It's bad enough when Christian fundamentalists back Israel in hopes that Armageddon will soon engulf the Holy Land and bring on the second coming.
But at least Christian revivalists aren't pursuing their dream with nuclear weapons. The millions who read Tim De La Haye's "Left Behind" novels aren't rushing to Jerusalem to precipitate the Rapture.
It's far more unsettling when an Iranian leader who says Israel should be wiped off the map starts talking of the "end times" - and is seeking nuclear weapons. The millennial obsession of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gives added urgency to U.S. and European efforts to prevent Iran from building the bomb.
In a speech at the United Nations in September, Ahmadinejad urged the Lord "to hasten the emergence of ... the promised one," the Shiite Muslim equivalent of the Messiah. He is said to be obsessed with the Mahdaviat (the belief in the second coming of the 12th Shiite imam, known as the Mahdi, who has been in hiding for more than 1,000 years).
In a December article called "Waiting for the Rapture in Iran," the Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson writes that Ahmadinejad has earmarked US$17 million for the Jamkaran mosque, supposedly built on the Mahdi's orders. "Officials deny rumors," says Peterson, "that Ahmadinejad ... secretly tasked the Tehran city council ... to prepare a suitable route for the Mahdi's return" when he was mayor. Others say the rumors are true.
The Iranian's combination of devotion and inflammatory threats against Israel highlights the danger of a potential Iranian bomb.
Tehran claims its nuclear program is intended for peaceful energy purposes. However, most experts believe the program Iran conducted for years in secret is meant to create the capacity for building weapons. This week Iran restarted uranium enrichment facilities that had been sealed during negotiations with the EU over ending the program.
These talks have hit a wall; the United States and the Europeans are now urging that Iran be referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. It's unclear whether Russia and China will back sanctions that could undercut lucrative energy contracts with Iran. Iran says it will continue its "peaceful" program whether or not sanctions are imposed.
Yet it is essential that the Bush team continue its diplomatic efforts to convince the Russians and Chinese that an Iranian bomb would endanger them all.
Some will note that it's logical for Iran to seek nuclear weapons when America has been threatening Tehran with "regime change." The ayatollahs notice that no one talks of ousting North Korean President Kim Jong Il now that he has nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration nourished illusions that the Iraq war would provoke the toppling of the theocracy in Tehran. Instead, the chaos in Iraq has convinced the mullahs that the United States is weakened in the region. The White House seems to have realized that Iran's regime is not going to fall any time soon.
Past White House errors, however, don't disprove the threat presented by an Iran with nuclear weapons. Tehran would be unlikely to hand these weapons over to terrorists. But, says Judith Yaphe, an Iran expert at National Defense University, Iran's possession of those weapons could embolden radical Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which are aided by Tehran.
"The bomb would also reinforce Iranian attitudes of superiority and hegemony in the Mideast region," says Yaphe. A true believer like Ahmadinejad who is yearning for the "end times" might miscalculate in his threats or his sponsorship of surrogate attacks against Israel. No one is certain whether he would be reigned in, or encouraged, by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
If Shiite Iran got the bomb, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Egypt might be provoked to do likewise. The regional risks - both political and environmental - are daunting. Any hopes of curbing the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide would die.
The dangers don't end there. Ahmadinejad's recklessness could provoke Israel, or the Bush administration, to try air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. But because much of the effort is believed to be hidden underground, most experts believe bombs could only delay, not end the program. Air strikes would provoke Iran to unleash more violence in the region against Israel and inside Iraq. No one can foresee where open war among Iran, Israel, and the U.S. would lead.
Russia and China need to consider the threat to Mideast oil and stability that such open strife would trigger. They need to think beyond immediate profits. Otherwise, Ahmadinejad's dreams of the End of Days might conceivably come true.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.