Here in the Heartland of America, it’s 3:25 p.m. In Washington, it’s 4:25 p.m.; in London, it’s 9:25 p.m.; and in Jerusalem, it’s 11:25 p.m.

In Tehran, it’s five minutes to midnight on the eve of August 22.

That’s right, folks — the dreaded August 22. The day that the Supreme National Security Council of Iran has chosen for giving a definitive response to an offer of anti-nuclear incentives made by the so called “5+1” powers — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, France, Britain and the U.S.) plus Germany.

It’s also known as 27 Rajab and 31 Mordad, depending upon your calendar. Around the blogoshpere and elsewhere, various interpretations of the significance of August 22 have been offered. As I’ve reported, Farid Ghadry, the president of the Reform Party of Syria says that the Iranians have chosen August 22 for the date of their response because it is “the Night of the Sira’a and Miira’aj, the night Prophet Mohammed (saas) ascended to heaven from the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on a Bourak (Half animal, half man), while a great light lit-up the night sky, and visited Heaven and Hell also Beit al-Saada and Beit al-Shaqaa (House of Happiness and House of Misery) and then descended back to Mecca.” The idea has been seconded by Muslim historian Bernard Lewis. Zionist.com states that August 22 also corresponds “with the Islamic date of Rajab 28, the day Saladin conquered and entered Jerusalem,” and that says that there is a rumor that Ahmadinejad believes that on August 22, 2006, “the so-called ‘hidden’ Imam Mahdi who Allah has miraculously kept alive since his disappearance in 874 AD. . . . will return . . . and usher in an era of (Islamic) justice.” And I, myself, have offered that among Shi’ite Muslims, the date also corresponds with the date upon which Muhammad began his prophetic mission.

So some folks — among them, Pastor Harry, the Santa Claus-burning pastor of the “Church of Philadelphia Internet” — have taken the signs to mean that August 22 is the beginning of the biblical End-Times. Neither Ghadry, Lewis nor Zionist.com, however, are typically classed as voices of apocalyptic Christianity, anxiously awaiting the Rapture. Each of these sources (and me, too) are merely posing a question: Will Iran’s leaders be guided by economic and political considerations or by religious beliefs in making their next major geopolitical move? We may well ask the same question of President Bush from time to time.

Iran is sitting on 130,800,000,000 BBL of proved oil reserves, but it struggles with economic and cultural isolation as it tries to develop its reserves for export to markets controlled by infidels who possess nuclear weapons. Certainly its bluster has helped keep prices high this summer, but in a full-scale conflict, high prices would probably not be sustainable — not in a way that would benefit Iran. If there can be little doubt about the religious fervor of Iran’s leaders, the question is whether Iran will attempt to preserve its acknowledged position of considerable power over world markets and over the political sphere of the Middle East by listening to the side of their brains that operate within the realm of realpolitique, or whether they will symbolically “follow the light,” and listen to the side of their brains that welcomes death and destruction with the hope of rebirth upon the arrival of the Mahdi. And although there are Western neocons who join the apocalyptic Christian chorus here, because their end-game is limited conflict with Iran, followed by a better deal on oil — I suspect that neither the Iranian fundamentalists, nor the Christian fundamentalists, nor the neocons will get their wish. I suspect we’ve already begun to hear Iran’s response; I suspect that the realpolitique side of the Iranian brain has already won; and I suspect that a period of intense dialogue, accompanied by the usual sabre-rattling, will ensue. But we will see.

Regardless of the deeds or intentions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ayatollah Seyyed ‘Ali Hossayni Khameini, the sun will rise at 5:28 a.m. local time over Tehran, and it will likely set there around 6:45 p.m.

The forecast calls for a high of 93° F today. Right now, the temperature is around 80° F, with a light wind from the north-northwest. The moon is a waning crescent, with about 4% illuminated for our benefit. Right now, Haft-e-Tir Square in Tehran looks like this … Aw, you missed it. Well, take it from me — it’s rather quiet right now.

12:01 a.m., Tehran: It’s 12:01 a.m., Tehran time, August 22, and all is well.

1:00 a.m., Tehran: It’s 4:30 p.m. in the Heartland. Rush hour has already begun. The baby skyscrapers in my hometown have opened up like tall burlap sacks of pinto beans, with their contents skittering across concrete and asphalt. The highways clog early where I am, so I wait out the rush here in my somethingty-somethingth floor perch. It’s my strategy for coping.

Meanwhile, Haft-e-Tir Square is still quiet. Still no Great Pumpkin.

The thing that most strains credulity about an “August 22 apocalypse” is a simple strategic matter: by telegraphing your intentions explicitly (in this case, putatively, by delivering an ominous assurance of a response to an international ultimatum coupled with a date of arguably religious significance), you squander the element of surprise. Even Muhammad advocated surprise as a military tactic:

Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war.

It is always worthwhile to remember that Muhammad was a general as well as a prophet.

Let’s assume for a moment that Iran really has decided to blow something up today. Iran, the nation, must surely have its intelligence analysts and military commanders buzzing away in their hive, gaming their way through various scenarios. The exercise of “war gaming” is surely a cliché so tired that it is deeply embedded within the fabric of statecraft today – no nation can function without it. And I suspect that the thousand-or-so scenarios that emerge from a bomb attack, the date of which has been disclosed, but the time, place and manner of which has been concealed, do not leave Iran with as many strategic advantages as the million-or-so scenarios that emerge from a bomb attack for which no details have been disclosed. I haven’t run the scenarios myself, mind you – so this is just my guess.

I am mindful of another way of looking at this situation, however — being prompted in my thinking by a question posed to me the other night by my esteemed pal Mikey Jack: “Are you playing poker, Fortuna, or are you just rolling out some baroque method of achieving total bankruptcy in one evening?” It was a fair question, considering that the anemic pair of 4s in my hand at that moment was not getting any more fearsome just by my staring at them. I may be a bad bluffer after a couple of Tequila Rickeys, but I’m no lunatic.

And therein lies the rub. A lunatic rolling out some baroque method of achieving total bankruptcy in one evening is not going to run “war game” scenarios,” and is not going to care what the next move is after blowing something up.

So, yes, I get it – if the leaders of Iran are lunatics, then we have everything to fear. The problem with the analysis is that too many people are quick to assume that we’re dealing with lunatics. We used to call Hitler and Stalin and Ho Chi Minh lunatics, but they were not; regrettably, they were highly effective strategic thinkers. When it comes to war games – like hands of poker and games of chess – strategic thinkers win some and they lose some.

Iran has everything to gain by approaching the global community strategically – which is why it probably already believes that it is in its best interest to have us believe that a bunch of lunatics are calling the shots. Up to this point in the current chapter of the narrative of the uneasy relationship between West and Middle East, Iran has out-played all of the other poker players for several years running. Why should they stop now?

Assuming a period of relative peace and an easy drive on the Interstate, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.

3:09 a.m., Tehran: It’s about 6:39 p.m. in the Heartland. Our news broadcasts are focusing mainly on President Bush’s press conference, and the arrest of the alleged killer of JonBenet Ramsey. ABC — the Armageddon Broadcasting Company — did have this article on its website today:

While no extra safeguards are in place, U.S. law enforcement are not ignoring the possible significance of tomorrow’s date, August 22, a date that marks an important historic event on the Islamic calendar.

Internet websites have been full of speculation that it could be a target date for terrorists in commemoration of the return of the 12th imam, a supposed day of reckoning for Shiites.

August 22 was rumored by intelligence experts to be a possible date that the London plotters would blow-up passenger planes headed towards the United States, though it is not known if the suspects were Shiite extremists.

This year, August 22 marks the holy day on the Islamic calendar that is the day of reckoning for Shiites. Some Shiite sects believe that August 22 could correspond to the end of the world. And just today, after much hype, Iran has announced that it will continue to develop its nuclear program. To followers of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, this is a well-timed affront to Israel, the United States and the world. The United Nations had given Iran until the end of the month to respond, but Ahmadinejad had made it clear to all Iranians and the world that he intended to respond on the eve of August 22.

Whether or not this announcement is the end of Ahmadinejad’s plans for August 22, one expert says we will have to wait and watch.

“The only thing we can know is that the date was not chosen by accident,” said Robert Spencer, Director of Jihadwatch.org and an adjunct fellow at the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank. “It does seem very likely, very probable, that he has something major in mind, whether only a major announcement or a major attack, we will soon see.”

See “Is Tomorrow Doomsday?” here.

Meanwhile, Bush only touched on the Iranian situation briefly:

THE PRESIDENT: We have passed one Security Council resolution, demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities. We will see what the response is. We’re beginning to get some indication, but we’ll wait until they have a formal response. The U.N. resolution calls for us to come back together on the 31st of August. The dates — dates are fine, but what really matters is will. And one of the things I will continue to remind our friends and allies is the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran …

Q Mr. President, as you mentioned, we’re just 10 days from the U.N. Security Council deadline on Iran. Judging by the public comments from the Iranians, it appears at least highly unlikely that they’re going to stop or suspend their enrichment program. Are you confident that the U.N. Security Council will move quickly on sanctions if Iran thumbs its nose at the world again?

THE PRESIDENT: I certainly hope so. In order for the U.N. to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council. And we will work with people in the Security Council to achieve that objective, and the objective is that there’s got to be a consequence for them basically ignoring what the Security Council has suggested through resolution.

Q Understanding that diplomacy takes time, do you think that this could drag out for a while?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I don’t know. I certainly want to solve this problem diplomatically, and I believe the best chance to do so is for there to be more than one voice speaking clearly to the Iranians. And I was pleased that we got a resolution, that there was a group of nations willing to come together to send a message to the Iranians — nations as diverse as China and Russia, plus the EU3 and the United States.

“The dates, dates are fine.” Full transcript here.

The traffic around Haft-e-Tir Square has all but disappeared for the evening, and IranNewsDaily.com has barely awakened to the day.

4:22 a.m., Tehran: Here in the Heartland, Mrs. Fortuna and I have just enjoyed a nice meal of salmon and couscous at home, along with our favorite summer cocktail, the aforementioned Tequila Rickey, made as follows:

Ingredients:

1¼ oz. Patron Silver tequila
Juice of ½ lime
6 oz. club soda

Pour tequila and lime juice over ice in a highball glass. Add soda. Stir. Garnish with lime wedge.

Makes the day’s news go down more easily. We’re so decadent here in the West.

The Fajr, or dawn prayer – one of six prayers to be undertaken by a devout Muslim daily – is scheduled to begin in less than an hour in Tehran. But you shouldn’t be imagining that the whole city wakes up in time to pray. As observed by The Guardian in 2002:

At the beginning of 2000 . . . a reformist mullah called Mohammad Ali Zam, shocked Iranians by announcing publicly that research had shown that 73% of Iranians – and 86% of students – did not say their daily prayers. Little of this more secular side of Iran is reported in the west, because of the restrictions facing both foreign and local journalists. Still, one figure that did leak out was a finding that the Ministry of Interior tried to keep secret: according to research among 16,000 people, 94% said the country was in urgent need of reform. Hossein Ghazian, the director of the polling firm Ayande, says that his research points in a similar direction – the majority believe in the present regime, but they want change; and 23% want radical change – that is to say, a revolution. As to religion, Ghazian has found “that 36% say religion should be private and in your heart, and is nothing to do with ritual”, and a similar proportion think religion and state should be separated – a marked change from 10 years earlier.

Just as most of us individual Americans would squirm a bit to think that the rest of the world assesses our personal character by measuring the personal character of our President Bush – I mean, whether you like him or not, how many of us want the world to think we’d give the German chancellor an impromptu neck rub without asking first? – it is a grave mistake to believe that every Iranian is the mirror image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who waits around for the 12th Imam like a groupie waits outside the Roxy) or the Ayatollah Khameini (who is the Ayatollah, after all).

The fact that there exists a reformist, secular movement pervading Iran at some level should cause us to at least question whether the current regime has the political capital to make a big show of inviting a religious war – or worse, to actually flush one out of the hedges. Not that Iran’s moderates love Americans – most of them think we’re lawless hogs, no doubt, us and our Tequila Rickeys – but even a religious dictatorship, er, an Islamic republic, has some practical limits on its policy initiatives in a country where 73% of the people refuse to wake up before the crack of dawn and say their prayers. A middle-of-the-road strategy whose result is to make the Americans and their friends slink off with their tails between their legs is one that is to be prized among most Iranians, and therefore should be viewed as politically expedient to the Iranian government — without the necessity of dealing with the political discontent that must follow in Iran if World War III suddenly breaks out right there in Iran. Or maybe I’m wrong.

See Part 2 here.