President Obama is engaging international and domestic leaders today as U.S. lawmakers consider action against Syria. This response needs to be decisive enough to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future, but not so aggressive that it prompts him to strike back at America and/or Israel. Unfortunately, Assad’s response is not the only factor at work in this escalating war.
Yesterday we began a two-day conversation on the Syrian conflict, trying to understand the issues in their cultural and religious context. As we noted, an American attack on Syria could affect Israel, and not just from the Assad regime. Iranian lawmakers promise a retaliatory strike, while the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards predicts “the imminent destruction of the Zionist regime of Israel.”
Such anti-Israel rhetoric has been a staple of Iranian foreign policy for more than 30 years. Why? And why is it connected now to an American action against Syria?
Here’s the part of the story that isn’t getting much press: Iran’s leader believes that attacking Israel would bring the Mahdi (“Guided One”), an Islamic messiah who would protect Muslims from retribution and dominate the world for Islam. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader in Iran since the death of his predecessor and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. Iran elects a president every four years, but the real power in the nation resides with the Supreme Leader, who combines clerical and political power.
Khamenei is now regarded by many as the “Seyed Khorasani,” the individual who will set the stage for the Mahdi’s re-emergence. Khamenei claims that Ayatollah Khomeini told him, “it will be during the time of your leadership that the last Shiite Imam, Imam Mahdi, will re-appear.” To fulfill this role, Khamenei would need to lead Muslims to attack Israel. How would he do so?
One way would be an appeal to the Qur’an, which requires Muslims to “fight in the way of Allah those who fight you” (Surah 2:190). If America strikes Syria, Khamenei can characterize our action as an attack by “infidels” against Muslims. He can then call on Muslims to defend Islam by attacking America and its ally, Israel. This attack would lead to the re-appearance of the Mahdi, fulfilling Khamenei’s role and establishing a base for global Islamic domination.
Clearly, the stakes in Syria are higher than most of us imagine. Christians should seek divine wisdom for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and protection for those in Syria and across the Middle East. We can pray for Ali Khamenei to meet Jesus in a vision or dream, the kind of miracle now happening across the Muslim world. And we are called to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) today.