The key to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline policies may not be hidden in his revolutionary past, or in any of the nuclear facilities dispersed across Iran, but in a small farming village near the holy city of Qom.
Here, in what was until only a few years ago a shabby local mosque, Iran’s new radical Muslim leader has become the chief sponsor of a messianic cult whose massed followers pray each week for the end of the world as we know it.
Since coming to power last year Mr Ahmadinejad has given a reported $US20 million ($26 million) and personal supervision to turning the tiny Jamkaran mosque into a massive complex of prayer halls, minarets, car parks and ablutions. Once completed, it will cater in comfort to the tens of thousands of worshippers who flock here every Tuesday night, hoping for the reappearance of the Mahdi or “Hidden Imam”, Shiite Islam‘s equivalent of the Messiah.
When Mr Ahmadinejad sent an 18-page letter to the White House last week lecturing the President, George Bush, on religion and morality, many questioned whether the Iranian President was a religious fanatic, a megalomaniac, or merely playing to an Islamic gallery. Jamkaran is a place to start looking for answers.
In Shiite Muslim belief, the 12th Imam or legitimate successor to the prophet Mohammed was only five years old in the year 873 when he vanished beneath the ground in the city of Samarra, in modern Iraq.
Devout Shiites believe some day he will re-emerge to inaugurate a new era of perfect government on earth, which will in turn be followed by the return of the prophet Jesus to judge mankind. And those who flock to Jamkaran believe that this will happen very soon.
“We can see the signs of his emergence. Nobody can know the exact date of it, but it will be in the near future,” explained Mohammed Mehdi Safariyan, 23, a theology student who travelled from Qom last week for the vigil. “One of the most significant signs is that people feel they have lost something, something they need and they look for and they can’t find. This is happening everywhere in the world. Everywhere we go we see new religions, people who are looking for a way to escape.”
It was dusk, and suitably apocalyptic. Storm clouds hung over the huge blue bulb of the half-finished shrine and lightning flickered as the wind began tossing the fir trees. Beneath the trees the first knots of people were already waiting for nightfall when the vigil would begin. Out on the road fleets of smoking buses beeped and shunted in the gloom, and a rising tide of people flooded through the gates, many having made the 15-kilometre pilgrimage on foot from Qom.
Suddenly there were screams, and a large whirlwind whipped through the trees and the startled worshippers and right into the mouth of the newly built shelter which covers the well where pilgrims deposit their wishes to the Mahdi, scribbled on printed prayers.
Farzaneh Hosseini said she had come to the shrine because she had heard that numerous miracles were performed there.
“This is the place that the hidden Imam likes to be and because of him we are here,” said the 27-year-old Afghan refugee from Kabul. “The plans for this mosque were drawn by the Imam and given to a man in a dream, so people have built it here and that is why we come. I believe the dream came to a man a long time ago. I don’t know when.”
According to religious scholars in nearby Qom, the dream in question happened many centuries ago, but until recently the mosque’s link to the Hidden Imam remained a purely local tradition, with little backing from the clergy.
“This thing at Jamkaran is a very recent and contemporary phenomenon,” says Moytaba Lotfi, a senior aide to Iran’s leading pro-reform cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri.
“As far back as I can remember it was only a very simple desert mosque. It wasn’t a place that attracted pilgrims. It’s only during the last 10 or 12 years, because of the propaganda on the state television and media, that lots of people have come to gather there.”
A former close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri was suppressed and later placed under house arrest when he began to condemn the increasingly corrupt and autocratic nature of the Islamic Republic. The cult of Jamkaran has become a particular target of his small but influential movement.
“They are using it to distract people from paying attention to more serious things,” says Lotfi, who is a mullah.
He is quite cynical about the choice of Jamkaran as a venue for worship. “In Iraq there is another place dedicated to the Hidden Imam [the holy shrine at Samarra] but this is the only one in Iran, so they’ve tried to promote it as much as possible.”
But is Mr Ahmadinejad an artful schemer or a true believer, or is he both at the same time? As the West drifts closer to a showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, attempting to guess Mr Ahmadinejad’s real motives and intentions is fast becoming the 21st century equivalent of Kremlinology.
There was surprise and dismay in diplomatic circles last year when, having addressed the United Nations for the first time, Mr Ahmadinejad later claimed that the righteousness of his religious harangue had struck dumb the listening assembly. He did not demur when followers claimed to have seen a halo around him on the podium.
On the other hand, he recently earned stern rebukes from his supposed backers in the hardline clerical establishment when he suggested that perhaps Iranian women should not be legally compelled to wear the veil. He also said that he believed women should be allowed to attend soccer matches.
Some observers point out that his recent messages are not inconsistent with a desire to win broader popularity and use it to extract more power from his rivals in Iran’s divided conservative establishment.
“He’s a populist politician – he doesn’t care about strict Islamic rules,” believes economic and political analyst Saeed Laylaz. “Of course he’s a religious man, but like most people if he had to select either power or religion I’m sure he’ll select power, like a lot of other leaders today.”
Some see Mr Ahmadinejad’s aggressive promotion of his predecessors’ more surreptitious nuclear program as another manifestation of a populist drive for domination.
“He tells ordinary people that the Imam is going to solve all the world’s problems. In the same way, he tells them that having nuclear energy will miraculously solve all of Iran’s economic problems by freeing up lots more oil for export,” remarked one diplomat.