Much has been made lately (and mostly on the Internet, of course) about the Iranian President’s connections to the Hojjatieh Society. See, e.g., Paul Hughes, “Iran’s President’s Religious Views Arouse Interest,” Associated Press Release, Nov. 17, 2005; John von Heyking, “Iran’s President and the Politics of the Twelfth Imam,” Guest Commentary, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashbrook University, November 2005; “The Growing Threat to Bahai’s: What is the Hojjatieh Society?". There were suggestions, not universally accepted, that
“Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi [an influential Iranian cleric] allegedly back a messianic interpretation of Islam, in which they hope that the 12th imam, known also as the Mahdi and who is in occultation, will return and restore justice to the world. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ahmadinejad told a 16 November national conference of Friday prayer leaders that "our mission is paving the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi." The replacement of state officials by Ahmadinejad appointees, furthermore, has led to claims that the Hojjatieh Society, which was banished in 1983, is enjoying a revival. This society espouses similar views on the return of the Hidden Imam, and this would not be the first time that there are claims of a Hojjatieh comeback.” Bill Samil, “Iran: Preparing for the Next Big Vote,” RadioFreeEurope, Radio Library, December, 2005, reproduced by permission at the website of GlobalSecurity.Org.
Much of what has been written is not unusual for groups of this kind—they are rumored to have close ties to the Iranian political and religious elite; they have connections with insurgency groups all over the global fronts between the dar al islam and the dar al harb ((territory of war or chaos, and the name for the regions where Islam does not dominate, where divine will is not observed—though over the last few centuries Muslims scholars and the reality of a divided world have produced a more nuanced set of religious descriptors, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dar_al-Harb), including Hamas and Hezbollah; and that they have become a strong force of global anarchism tinged with a religious imperative that makes negotiation difficult.
Much of the discussion about the Hojjetieh Society and its connection with the Iranian Presidency has focused on its effects on Iranian politics—and is especially served up to “explain” the violent anti-Semitism and anti-westernism of the current Iranian president. At worst, the Western media has treated the pronouncements as bad manners (included in things you can believe but must not say in public) or as the machinations of Iranian internal politics (of the sort “he doesn’t mean what he says, this is “code” for some sort of internally necessary political dialogue).
My purpose today is not to dispute the failing of Western analysis, nor its cynical and pathetic forms of pandering manipulation of its own populations for the purpose of preserving some sort of peace at what it deems to be an acceptable price. Instead, I wish to note, with a great deal of interest, the utility of Hojjatieh Society norms as a framework for a different model of international relations. The current Iranian President has suggested that it is possible to ground politics within a framework of preparation for the return of the Mahdi. He has also suggested, as have some adherents of organized groups within Shi’a Islam (including but not limited to the Hojjatieh Society) that it is possible to suggest an interpretation of that political framework that posits that it is in human hands (and perhaps the highest calling of humans) to focus all activity on actions that will create the conditions necessary for the return of the Mahdi. If such conditions include some sort of social, political, cultural or other forms of chaos, then the focus of state action becomes clear.
A model of international relations based on the imperative that chaos must be created on earth in order to accelerate the time of the coming of the Mahdi might consider it valuable to preserve those areas of tension, especially at the fault lines between lands (and peoples) already claimed for the Mahdi and other places (and people). The focus of external relations would not be on peace and ethics, but on conflict and instability. The point of negotiation would be to prolong the space available for preparations necessary to sustain tension rather than to reach consensus and resolution. Equilibrium in world affairs would not be measured by the resolution of conflict but by the amount of conflict that could be maintained smoldering. Internal politics could operate in the same way. A politics of formal toleration would cover the fanning of tension between the righteous and others.
The point of international relations would not be war—war is unnecessarily expensive and decisive. But rather, international relations would have as its focus the maintenance of smoldering conflicts, burning brightly from time to time, but never resolved. For that purpose, modern, western inspired, international law norms—including the human rights and humanitarian law, and the laws of war—could prove immensely useful. These rules tend to limit the intensity of conflict—and to manage the civilian population for the benefit of the ultimate winners (or for the duration, the combatants in control) . Modulated use of incidents, reprisals, accusations of low level acts of human rights or humanitarian law violation all would tend to keep conflict fresh and to involve a large portion of the world community. Where such activity occurs in multiple flash points, then one can easily extend the potential effects of conflict and chaos far beyond the site of actual conflict. When combined with seeming acts of random violence directed at the protected segments of the population (the “innocent” civilians), one might be able to produce a global system of self-sustaining low level conflict, insecurity and chaos of the type that might serve to bring the world closer to the appearance of the Mahdi. Of course, this is not the first time that a cleric, or clerically trained leader, has pursued a policy of contained chaos deploying the tactics of fanning low-level constant violence and instability for national ends. Cardinal Richelieu’s policies in the Holy Roman Empire come to mind. But in modern form, this simple tool of traditional statecraft, wed to religious imperatives, now serves a very different end. No longer a simple tool of state action, it has become the framework itself from which tools are developed and deployed to govern the relations between states and other quasi-state collectives (such as religious communities).
It is with this in mind that one might view from a fresh perspective the shape of current Iranian foreign policy, and its manifestation in the support (of what type remain necessarily murky) of the recent kidnappings of IDF soldiers from the Northern and Southern border areas of Israel, of the bombings in Mumbai, of the break-up of Iraq along ethnic lines, and the recent (so easily forgotten in the Western media after the end of tourist season) resumption of violence in Sri Lanka. From the perspective of the Iranian President, perhaps, resolution of conflict, especially one as distracting and globally consuming as that between the Jewish people and the Arab Islamic nation, focused on claims to control of Israel, would be disastrous within the framework of state centered chaos. All out war is unnecessary and dangerous, but a sustained, and sometimes high level, of conflict, is to be welcomed. To the extent that a hotter level of conflict produces the inevitable civilian casualties, instability is extended well beyond the borders of the conflict. And because of the geographic position of the conflict, its effect on the underbelly of Western power—economic globalization based on a deep and sustained system of peace, security and free movement—is significant.
Currently, the localized “hot” conflict between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel provides an excellent example of contained conflict in the service of chaos. The conflict is contained because the combatants were carefully chosen—Hezbollah represents a Shi’a presence in the heart of the Sunni Arab nation. It represents the interests of Iran (and Syria) against those of the core regional Sunni states: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. A hot fight between the Jewish people and Shi’a serves the purposes of Israel but also those of the Sunni nation. Most important, it distracts Israel from its recent push to destroy the Hamas led government of Palestine. At the same time, the conflict permits verbal condemnation by all Islam. But all this serves a Hojjatieh perspective well—it serves to destabilize a skittish West, disrupts patterns of international trade, kills Jews, confounds European foreign policy (including the accession policies toward Muslin states like Turkey), divides Islam, and furthers acts of martyrdom that together may help hasten the return of the Mahdi. To some extent it may also serve to deepen the war between Sunni and Shi’a Islam in what is left of Iraq, signaling the willingness of the Sunni Arab nation to protect its own. More chaos. To the extent that the conflict remains active, and contained, it serves the interests of Hajjatieh. For them, negotiation is a necessary tool in the efforts to continue to keep conflicts of this scale smoldering. The object of negotiation (that will inevitably proceed) will be to institutionalize the basis of conflict rather than to find a resolution. An international relations of chaos sees the object of negotiation as the establishment of conflict sustainability.
For states that do not share this view of international relations, this hypothetical position of the Iranian President (and other portions of the Iranian elite) could pose a problem. Where states involved in conflict do not share the same foundational understanding of conflict, where such states do not share the same value of conflict resolution, and may not share the same vision of the optimal relations between peoples, resolution may become impossible. In such a case, where state action is actually produced by millions of individuals, larded throughout society and contributing to the implementation of one or the other framework of international relations “on the ground,” it may be impossible to strive for resolution as we have come to understand it in the West (and I do not mean to suggest either an orientalist perspective or a necessary East/West division; I merely acknowledge the origin and basis of current international relations and law principles in Western concepts and values). For one perspective on this conundrum, see Larry Catá Backer, The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment, Penn State University International Law Review, 21:509 (2003).
Of course, it seems clear that most organized communities would tend to avoid at least a formal embrace of a chaos theory of international relations. What the past several weeks has demonstrated, however, is that most organized states cannot resist (1) cultivating this theory among sub-groups within their or allied with their state system, and (2) thinking that chaos-theory-embracing organizations can be used as instruments of state power (to be put away when no longer convenient). But history seems to suggest that this is a risky strategy indeed, and modern international law has been moving toward the position that indirect supporters of global action that is inimical to basic human rights and humanitarian law may or should be held responsible as principles. The recent almost completed trials of Slobodan Milosevich suggest a possible framework for this approach, though I am suspicious of its application in that case.
But three are really no incentives for states to avoid recourse to the adherents of chaos theory to “cheat” outside the rules of modern international law and international relations. Sadly, what the next several weeks will demonstrate instead is (1) that no state is willing to give up the power to use chaos theory when it suits them, (2) that the use of such power is extremely risky, especially where its adherents might be happy to see the destruction of the entire state system as a long term goal, and (3) that no state will actually be called to account for setting chaos theory groups in motion, whatever the nature of these groups’ violation of the laws of war, of human rights or humanitarian law.
With no incentives available against states that are effective, it may be time for international law to pay more attention to non-governmental organizations. The events of the coming weeks should suggest that, just as in the economic sector the international community is moving to vest economic collectives (especially multinational corporations) with status as subjects of international law, so should international community vest as subjects of international law those non-governmental organizations acting as agents of or otherwise exercising political powers traditionally exercised by states. The result would complicate the state system, perhaps even explode it as a formal matter. But global organization has been moving in that direction for decades, and certainly since the end of the Second World War. Internationalization and devolution of power is very much in the air. The obligations as well as the privileges of asserting political power, and especially the coercive power of violence, ought to be devolved and internationalized as a formal matter to the same extent.