Jonathan Manthorpe – Vancouver Sun May 13, 2011
At first glance from outside, the struggle for authority in Iran between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become weird in the extreme.
One of them, Ahmadinejad’s personal exorcist, Abbas Ghaffari, is accused of summoning up a genie, or “djinn,” while being questioned, which caused his interrogator to have a heart attack.
Ahmadinejad himself has been warned by his own religious mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi MesbahYazdi, that he is risking “apostasy” by allowing himself to be portrayed as Shu’ayb bin Salih, one of the figures who will accompany the Mahdi, the saviour, when he returns to bring justice and peace to the world.
There is, however, nothing strange or unfamiliar about these events and accusations in the world of the Iranian Islamic Republic, the heartland of the Shiite faction of the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad is playing a very calculated, bold but dangerous political game stemming from his own intense Messianic belief in the imminent reappearance of the Mahdi -the equivalent of the Messiah in Judaism or the second coming of Christ in Christianity.
Ahmadinejad speaks frequently about the Mahdi and his return within the next few years to cleanse the world.
He has even made this a theme in two speeches at the General Assembly of the United Nations when, he said in a video interview later, the Mahdi bathed him in a green aura that transfixed his audience.
But by associating himself with the Mahdi, Ahmadinejad is claiming to have higher religious and thus, in the Iranian context, political authority than Supreme Leader Khamenei.
There have been persistent rumours coming out of Iran in the last few days that Ahmadinejad has overplayed his hand and, at best, will be forced to resign.
That may be, but it is hard to believe that a man prepared to play a high-stakes game involving some of the core beliefs of his society would go easily or willingly. One of the central beliefs in Shiism is that the Twelfth Imam of Islam, Muhammad al-Mahdi went into hiding -it’s called “occultation” -in 873 CE.
Shiites believe the Mahdi is present in the world and at some point will reveal himself and usher in a period of revolutionary social and political change.
He also will take vengeance on Sunni Muslims, whom Shiites believe have blocked the rights of the family of the Prophet Muhammad to rule the world, and he will slaughter Muslim religious leaders who have not established just Islamic law.
Since the ayatollahs came to power in Iran in 1979 they have downplayed the role of the return of the Mahdi in their theology, just as the second coming of Christ is not a central obsession for most Christians.
But the Mahdi and his imminent return is an aggressively promoted belief and driving force for Ahmadinejad.
Since he was elected president in 2005 he has put a great deal of political authority and money behind the development of the shrine at Jamkaran, near the holy city of Qom south of Tehran, which is one of the messianic sites associated with the reappearance of the Mahdi.
Under Ahmadinejad’s patronage, the Jamkaran mosque has become a major hub for the publication of books and DVDs concerning the Mahdi and the imminent apocalypse.
It was the content of one of these DVDs, published last month, that seems to have directly spurred the arrest of Ahmadinejad’s associates for sorcery. One of those arrested, the president’s personal prayer leader, Abbas Amirifar, has been singled out in state media in Iran as having been behind the DVD, which portrays Ahmadinejad as the Mahdi’s right-hand man, Shu’ayb bin Salih.
Another of those arrested is said to be Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is a central figure in this story.
Unless he has some other plans to stay in power, Ahmadinejad must retire in 2013 after serving two terms.
It is widely believed he wants Mashaei to succeed him. But the ayatollahs and other religious leaders think Mashaei is close to being a heretic.
Matters started coming to a head last month when Ahmadinejad attempted to fire his intelligence minister, Abdulhassan Banisadr, who he thought had authorized surveillance of Mashaei on behalf of the supreme leader.
Khamenei demanded the reinstatement of the minister, and Ahmadinejad reluctantly agreed after boycotting cabinet meetings for 11 days.
The last few days have seen the sorcery charges against Ahmadinejad’s cohorts.
But perhaps most indicative that Ahmadinejad’s days in power may be numbered are some remarks by the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, the ultimate bulwark of power in Iran.
“The Islamic Republic cannot survive without the existence of the supreme leader,” Mohammadw Ali Jafari was quoted as saying last week by an Iranian newspaper.