While his rhetoric may seem completely reckless to the western world, in the past, there have been certain limits beyond which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not dare to venture.
But this past week, he crossed a line which should be taken as a warning signal.
In the past, the Iranian has claimed that his problem is with political ideologies and not religion. Jews and Judaism, when kept in their place were just dandy, he said – his problem was with Zionism and Israel’s existence. At no time, before, or after his presidency, had Ahmadinejad made such a statement, which could be interpreted as hostile against the monotheistic religions which the Koran has declared as holy.
But on Friday, June 15th speaking at an Islamic seminary school, Ahmadinejad charged that “ideologies deviating from God’s teachings are being spread with dollars in the name of Judaism and Christianity around the world. Those who are doing this are saying they want to save humanity, whereas the only way to save humanity is Islam”.
This is the first time that Ahmadinejad has made a statement in which he has accused Jews and Christians of spreading blasphemy, without even bothering to include a hint that it is rogue groups within such religions who are responsible. This is unprecedented.
What is even more worrying is that these comments, which were reported by the Iranian news agency Aftab News, won the support of Moosa Ghorbani, a senior member of the Iranian parliament.
Rather than condemning the president for words which could cause offense and hostility, Ghorbani instead condemned other former presidents for not making similar statements. He went on to say that “Islam completes other religions” and that therefore “other religions are not accepted by God”.
The good news is, it is unlikely that his words will inspire an increase in anti-Semitic and anti- Christian activity in Iran, because most Iranian people do not share these radical beliefs.
On a day-to-day level Iranian Jews and Christians live relatively comfortably in Iran. Iranian people are very tolerant of them. Jews and Christians openly pray in their churches and synagogues. Iranian Jews are even allowed to travel to Israel, despite the country’s president’s repeated threats and predictions about the destruction of the Jewish state.
Ahmendinejad hatred of all things Israeli is not new. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic never harangued and provoked Israel verbally as much as Ahmadinejad, beginning with his speech in the city of Zahedan in December 2005, in which he called the Holocaust a “myth” and climaxing with the controversial Holocaust denial conference a year later in Tehran.
But Ahmadinejad always insisted on the clear distinction that the “enemy” was Zionism, and not Judaism. In a perversion of history, he associated the Holocaust with Zionist ideology, and nothing to do with Judaism. To help validate his position, he made sure that members of the Neturei Karta, a Jewish anti Zionist group were invited to the Holocaust denial conference and he was photographed embracing them warmly.
In this context, the new statements hostile to Judaism and Christianity made by Ahmadinejad, and the fact that they were backed by the parliamentary leadership should grab the attention of the international community. (Until now, they have not been reported in the international press in English)
There are a number of reasons why Ahmadinejad could have crossed this line.
First and foremost, it could have simply been because he got overexcited. On the same day, he had been handing out graduation awards to students at the Imam Khomeini foundation, run by his mentor, the extremist messianic Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The Yazd born Ayatollah is well known for his radical views and statements against the West. Perhaps by making some of his own, Ahmadinejad was showing him that he still is devout follower, and still grateful for the fact that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi helped his presidential campaign by issuing a fatwa which supported his presidential bid.
The more threatening reason could be his own isolation. Ahmadinejad is a cornered man, who is losing popularity at a ferocious pace inside Iran, mainly due to the failings of his economic policies. He may feel that provoking a war with the West, in hopes of inspiring a public rallying around the flag will be his only saving grace. Otherwise, he stands very little chance of winning the 2009 presidential elections.
The more threatened Ahmadinejad feels, the more he will be looking for a conflict to survive. The Western world needs to think very carefully before giving him what he wants.
Meir Javedanfar is the coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.