Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

The latest on this week's biggest stories

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

Artists learn early to pay attention to negative space, while journalists know to dread it. What's to say about the news that did not happen? Yet in August the biggest stories were those that failed to come true-beginning with the plot to blow up transatlantic flights to the United States and ending with (and possibly linked to) the prediction that Iran would launch a strike against the West, most likely Jerusalem, on Aug. 22.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike gazed into the stars on the night of Aug. 21 following a threat from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "light up the heavens in answer to the UN"-his response to a Security Council deadline for Iran to comply with international demands to end its uranium enrichment program. Even the very conventional Princeton Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis took Ahmadinejad's words as a threat-pointing out that Aug. 22 corresponds with the Islamic calendar date when Muslims celebrate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on a winged horse to "the farthest mosque"-a reference to Jerusalem-where a divine white light would spread from there to cover the whole world. In an Aug. 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. Lewis noted, "This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world."

If the threat of a nuclear catastrophe failed to materialize by Aug. 22, Ahmadinejad, the blacksmith's son with a Ph.D. in transportation engineering, did manage to demonstrate his capacity for driving the world in vicious circles. The former mayor of Tehran is, after all, building a boulevard in the capital for the purpose of welcoming the mysterious and messiah-like 12th Imam, who will usher in the end of the world.

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So it bordered on logical that Iran launched large-scale land, air, and sea military exercises involving over 120,000 soldiers just days prior to its self-imposed deadline. And in the early morning hours of Aug. 22, Iranian warships opened fire on a Romanian oil rig off the coast of Iran, boarded it, and seized it, holding 27 workers for several hours.

As Wall Street analysts tried to get ahead of the doomsday curve by predicting a downturn in stock markets, the Rapture Index, a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity" managed by Are You Rapture Ready? co-author Todd Strandberg, spiked at 158 (145 on the index is the threshold signaling that rapture may be imminent).

The Iranian response to the UN, then, on Aug. 22 had perhaps the desired effect of sucking wind out of all the hyperventilation: Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Tehran is prepared "to enter serious negotiations" about its nuclear program while at the same time he rejected calls to suspend "nuclear activities."

Middle East expert Walid Phares called that ambiguous salvo part of Iran's two-track strategy. "Iran's foreign minister and others are buying as much time as possible with the international community," he said, "while real assembly and building up of the technology continues." Mr. Phares, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, believes the Iranians "are way more advanced than we know when it comes to what they are doing on uranium enrichment." The United States and its allies, without nuclear inspections in place, are "completely blind on the situation."

Mr. Phares, born in Lebanon and educated in Beirut's Jesuit universities, said he was not surprised Aug. 22 passed without catastrophe. "That date had theological value but there are many other dates with that value in the Shia and Sunni communities in the Middle East. These are not dates calling for action, these are actions calling for dates."

Westerners, Phares said, "are stunned always with dates of revelation in general. Muslims know that Ahmadinejad is hiding an agenda that has nothing to do with theology. If he has something to show, yes, he will wait for a date and it will be a highly significant date to appeal to his own constituents."

And almost on cue, observers pointed out that the weeks following Aug. 22 are significant this year, too. "Every 400 years the crescent [new moon] and Mars line up together to create the Muslim flag and this year this will take place in the last two weeks of August," said Kamal Saleem, a former PLO fighter from Lebanon. Signs and wonders aren't over.

Terrorism

Eleven suspects charged in a terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives appeared before a British court for the first time on Aug. 22. Eight men are accused of conspiracy to murder and preparing to commit terrorism. Three others-including the mother of an 8-month-old-are charged with lesser offenses, including failing to disclose information.

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