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Waiting for the rapture in Iran

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Ahmadinejad's executive self-confidence contrasts sharply with the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who advocated a "dialogue of civilizations" and Iran's return to the international fold.

Ahmadinejad is instead transporting Iran back to the first radical years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, defined by battling imperial US and Soviet powers and Zionism. The former Revolutionary Guardsman says Israel is a "tumor" that must be "wiped off the map." He denies the Holocaust. And he is pushing the Iran's nuclear-power card; stalled talks with the European Union to curb those plans resume Wednesday in Vienna.

"This kind of mentality makes you very strong," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper.

"Bush said: 'God said to me, attack Afghanistan and attack Iraq.' The mentality of Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad is the same here - both think God tells them what to do," says Mr. Mohebian, noting that end-of-time beliefs have similar roots in Christian and Muslim theology.

"If you think these are the last days of the world, and Jesus will come [again], this idea will change all your relations," says Mohebian. "If I think the Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard."

That mind-set also hearkens back to the missionary ambition of the newly forged Islamic Republic. "What Ahmadinejad believes is that we have to create a model state based on ... Islamic democracy - to be given to the world," says Hamidreza Taraghi, head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Society. "The ... government accepts this role for themselves."

Any possibility of d├ętente with the US may also be in jeopardy, if the US-Iran conflict is cast in Mahdaviat terms. That view holds that the US - with quasireligious declarations of transforming the Middle East with democracy and justice, deploying military forces across the region, and developing a new generation of nuclear weapons - is arrogantly trying to assume the role of Mahdi.

A top priority of Ahmadinejad is "to challenge America, which is trying to impose itself as the final salvation of the human being, and insert its unjust state [in the region]," says Mr. Taraghi.

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