium to whatever level it so chooses, the threat that Iran poses to its neighbours and the rest of the world remains.
The P5 + 1 countries signed a deal with Iran, a nation whose supreme leader subscribes to Twelver Shi’ism. So does 85 percent of Iran’s population. ‘Twelvers’, as they are often referred to, look forward to the coming of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure who will usher in an era of worldwide peace and justice based on Islam.
The Twelfth Imam was born Muhammad Ibn Hasan Ibn Ali in Samarra, Iraq in AD 868. When the eleventh imam died, his successor disappeared at the age of five or six. His body was never recovered. Some think that he fell into a well in Samarra. Twelvers believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but that he has been hidden from human sight all this time. From the time he disappeared up until the year 941–the period of time known as the ‘Minor Occultation’–the Twelfth Imam contacted his followers via deputies who acted as agents between him and his followers. Since 941 and up to the present day–the so-called ‘Major Occultation’–the Twelfth Imam has not been heard from. Nevertheless, Twelvers are convinced that the Twelfth Imam is not dead but merely hidden, and that at the End of Days, in a time of massive world upheaval, Allah will reveal him.
Although the vast majority of people are not likely to be familiar with Twelver eschatology, many no doubt have heard of the Mahdi, the ‘Islamic messiah’. The Mahdi is not Jesus’ counterpart, however. At a time of cataclysmic world events, the Mahdi emerges to lead the armies of Islam to victory. After a certain length of time (Twelver scholars don’t agree on the exact time), Islam’s ‘Jesus’, the Prophet Isa, returns to earth. Isa comes as a faithful Muslim following strict Islamic law. He functions as the Mahdi’s subordinate. One of his actions will be to break the cross or, in other words, to put an end to Christianity. Isa will marry, have children, and after dying a natural death, will be buried alongside the Prophet Muhammad.
Just how strongly does Iran’s current leadership hold to these ideas? There’s no doubt that Aytollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is a devout Twelver. He is reported to have told his fellow countrymen that he met personally with the Twelfth Imam. As for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, it’s not yet clear where he stands. Rouhani has been touted as a “moderate” by many in the West. Compared to his outspoken predecessor Ahmadinejad, he appears so. Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, has been critical of Ahmadinejad’s comments, many of which have no doubt made the faithful squirm, like Ahmadinejad’s assertion that the deceased Hugo Chavez would return along with Jesus and the Mahdi!
Despite his criticism of his predecessor, there has been a recent indication that Rouhani does indeed share the End Time ideology of Ahmadinejad. In the main media outlet of the regime, Rouhani credited his win of the presidency to the Mahdi. “This political election was due to the kindness of the last Islamic messiah [the Mahdi],” he is reported to have said. And, as others have pointed out, Rouhani would not have been allowed to run for president if he had not been thoroughly vetted by the Ayatollah, a vetting which would have included his theological beliefs. Only time will tell if Rouhani is the moderate some believe him to be.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because Twelvers believe that the Mahdi will emerge at a time of great world upheaval. It matters because many Twelvers think that the time of the Mahdi’s appearance is near. And it certainly matters if the current Iranian leadership feels, as did Ahmadinejad, that it is the responsibility of the Iranian government to prepare the way for the Mahdi’s return. “Iran must become the platform for the appearance of the Lord of the Age [the Mahdi],” claimed Ahmadinejad.
If the Mahdi comes at a time of chaos, then Iran, if it is to provide a “platform” for the Mahdi, must somehow create the necessary conditions for his appearance. What will hasten his return? A nuclear strike against the Little Satan (Israel)? Against the Great Satan (the US)? Iran, a country run by Twelvers, should be enriching no uranium. The interim agreement signed in Geneva in November has only made the world a more dangerous place.