According to these experts, Shiites in Iraq and Iran are becoming more extreme, under young and charismatic leadership, possessing messianic faith, and unafraid of a struggle with the western world.
In a Haifa University conference on Iran and the Persian Gulf, two experts discussed the personalities of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Shiite leader in Iraq Muqtada al-Sadar.
Both figures are religious extremists who believe in the coming of the mahdi –the Shiite equivalent of the messiah.
The conference's first speaker, Dr. Soli Shahvar, analyzed the personality of the Iranian president, who only a year ago was a relatively unknown mayor of Tehran and is now a dominant international figure.
According to Shahvar, Ahmadinejad's relationship with Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khameini, is complicated and charged, with many ongoing struggles about questions of the country's leadership.
Waiting for the messiah"The president of Iran implements the decisions of the spiritual leader. That's how it always was," Shahvar explains.
"But now Ahmadinejad, a leader with an agenda, is on the scene, attacking the west and ruining the efforts of other leaders to break Iran's isolationism.
"He attacks Israel ceaselessly. Granted, there were always such attacks, but not with such intensity," Shahvar continued. He stated that the charged relationship between Khameini and the president was a warning sign.
The president has both reformist and conservative critics, but enjoys mass support for now, primarily among the poor from whom he originated and among the military, which he entered during the Iran-Iraq war and served to the rank of Lt. Col.
"He is supported by a religious sect called hujedieh. They believe that everything must be prepared for the coming of the mahdi, and he will arrive when exploitation and poverty increase, in order to do justice," said Shahvar.
One approach to bring about the mahdi is a 'Judgement Day war' – an attempt at chaos and regional warfare, which Ahmadinejad seems to have adopted, the professor said.
In this context, he explains, we can understand the Iranian president's recent statements, for he believes that they have a direct connection to God.
Shahvar stated further that Ahmadinejad's victory in the presidency race was unexpected and, thus, interpreted by him as a divine sign.
According to Shahvar, the most dangerous possible scenario in Iran would be a military coup, in which Ahmadinejad would capture the role of supreme leader.
"The Islamist revolution is at a crossroads. Since 1979, the ideals of the revolution have been diluted, and (the president) believes that he came along to save the revolution and the people. This belief should frighten us," he concluded.
Muqtada al-Sadar: Messiah of the downtrodden
World renowned Iraq expert Prof. Amatzia Baram sketched an image of the anticipated future leader of the Shiite faction in Iraq – Muqtada al-Sadar.
Young al-Sadar, somewhere between 28 to 32 years of age, is the son of an ayatollah who was murdered – most likely at the hands of Saddam Hussein's guard – but has no religious position. His power is derived from the militia that he heads.
"He created this militia from the poorest people in Iraq. These are young people, ages 15 to 30, who have nothing else – no education, no finances, no future outside of the militia."
"They were outcasts. Even in Iraq they were considered garbage. But this rabble goes after him in hordes, ready to die for him," Baram explained.
According to the professor, al-Sadar encourages xenophobic ideas – not only against Jews and Christians, but also against non-Shiite Muslims.
He appears to have inherited an extensive financial reserve from his father, including schools, religious centers and welfare centers.
"In addition, he gave people hope about the coming of the mahdi. He even calls his militia the 'mahdi army'.
"He tells people that the mahdi is coming soon and in one of his sermons said that the reason that the US is intensifying operations in Iraq is 'to wait and catch (the mahdi), to decapitate him," Baram said.