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5 December 2005

Preparing Iran for judgement day

President Ahmadinejad is mocked by Tehran's elite for his ugliness, stupidity and smelly socks. Yet

By Lindsey Hilsum

Black chadors gathered round their wrinkled faces, desperation in their rheumy eyes, the old women pressed up against the railings. One held out a note for the shrine attendant to drop into a postbox made of green wooden slats. At first she would not say what she had written. Then she began to cry, tears trickling under her thick pebble glasses.

“My eldest son is an opium addict,” she sobbed. “He’s married with a child but he’s unemployed. My other sons are also opium addicts – they mixed with bad friends and have been addicted for five years now. I don’t know what to do, so I am throwing this prayer into the well and hoping the Mahdi will help.”

Shia Muslims believe that the 12th Imam or Mahdi, the last in a line of saints descended from Ali, the founder of their sect, vanished in 941 and will one day return. According to their tradition, he is “in occultation”, like a sun hidden by clouds – after a stormy period of wars and other ravages, the clouds will clear and the sun will be revealed. After a local man had a vision of the Mahdi, a shrine was erected at Jamkaran, outside the holy city of Qom. Some Shias believe that the Mahdi will reappear through a well at the shrine, so the postbox has been erected on the spot for the faithful to send him their prayers.

Many of Iran’s most learned ayatollahs say the legend of Jamkaran is superstition, but thousands flock there every Tuesday evening. In one of his first acts after being elected in June, Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, allocated £12m of government funds to enlarge the shrine and mosque. Much to the alarm of those who say Iran is modernising, he frequently refers to the Mahdi, even mentioning him in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September. Asked late last month how Iranians should prepare for the Mahdi, he replied: “They must be pure and devout.” On other occasions, he has talked of reorienting the country’s policies to be ready for judgement day, the equivalent of Tony Blair telling Britons to prepare for Christ’s second coming.

A DVD doing the rounds in exile circles and in Tehran reveals just how mystical Iran’s new president is. The scene appears to have been filmed openly, shortly after Ahmadinejad returned from the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, but has not been publicly released. The president is seen entering a house with Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, a senior conservative figure in Qom. They sit on a carpet and are served tea while talking about the money the government has allocated to the shrine at Jamkaran. Then the president turns to his recent UN address.

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“On the last day when I was speaking, one of our group told me that when I started to say ‘Bismillah Muhammad‘, he saw a green light come from around me, and I was placed inside this aura,” he says. “I felt it myself. I felt that the atmosphere suddenly changed, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, all the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn’t move an eyelid, I’m not exaggerating. They were looking as if a hand was holding them there, and had just opened their eyes – Alhamdulillah!

Some are beginning to worry that the president’s religiosity, combined with his extreme statements – notably his declaration that Israel should be “wiped off the face of the earth” – are damaging the country. The unspoken fear is that the president is not concerned about international turmoil, because he believes these are the End Times which herald the return of the Mahdi.

“Such talk is for internal consumption,” says Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice-president. “But I am worried by the use of these religious slogans.” Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, a liberal clergyman in Qom, said: “We should rule the country according to Islamic law, but we should not use religi- ous ideas in politics. Even Ayatollah Khomeini did not believe we should do this.”

The previous reformist government trod a fine line, defying western objections to Iran’s nuclear programme while simultaneously giving the impression of opening up and becoming more tolerant. In three months, the new president has abandoned subtle diplomacy, sacking reformist ambassadors and replacing practised nuclear negotiators with ideologues. The men he has nominated as ministers are seen by most Iranian politicians as inexperienced – so far, parliament has rejected three of his nominees for the post of oil minister, leaving the key ministry rudderless.

Such is the whispering campaign against Ahmadinejad that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has called on people to stop criticising and give him a chance. Some of the mockery is simply snobbery. Ahmadinejad is a blacksmith’s son; the way he mixes the equivalent of Shakespearean language with street slang makes the north Tehran elite curl up with mirth. Text-message jokes are all about his ugliness, poor clothes sense, stupidity and smelly socks. But the reformist politicians who consider themselves so superior lost the July election to Ahmadinejad precisely because they did not have his common touch.

“The reformists do not understand Iranian society,” said Emad Baghi, one of Iran’s leading human rights campaigners. “There is a huge gap between them and the people. After all, a million Iranians go to Jamkaran every year.”

While the reformists concentrated on relaxing the dress code and other measures that made the lives of the elite more comfortable, Ahmadinejad talks of God and of redistributing wealth. His power base is the basiji, young men – and a few young women – who act as the regime’s enforcers. Among the impoverished and devout, he is still very popular.

At prayers in Tehran last Friday, three young women sat on a prayer mat, eating biscuits and chatting. Two were 21, one 16. All said they voted for Ahmadinejad. “Islam was not being performed correctly in this country,” said one. “We hope that Ahmadinejad, because he is a religious man even though not a mullah, will bring us the real Islam, so everything is ready for the return of the 12th Imam.” Asked if she wasn’t afraid of the war and suffering that are expected to precede the second coming, she said, “Any war before the return of the 12th Imam will be between bad Muslims and non-believers.”

At Jamkaran many are too poor and ill-educated to know what the president has been saying, but a bearded young man came up to give his opinion, carefully keeping his eyes to the ground so as not to look on a woman. “This is the first president to talk of the Mahdi as we do,” he said. “We are happy about this and we support him.”

Lindsey Hilsum’s film from Iran will be shown on Channel 4 News at 7pm on 5 December

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