The Iranian Narrative Landscape Stirs

by Jeffry R. Halverson

Recently, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been abuzz over the release of a video entitled “The Coming is Very Near,” a 28-minute production created by a group of Twelver Shi‘a devotees of the Hidden Imam al-Mahdi, known as the Harbingers of the Coming (perhaps associated with the Hojjatieh Society). It is believed that President Ahmadinejad’s chief-of-staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is a member of the group. A report released by the Open Source Center estimates that there are 2 million copies of the video in circulation and there are rumors that a sequel is currently in production.

The video claims to show evidence of the imminent return of the Hidden Imam from his Occultation (ghaybat), which began in the ninth century (CE). In doing so, it casts several prominent Shi‘a leaders in the roles of characters in the Mahdi master narrative. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is known as a zealous devotee of the Hidden Imam, is depicted as the Mahdi’s deputy, Shuayb ibn Saleh, who will come from Khurasan (eastern Iran). The Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is cast as Seyyed-i Khorasani, who is tasked with appointing Shuayb to prepare the way for al-Mahdi. And Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah, is cast as Yamani, who will lead the Mahdi’s army and march on the holy cities. Viewers are asked to see the recent events in the Middle East, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, as events foretold for the End Times.

Thankfully, many prominent Shi‘a voices have denounced the video, including the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and scholars from the Hawza in Qom. Criticism of the video has been intriguing. Some critics allege that the video is dangerous propaganda in support of Ahmadinejad, while others allege that the video is propaganda against Ahmadinejad. But regardless of the political intentions of the video (which appears to be strongly pro-Ahmadinejad), the emergence of the video and the controversy it has created is further confirmation of the active narrative landscape in Iranian politics.

Last year, I wrote a white paper discussing the use of the Karbala master narrative as a framework for anti-government sentiment in Iran. The paper, titled “A Counter-Narrative to Iranian Tyranny,” received some attention and a few detractors. For example, a professor from the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) at the Army War College related her opinion of the paper by stating simply: “I don’t know which is a more horrifying sort of propaganda, this, or the effort to label dead terrorists homosexuals.” I certainly never envisioned the white paper as “horrifying propaganda.” Instead, my intention was to show how a powerful master narrative of Iranian Shi‘a culture, previously harnessed by the revolutionary regime itself, can actually be inverted against the regime. The white paper also called on readers to see the active narrative landscape that exists in contemporary Iranian politics, an assertion supported by the controversy over the recent “Coming is Very Near” video.

Messianic narratives, such as the Mahdi in Twelver Shi‘ism, are a common affair, but seldom are heads of state so intertwined with them as they are in Iran. Comparing or identifying certain similarities between contemporary events and the vague symbolic imagery of ancient “prophecies” is hardly unusual among followers of Abrahamic religions. Christians have a long history of seeing prophetic events underway and the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Sects such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a range of Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, have built their entire belief systems around the Second Coming. Televangelist programs, such as the bizarre Jack Van Impe Presents show, seem to see foretelling events in everything. And they always will, despite the fact that they are always wrong.

Messianic narratives remain popular because they provide solace to the suffering, offer explanations amidst perceived chaos, and present promises of triumphant rewards (“pie in the sky”)  in the end. The danger of such narratives lies in the intention or ability of certain devotees to mobilize military or violent action in order to bring the “prophetic” events into being, and this seems to be the case among some in the Iranian leadership. A greater awareness of the narrative frameworks at play in these matters can help to prevent foreign leaders from stepping into them and ideally disrupt or neutralize them. In doing so, the international community can better avoid any recourse to military intervention, a step which will inevitably fall into the narrative framework itself as an “apocalyptic battle” – an element that  figures so prominently in many messianic narratives.