Mahdism: The Apocalyptic Insanity Behind Iran’s Nuclear Program

Shi'a Muslims in Iran commemorating the death of Hussain, whom they revere as one of the true early leaders of Islam.

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on December 19, 2023

The West’s greatest blind spot concerning Iran’s nuclear program can perhaps be summed up in one word — Mahdism.

The Muslim doctrine of Mahdism revolves around an eschatological figure — the Mahdi, or “Rightly Guided One”—who vanquishes evil and ushers in Islamic rule during the end times. Both Sunnis and Shias believe in the Mahdi, though they have different versions of his exact nature and role.

Iran’s Apocalypse Doctrine

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shia nation of the “Twelver” variety. Like all Shias, Iran believes that true leadership of the Muslim world belongs to the prophet Muhammad’s bloodline, beginning with Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law through his marriage to the prophet’s daughter, Fatima). According to Shia teaching, Ali was the first “rightly guided” imam, followed by his male descendants. Like Muhammad, all of them are seen as infallible and the true interpreters of Islamic law.

For the Twelvers of Iran, Muhammad ibn Hasan — better known as Muhammad al-Mahdi — is the twelfth and final imam (other Shias, such as the Fivers and Seveners, believe the Imamate ends with the fifth and seventh imams, respectively). Born in 868, al-Mahdi is believed to have gone into a state of “occultation” in 874 — meaning Allah miraculously caused him to “disappear.” Still alive, the 1,155 year-old Muhammad al-Mahdi is patiently biding his time to return and usher in the takeover of the Muslim — and eventually entire — world.

While such traditions may seem harmless enough, Mahdism poses a serious, though vastly overlooked, threat to international security, primarily because its current articulation in Iran requires its adherents to take “proactive” steps to help usher in the Mahdi — most notably by initiating an “apocalyptic” showdown with the “greater” and “lesser” satans, namely, America and Israel.

An Ideological Army

No entity is more wedded to — or indoctrinated in — Mahdism than Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, as described by Iran’s 1979 Constitution, is an “ideological army,” mandated with an “ideological mission of jihad in Allah’s way.”

As Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, then representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC, said in a 2012 speech, “The IRGC is one of the tools for paving the way for the emergence of the Imam of the Age [Mahdi] in the field of a regional and international awakening.”

In 2015, Mehdi Taeb, a leading cleric and brother of Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, made clear how they are to “pave the way.” In a speech, he called on IRGC members to “remove the obstacles to the emergence of the Imam of the Age, the most important of which is the existence of the usurper regime of Israel (emphasis added).”

Israel Must Die

A Middle East Institute paper from 2022, titled “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Rising Cult of Mahdism,” elaborates on the growing importance of eliminating Israel in the context of Iranian Mahdism:

The IRGC is increasingly understanding and communicating its official policy of eradicating Israel and Zionism through the doctrine of Mahdism. While the destruction of Israel has been the IRGC’s working objective since its inception, like other Islamist groups this hostility was borne out of viewing the Jewish state [as] an illegitimate, oppressive, and usurping entity for the West to achieve its supposed colonial goals across the Muslim world. More recently, however, the existence of Israel is being viewed and understood as the ‘greatest barrier’ to the reappearance of the 12th Imam. According to the doctrine of Mahdism, part of preparing for the reappearance of the 12th Imam is removing all obstacles and barriers to his return.

Against this backdrop, Iran’s hardline clergy affiliated with the IRGC claim religious hadiths state that the ‘Jewish state will be destroyed before Mahdi’s arrival.’ According to these accounts, which are legitimized through religious scripture, ‘Sh’ia Muslims will be on the side of the war against Jews’ prior to the reappearance of Mahdi. As such, the collapse of [the] ‘Israeli regime and Zionist Jews’ at the behest of ‘Iran and the Resistance Axis’ will take place ‘prior to the emergence of Mahdi.’ … Indeed, the ideological belief that the eradication of Israel is a necessary step for the reappearance of the 12th Imam is increasingly being mainstreamed in the IRGC.

Still, considering that Mahdism has had a renewed and official place in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution — which occurred a full 44 years ago — the threat it poses may not seem overly urgent. In reality, however, it is only recently that Iran has begun to pound the cult of Mahdi into the minds of both Iran’s youth and the IRGC. As a result, current and upcoming generations are much keener on playing a role in facilitating the return of Mahdi than the generations immediately following the Islamic revolution of 1979. According to the 2022 paper:

Since its inception, the Guard has had a formal program of ‘ideological-political’ training that seeks to radicalize its members, recruits, and their families. Over time the scope of this training has significantly increased and today it accounts for more than half of the required training for both incoming recruits and existing members.

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The great change came under Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, particularly following 2009 post-election unrest. As a result, “the third (2000-10) and forth generations (2010-20) of IRGC members are among the most ideologically radical in the Guard.”

Khamenei and his hardline circle have sought to nurture a more radical IRGC generation by dedicating more time to ideological indoctrination of its members. The promotion system within the ranks of the IRGC also favors ideological conviction over technical expertise, ensuring the most zealous members rise up within the chain of command…. From the post-2009 period onwards, the doctrine of Mahdism has become one of the main prisms through which the IRGC and affiliated hardline clerics would understand the world around them and the IRGC’s actions, as well as communicate that understanding. In turn, there has been greater emphasis on viewing the IRGC as the military vehicle to prepare the foundations for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, with policy objectives such as hostility toward the U.S. and the eradication of Israel being understood through this prism…. In this regard, efforts by Khamenei and the Guard’s Ideological-Political Organization to nurture a more radical generation among the IRGC has paid, and is paying, dividends.”

Iran Is Getting More Radical, Not Less

In short, while Mahdism has been around for ages, certain developments — a recent uptick in indoctrination and an entire generation of fanatical Mahdists coming of age and at the helm of Iran — make it especially dangerous in the current era, though few in the West are even aware of its existence and role. As the 2022 paper observes:

[D]evoted Mahdists could occupy senior leadership positions. Such a scenario could have far-reaching consequences as it would bring the three pillars of the IRGC’s foreign policy — militias, ballistic missiles, and the nuclear program — under their control. Even if a small number of devout Mahdists occupy senior positions in the Guard, it is possible that they may seek to facilitate and speed up the return of Mahdi. This would have major implications for some of the policies that are being understood through the prism of Mahdism, such as Israel’s existence being the ‘greatest barrier’ to the reappearance of the 12th Imam. At present the doctrine of Mahdism in the IRGC remains a complete blind spot for Western policymakers, yet it could have major implications for the Islamic Republic’s militia network, ballistic missile program, and even its nuclear program.

In other words, when it comes to Iran and nukes, the so-called “balance of power” theory does not apply. According to this widely accepted model, the more nations have nuclear weapons, the more “balanced” they are apt to behave towards one another. No one nation will be tempted to “press the button” if it knows that doing so will cause the button to be pressed against it.

This, however, only applies to rational nations interested in self-preservation. For nations whose leaders and upcoming leaders have been systematically indoctrinated into believing that the greatest good is to usher in a “rightly guided” figure from Islamic legend — no matter the cost, including to that nation itself — the implications are nothing short of apocalyptic.

 

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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