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Waiting for the rapture in Iran

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Taraghi says the US is "trying to place itself as the new Mahdi." This may mean no peace with Iran, he adds, "unless America changes its hegemonic ... thinking, doesn't use nuclear weapons, [or] impose its will on other nations."

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Final rulings on such issues rest with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose position of velayat-e-faqih - God's jurisprudent on earth - is meant to serve as the direct link with the divine.

And while rule by clerics might suggest joy over a leader who believes he is divinely guided, Shiite religious texts ban all claims of such revelations and warn against "false prophets." The punishment for "fooling" people is so great, notes one, that "hell's fire and its occupants are crying."

Analysts say a lay president who demonstrates such a connection may also be a danger by undermining the role and authority of Ayatollah Khamenei.

"One objection [to the government] is they take advantage of Islamic religion and Imam Zaman [Mahdi] - they exploit them," says Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a ranking dissident cleric in Qom. "If the government uses religious slogans and religion as a tool [to gain power], this makes people fed up with religion and is wrong."

The Mahdi's eventual return is an article of faith for Shiite Muslims that taps deeply into Persian consciousness and mystical tradition. Signs began to appear in Tehran three years ago, announcing that "He's Coming." But only a portion of Iranians actively prepare for that moment.

Part of the tradition holds that the Jamkaran mosque was ordered built by the Mahdi himself, during a dream revealed to a "righteous man" some 1,000 years ago. It is here that believers are closest to the Mahdi. Written prayers dropped into the adjacent well (which, local guides point out has no religious basis) are thought by pilgrims to be divinely answered.

Officials deny rumors that Ahmadinejad, as mayor last year, secretly tasked the Tehran City Council with reconfiguring the capital to prepare a suitable route for the Mahdi's return. They also deny that a list of Ahmadinejad's new cabinet members has been dropped into the well - a superstition that even Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's revolution, refused to associate with.

"The legitimacy of Khatami came from the religious elite. But the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad comes from traditional religious thought [over half a century ago]," says Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and philosophy professor in Tehran. "Ahmadinejad and his men believe it is popular, [but] it's a very simple interpretation. We don't believe in it; the majority of academics don't believe in it."

Still, an early cabinet decision earmarked $17 million for Jamkaran. And there is talk of building a direct train link from Tehran to the elegant blue-tiled mosque, which lies 65 miles south of the capital, east of the Shiite religious center of Qom.

Already, Jamkaran is estimated to receive the second-largest number of pilgrims of any holy site in Iran. Devotees, many from Iran's legions of poor and less-educated who voted heartily for Ahmadinejad, line up by the hundreds to receive food, and on Tuesday night settle in family groups on blankets outside.

With hands over their hearts in supplication, they approach the radiant mosque for evening prayers, and scrawl requests to the Mahdi on preprinted prayer forms. Many pilgrims say their prayers are answered, and health problems are healed.

"When you come here, you get your [prayer] request fulfilled, if you are clean and pure," says Fatima, speaking through a small gap in her head covering as she tends to a pot of rice boiling on a portable gas stove. Her family is holding vigil outside the mosque after dark.

She attributes a significant healing 10 years ago to a Jamkaran visit, but says the "Mahdi does not allow me to talk about it with anybody else."

Pilgrims are not limited to the poor or infirm, however. One young couple - he's a banker in Qom, and wears a stylish suit - say they had their prayer answered after coming 40 Tuesday nights in a row. Now they have another request, and will be here 40 times again.

"We Iranians have very strong beliefs, and this is a holy place," says Mahdi Abdulahi, holding a late-model motorcycle helmet as he stands near the mosque entrance. "I don't think it's a matter of [presidential] propaganda to crank you up. It depends upon your own belief."