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A Messianic State? Ideology, Rationality and Eschatology in Iranian Politics

33 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2013 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

Patrick H. O'Neil

University of Puget Sound

Date Written: August 26, 2013


In current discussions regarding Iranian domestic and foreign policy it is often argued that Iran is a messianic state. Specifically, it is asserted that the Iranian regime’s ideology, as institutionalized through the 1979 revolution, is based on the imminent appearance of a messiah, known within Shi'ism as the Mahdi. This emphasis on end times is given as evidence that the Iranian regime does not function within the same logic as "rational" states. More recently, President Ahmadinejad's explicitly messianic rhetoric was cited as proof that the regime embraces an increasingly dangerous eschatology which seeks to in fact hasten the Mahdi's return. This paper argues instead that Mahdism is a strategy intended to institutionalize a religious nationalism that can serve as a powerbase for non-clerical political elites. Iranian religious nationalism is not noticeably different from other ideologies, and is just as rational in its objectives.

Keywords: Iran, Eschatology, Rationality, Nuclear Weapons, Shi'ism, Authoritarianism, Theocracy, Political Islam, Mahdi, Martyrdom, Terrorism

Suggested Citation

O'Neil, Patrick H., A Messianic State? Ideology, Rationality and Eschatology in Iranian Politics (August 26, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Patrick H. O'Neil (Contact Author)

University of Puget Sound ( email )

1500 N Warner St.
Tacoma, WA 98416
United States

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