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Let's set aside, for the moment, the latest details of Iran's nuclear confrontation with the West. You may get a better picture of what's happening in Iran by learning what many Iranian's believe.
Central to the beliefs of pious Shiite Muslims in Iran is the story of the hidden Imam. Centuries ago, this holy person is said to have disappeared, hidden by God but kept alive since then to reappear at the end of history to lead to an era of Islamic Justice.
This belief helped to inspire Iran's Islamic revolution 27 years ago. Now, it's found renewed inspiration in Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Tehran.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
(Soundbite of Islamic call to prayer)
It is Friday, and the call to prayer echoes off the tiled mosaic walls of the mosques of Qom. Qom is the center of Islamic learning in Iran, situated in the desert about 65 south of Tehran. It is filled with mosques, shrines, seminaries, and Islamic institutes.
And on the edge of the city is one of Qom's most important places: the mosque of Jamkaran. It is here at Jamkaran that thousands come to communicate with the hidden Imam, the Imam Mahdi, says Amir Ofsaleh(ph), a young official of the mosque.
Mr. AMIR OFSALEH (Office of the Jamkaran Mosque, Qom): (Through translator) We have been taught how to communicate with our Imams and to God. That is something we call talisol(ph). And talisol can be translated into English as resorting. And this resorting has got different ways. One of the ways is kind of a long letter that you write, and this is how to communicate.
(Soundbite of prayers)
SHUSTER: Bringing such letters to Jamkaran has special importance, because it was here that the Twelfth Imam was said to have ordered the construction of a mosque a short time before he disappeared. That was in the year 971, according to Shiite teaching.
The Imam Mahdi was hidden by God in a cave in Samarra, in what is now Iraq, in order to protect his life from those who were conspiring against him. Because he remains alive, but hidden on earth, believers can communicate with him by writing letters.
Then, says Amir Ofsaleh, there is a way they can send these letters to him.
Mr. OFSALEH: (Through translator) The next step you're supposed to do is to put that letter in running water or in a well.
SHUSTER: Inside the Jamkaran mosque is a well, and it is a favorite place to send these letters.
It is here that the rumors started last year about the beliefs and actions of newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the occasion of the birthday of the Imam Mahdi, Ahmadinejad sent a minister of his government to read a letter to the worshippers at Jamkaran. After that, a member of Iran's parliament said the letter was dropped into the well. Then the story spread that a list of the president's new cabinet members was dropped into the well.
Amir Ofsaleh says all these rumors are untrue.
Mr. OFSALEH: (Through translator) So when they said a letter, it was denied by the president, that the minister has done so, let alone the president. So they have never thrown any letter here.
SHUSTER: Still, Ahmadinejad himself has fostered the widespread view that he believes deeply in the story of the Hidden Imam. He spoke of it during an address to the U.N. General Assembly last year, and later told associates the audience was astonished.
He has authorized $17 million to expand the Jamkaran complex. At the moment, construction is at a standstill on two enormous new minarets, but masons are working on the front of the old mosque here.
Some say as mayor of Tehran, before he was elected President, Ahmadinejad asked the city council to prepare a plan for the capital when the Hidden Imam returns. There is much speculation in Iran about how these beliefs affect the president's political views. Some say, if he believes the Imam Mahdi will return to establish an era of perfect Islamic government in the world, it steels his hard-line positions; especially if he believes this second coming is imminent.
Some speculate that Ahmadinejad believes the United States is seeking to impose itself as the agent of salvation in the Middle East, thus supplanting the Imam Madhi.
Sayed Alelah(ph), who is a well-known political analyst in Tehran, says Ahmadinejad is manipulating religion and politics as leaders do in many nations.
Mr. SAYED ALELAH (Political Analyst, Tehran): Everywhere in the world, I believe, and in Iran as well, politicians use religion as instrument to keep the power.
SHUSTER: In part, this appears to be an effort by Ahmadinejad to broaden and solidify his support among Iran's voters, who are deeply divided about his presidency, says Alelah.
Mr. ALELAH: He has a few months opportunity to show that he is successful or not. Otherwise, Iranian people, especially poor people, who voted for him are more impatient than his expecting.
SHUSTER: At the same time, it seems Ahmadinejad is trying to distinguish himself form the views of his predecessor, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Mohammad Ali Abtahi was vice president under Khatami. Abtahi is now head of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran.
Mr. MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI (Director, Institute for Interreligious Dialogue): (Through translator) I believe the main clashes within the power structure in Iran arise from such disagreement on the definition of Islam - different interpretations of Islam within the power structure in Iran.
SHUSTER: One being the more fundamentalist and mystical view of Ahmadinejad. The other view being a more pragmatic approach, the approach of the reformist movement, now out of power, in which religion does not always dictate political decisions. Ahmadinejad does have his defenders, even among the educated middle class. Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says a leader can believe in the return of the Hidden Imam, but separate that belief from his political actions.
Professor NASSER HADIAN (Political Science, Tehran University): He would tell them, do you base any of your decision on his return? He would tell you no. In other words, he's not basing any one of his decisions on the return of 12th Imam.
SHUSTER: But that is not the view among those at the Jamkaran mosque. For Amir Ofsaleh, the story of the hidden imam is at the heart of Shiite belief and at the heart of Iran's Islamic revolution.
Mr. OFSALEH: (Through translator) Like our leader, Imam Khomeini - leader of the revolution - has mentioned that we have exported our revolution to the world. We are witnessing today that Muslim as well as non-Muslim countries, the countries who are poor and oppressed, they are getting an opportunity to express themselves more.
(Soundbite of prayer)
SHUSTER: For the fervent believers in the story of the Hidden Imam, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spread this message once again across Iran and beyond its borders, that Iran will be at the forefront in helping the Hidden Imam reappear and establish a period of Islamic justice for all the world. Mike Shuster, NPR News.