The recent kidnapping of 15 British sailors by Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Iraqi territorial waters has precipitated another crisis. However, for those who have been paying more attention to Iran in recent years than may be seen on the headlines alone, it is clear that this is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is another step on a looming path to a general war in the region, and one which may very well change the balance of power in the world and which might even result in the use of nuclear weapons.
President Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran and is, even by the standards of the Middle East, an alarming man with an apocalyptic vision who is working to implement it. The question of how genuine his commitment is to this vision remains open to debate.  However, genuine or not, he has been a servant (with bloody hands) of the Iranian Revolutionary regime since 1979, and as president of Iran has laid powder trails to every keg in the Middle East; and is now playing with matches.
The questions for us are simple: Is Iran posturing because it is playing power-games? Are its actions motivated by these and the constraints of its ideology? Or, worse still, is there an illogical apocalyptic premise grafted onto these other factors? The Iranian habit of brinksmanship and the demands of a government guided by a radical ideology are dangerous and unstable enough on their own, but a potential belief in a millennial event to usher in the end of days may be much worse.
The Khomeinist Jihadi revolution in Iran in 1979, despite its radical religious trappings, was and remains as much of a political act as the Nazis assent to power in the 1930s or the Bolshevik Revolution. The radical Shite regime has a long history of sustaining itself through internal repression and overseas terror. It created its client terrorists – particularly Hizbollah in Lebanon, and has a strong influence on Hamas. As is usual in long-term revolutionary environments, the senior Islamic clerics and commanders of the Revolutionary Guard paramilitary forces have enriched themselves — mostly through corruption — while the economy has weakened considerably thanks to their mismanagement.
The Iranian regime is not loved by its people and knows it; which has led to increased repression in recent years. Moreover, the Mullahs and their servants like Ahmadinejad, know full well what can happen to them once they are toppled: They have tortured and murdered too many rivals and dissidents not to expect an appointment with a lamppost or a stake in front of a pockmarked wall themselves when overthrown. Churchill’s description of dictators as people riding tigers seems quite appropriate in this case.
Yet Iran’s clerics and their functionaries also appreciate the strong national pride that all Iranians share. They had the war with Iraq to unify their country behind them in the 1980s, and also need an external military threat to do the same thing today. When the Iranian government, poor and overstrained as it is, spends treasure shipping guns to insurgents in Iraq or rebuilding Hezbollah’s stocks of souped-up Katyusha rockets, they are answering the internal impulse of the revolutionary and yet seem to be hoping for a confrontation with the West that would not topple their regime, but could unite their subjects behind them.
Behind Iran’s nuclear program seem to be three objectives. First, Iran has been lying to its own people about international opposition to their nuclear programs – telling them that the outside world has no great difficulty with Iran making nuclear weapons of its own. If the day comes that Iran’s bomb sites are attacked; Tehran will scream that this truly is a day of infamy and popular support will swing in behind their government.
Iran has made considerable efforts to both isolate its people from outside influences over the past few years and to limit the ability of dissidents to communicate with each other. For example, in October 2006, it banned high speed internet connections and fast broadband packages. This followed on the banning of television satellite dishes earlier that year. 
Secondly, in the 28 years since the Khomeinist Revolution; Iran has greatly extended its reach and influence in the Middle East. It is the chief support and buttress to the Syrian government; and through their cat’s paw Hizbollah, they have extensive influence inside Lebanon. When Hizbollah provoked a conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006, they appeared to have done so at Iranian instigation. Iranian technicians fired the anti-ship missile that damaged an Israeli gunboat, and there were Revolutionary Guardsmen among the ranks of Hizbollah. Iran is a principle financier and quartermaster for Hamas among the Palestinians, and has declared itself to be the protector of fast-growing Shiite minorities throughout much of the rest of the Middle East. A nuclear armed Iran can turn this indirect influence into more tangible benefits.
Iran also seeks a wider influence in the Middle East by being the strong power that can deal with Israel and confront the United States and Britain. Iran has also been busy in Iraq and their agents have been captured by Coalition and Iraqi government forces in recent months. It appears that the release of at least one captured agent and the granting of access to others might have helped secure the recent repatriation of the captured British sailors.
These are the rational considerations, now for the irrational one…
There is an apocalyptic or millennialist impulse in the Jihad movement – among both its Sunni Wahhabi/Salafist/Deobandi varieties and in the Khomeinist Shia strain. Even the narrower, more political Salafists envision a reinstated caliphate which will bring about the global domination of Islam and, eventually, the universal rule of Sharia law. However, there has long been a stronger tradition of this in Shia Islam.
The roots of the Shia-Sunni schism concerned the inheritance of power in early Islam. The Shia faction believed that the leadership of the entire Islamic community could only be rightfully held from the bloodline descended from Mohammed himself through his favorite daughter Fatima Zahra and his cousin Ali (said to be Mohammed’s first convert), and their children. Thus the judgments and collections of Hadith by Abu Bakr and other early Caliphs are unimportant, and should not be a conventional part of the Islamic faith. The subsequent deaths of Ali’s son Hussein and 72 other members of this bloodline in a rebellion against the Caliph in 680 AD was soon followed by the eradication of the other members of this family during the next 250 years.
Shiites believe, however, that either the 7th or the 12th Imam of the line of Ali will someday reappear as a messianic figure (the Mahdi) and will assume his place as the rightful leader of all Islam. Most Iranian Shiites, including Ahmadinejad, are ‘Twelvers’. Belief in Messiah figures is common enough in several religions, and the vast majority of Shia, like the vast majority of Christians and Jews, do not live in daily expectation of his appearance. Ahmadinejad, however, is said to belong to a narrow sect that not just believes that the return of the Mahdi is imminent, but that they have to do what they can to facilitate it.
When Ahmadinejad was the mayor of Tehran, he made some welcome changes to major roads in the city, but also constructed a palace for the Mahdi – and has said that he expects the Mahdi soon, perhaps in 2007. The problem for the rest of humanity is that the Mahdi is supposed to come during a period of severe crisis for all Islam and will save the day – ushering in a seven year period of rule (he is held to be the ruler of the world) before time comes to an end.
Is this why Iran’s leaders are in such a hurry to bring their nuclear program to fruition? Ahmadinejad has directly threatened Israel with nuclear attack (prompting some Muslim countries to remark that Israel had just been given the right to launch a pre-emptive strike).  To directly threaten another nuclear armed country with nuclear attack is not a rational act by any standard. The usual calculation of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), by which a nuclear attack by one country will be reciprocated by others, might not work on an Iranian government that seeks to precipitate the apocalypse.
Letting an ideologically-driven confrontalionalist country develop nuclear arms is bad enough; letting a weapons program continue in such a country that has an apocalyptic leadership at the helm is perilous. There are no easy actions that we can take, and absolutely nothing which is positive will come from inaction either. How can the world choose to operate against Iran when all the choices are bad ones? The best of all these potentially bad choices is to act sooner rather than later.