USA Today’s founder Al Neuharth’s recent column, “Why Iran’s nuclear plans are no big deal,” indicates that he is one of those people Professor Niall Ferguson recently described in The Daily Beast as believing “a nuclear-armed Iran is nothing to worry about” and that “states actually become more risk-averse once they acquire nuclear weapons.”

Judging by his list of countries that currently have nuclear weapons, Mr. Neuharth clearly views Iran as if it were the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and thinks the threat of MAD –- Mutually Assured Destruction –- is still a viable alternative. Unfortunately, the Iranian leadership has a different take on life and death than did the Kremlin.

Professor Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle East historians for more than half a century, put his finger on the problem in his keynote address at the international Jerusalem Conference back in 2008:

Iran’s leadership comprises a group of extreme fanatical Muslims who believe that their messianic times have arrived. Though Russia and the US both had nuclear weapons, it was clear that they would never use them because of MAD. Each side knew it would be destroyed if it would attack the other. But with these people in Iran, MAD is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement. They feel that they can hasten the final messianic process. This is an extremely dangerous situation of which it is important to be aware.

It is important for Mr. Neuharth and all the other wishful thinkers to understand with whom we are dealing. Iran’s Shi’ite theocratic leadership, headed by “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his acolyte, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sincerely believe that we are living in the apocalyptic age that will culminate in the triumphant return of their messianic figure, the Twelfth Imam, or “the Mahdi.”

Iran is a Shi’ite theocracy. To understand the Iranian leadership, its motives and mindset, and the fact that in present is predicated on focusing on the past, one has to understand Islamic history.

After the death of Islam’s founder, its Prophet Muhammad, there was a bloody dispute over who would be the next leader. The Caliphate, or secular leadership of Islam, was handed to Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, rather than Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law — and purportedly his chosen successor. The Muslims who supported Ali called themselves the “Shi’a- Ali” or “Partisans of Ali.”

In 656, the Umayyads revolted against Ali and established the Umayyad Caliphate. From this point onwards, authority was divided in the Islamic world. The Shi’a Ali, or the “Shi’ites,” recognized only the successors to Ali as authorities, and gave these successors the title “imam” — “spiritual leader of Islam.”

A messianic imperative? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

A messianic imperative? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

In Shi’ite history, Ali was the first imam, followed by a total of eleven imams who passed the title down to their sons in hereditary succession. However, the most important imam of Shi’a was Hussein, who was martyred by Yazid, the second Umayyad caliph, at the battle of Karbala.

A grand total of 11 imams succeeded Ali, passing the imamate down to their sons. However, the eleventh imam, Hassan al-Askari, died without a son. Shi’ite Islam then divided into several different sects, the most important of which was the Qat’iyya — “those who are certain.” These believe that Hassan al-Askari really did have a son, Muhammed al-Mahdi. The Shi’ite sect that believes that “the Mahdi” — the “Twelfth imam” — hid himself in the 9th century and remains in hiding, is called the “Ithna-Ashari,” literally “Twelvers,” and is the dominant Shi’ite group that now rules Iran.

According to the Shi’ites, at no time in human history has the world been without an imam. This last imam, the Twelfth imam, according to Shi’ite belief is still alive today and is awaiting the time when he will return, guide the world, and restore Shi’a to its proper place as the universal religion.

The “Ithna-Ashari” sect of the Shi’ites (90 percent of the 75 million Iranians) has been the official state religion in Iran since 1502. The Ayatollah Khomeini turned it into an activist political doctrine and the basis for the present Iranian Islamic revolution. “Twelvers” also comprise more than half the population in Iraq and are a significant minority in Lebanon, which includes the Hizballah (the “Party of Allah”).

Iran’s current rulers fervently believe the above. Concerned experts, including Bernard Lewis and Niall Ferguson, point out that Supreme Leader al-Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad would even go so far as to hasten a nuclear showdown and cataclysmic strike via an attack on Israel as well as American interests (e.g.: Sunni Saudi Arabia). The inevitable retaliation, they believe, will hasten the arrival of the 12th imam. Ahmadinejad, let’s not forget, called for the reappearance of the 12th imam from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. And when speaking in Iran, he declared that the main mission of the Islamic Revolution was to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th imam.

In the 1930s there were well meaning people who ignored Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and his subsequent public statements. They meant well, but the result was World War II. Iran’s leadership too has not hidden either its motives or its targets. Let us not be so foolish as to repeat such costly mistakes.