Waiting for the rapture in Iran
For those who believe, the devotion is real. Tears stream down the cheeks of 2,000 men ripe for the return of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam they expect will soon emerge to bring justice and peace to a corrupt world.Skip to next paragraph
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Eyes stare upward and arms open wide to receive God's promised salvation. The storyteller's lyrical song speaks of tragedy on the path to salvation, prompting cries of anguish and joy.
As at a Christian revivalist meeting that promises healing and redemption, many weep as they pray for the Shiite Muslim version of the second coming of the Messiah. "Sometimes I feel they don't need me," says Mahdi Salashur, the religious storyteller, after leading congregants on an emotional late-night journey. "They are wired to God in their hearts."
Among the true believers is Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who predicted with "no doubt" his June election victory, months in advance, at a time when polls gave him barely 1 percent support. The president also spoke of an aura that wreathed him throughout his controversial UN speech in September.
"O mighty Lord," Mr. Ahmadinejad intoned to his surprised audience, "I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."
Later, at a private meeting with a cleric that was caught on video, Ahmadinejad shared his views of the moment. "I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed, and for 27 to 28 minutes the leaders did not blink," he said. "They were astonished.... it had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic Republic."
A spokesman last week dismissed the video as fake (other sources confirm it is authentic), and denied that Ahmadinejad bases decisions on "heavenly affairs." But this presidential obsession with the Mahdaviat [belief in the second coming] yields a certitude that leaves little room for compromise.
From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, to challenging the United States and Israel and enhancing Iran's power with nuclear programs, every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the Mahdi's return.
Ahmadinejad's executive self-confidence contrasts sharply with the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who advocated a "dialogue of civilizations" and Iran's return to the international fold.
Ahmadinejad is instead transporting Iran back to the first radical years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, defined by battling imperial US and Soviet powers and Zionism. The former Revolutionary Guardsman says Israel is a "tumor" that must be "wiped off the map." He denies the Holocaust. And he is pushing the Iran's nuclear-power card; stalled talks with the European Union to curb those plans resume Wednesday in Vienna.
"This kind of mentality makes you very strong," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper.
"Bush said: 'God said to me, attack Afghanistan and attack Iraq.' The mentality of Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad is the same here - both think God tells them what to do," says Mr. Mohebian, noting that end-of-time beliefs have similar roots in Christian and Muslim theology.
"If you think these are the last days of the world, and Jesus will come [again], this idea will change all your relations," says Mohebian. "If I think the Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard."
That mind-set also hearkens back to the missionary ambition of the newly forged Islamic Republic. "What Ahmadinejad believes is that we have to create a model state based on ... Islamic democracy - to be given to the world," says Hamidreza Taraghi, head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Society. "The ... government accepts this role for themselves."
Any possibility of détente with the US may also be in jeopardy, if the US-Iran conflict is cast in Mahdaviat terms. That view holds that the US - with quasireligious declarations of transforming the Middle East with democracy and justice, deploying military forces across the region, and developing a new generation of nuclear weapons - is arrogantly trying to assume the role of Mahdi.
A top priority of Ahmadinejad is "to challenge America, which is trying to impose itself as the final salvation of the human being, and insert its unjust state [in the region]," says Mr. Taraghi.