It might sound psychotic, but in fact it could be one of the cleverest and most diabolical counterinsurgency measures of all time. President Ahmadinejad of Iran says he wants to depopulate Tehran, Iran’s capital, because of the threat of an earthquake.

Of course, the only earthquake Ahmadinejad and his allies are worried about is the political earthquake that followed the June 12 election crisis.

Sounding not unlike the Khmer Rouge madmen and China’s Cultural Revolution fanatics, who depopulated urban areas, according to Reuters Ahmadinejad says that nearly half of Tehran’s 13 million people should flee the city to towns of population 25,000 or less.

Says the report:

“‘Tehran has 13 million inhabitants. If an incident happens, how can we manage it? Therefore, Tehran should be evacuated,’ said Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of the city, announcing financial aid for people who move to towns with a population of less than 25,000.

“‘At least 5 million people should leave Tehran,’ he said.”

This is not a joke. Tehran is the center of political opposition to the mullah regime, and any threat to depopulate it should be taken very seriously. (Interestingly, before he became a politician, Ahmadinejad was a traffic engineer and urban planner, so it’s not lightly that he suggests depopulating the capital.)

Earlier this week, some members of the vast, unwashed clergy of Iran warned that because of the sins of Tehranis, God was going to send an earthquake to destroy the capital. One cleric specifically singled out promiscuous women as the cause of the divine-inspired wrath:

“Women who dress provocatively and tempt people into promiscuity are to blame for earthquakes, a leading Iranian hard-line cleric has apparently said.

“The prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi, says women and girls who ‘don’t dress appropriately’ spread ‘promiscuity in society.’

“‘When promiscuity spreads, earthquakes increase,’ he says in a video posted Monday on YouTube, apparently of him leading Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, last week.

“‘There is no way other than taking refuge in religion and adapting ourselves to Islamic behavior,’ he adds in the video.”

According to the BBC, Sadeghi specifically compared a geological earthquake to the “political earthquake” of June 2009.

It’s easy to dismiss such nonsense as religious obscurantism on the model of Pat Robertson’s claim that God destroyed New Orleans because of its sins. But unlike Robertson, the mullahs have power in a nation.

It’s extremely unlikely that Ahmadinejad believes the nonsense that he spews. True, Tehran might be struck by a quake. But the regime is desperately trying to eliminate the threat to its survival that emerged last summer, and there shouldn’t be any doubt that a regime whose political base is in the rural areas and small towns would dearly love to eliminate Tehran’s middle class.

And that’s what’s worrisome, because if the United States and the West push Iran ever harder on sanctions, it’s possible to imagine Iran turning inward, using military force and police repression to compel a population driven into penury by sanctions to submit to their plight in order to preserve Iran’s Islamic purity. After all, North Korea has endured crushing sanctions for years and near-famine conditions, without cracking politically.

So when Ahmadinejad needs clerical doomsayers and starts talking about depopulating Tehran, take him at his word.