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Ahmadinejad Criticized for Saying Long-Ago Imam Mahdi Leads Iran

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 8, 2008

TEHRAN, May 7 -- Several leading Iranian clerics criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday for saying that the last imam of Shiite Islam, a messianic figure who Shiites believe was hidden by God 1,140 years ago, leads modern-day Iran.

"We see his hand directing all the affairs of the country," Ahmadinejad told theological students in the city of Mashad during a speech that appears to have been given last month but was not broadcast until Tuesday. "A movement has started for us to occupy ourselves with our global responsibilities. God willing, Iran will be the axis of the leadership of this movement," Ahmadinejad said.

Several clerics in the Iranian parliament accused Ahmadinejad of implying that Imam Mahdi or Imam Zaman (Imam of the Age), as the Shiite messiah is also called, supports his government. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran's government has been overseen by Shiite clerics, but religious leaders here have resisted Ahmadinejad's frequent hints that his government's actions are guided by the Mahdi.

Clerics said in interviews published Wednesday that the president should not use the imam to his political advantage or to silence critics of the government.

"If, God forbid, Ahmadinejad means that Imam Zaman supports the government's actions, this is wrong. Certainly Imam Zaman would not accept 20 percent inflation rates, nor would he support it or many other mistakes that exist in the country today," wrote Gholam-reza Mesbahi Moghadam, a cleric belonging to a powerful faction close to Iranian businessmen and established religious figures. His comments appeared in Ettemaad-e Melli, a Tehran newspaper owned by a cleric who is critical of Ahmadinejad.

Official inflation is more than 20 percent in Iran, according to economists, because of poor government planning and uncontrolled spending of billions of dollars in oil money. The administration says it needs more time to reduce inflation.

The clerics also feared that the president's remarks in Mashad could make it harder to criticize the government. "These kinds of statements might create an image of a holy relation between persons and religion, which will close the path for critics," Mahmoud Madani Bajestani, another cleric and politician told Ettemaad-e Melli.

Imam Mohammad al-Mahdi, the last of 12 Shiite holy figures or imams, is believed to have gone into occultation near what is now the Iraqi city of Samarra. Shiites say he will return when mankind reaches a state of spiritual perfection, rationality and morality.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he has made the "hastening of the coming of Imam Mahdi" an important political theme and used it, for example, to justify slashing interest rates in an effort to help poor Iranians. According to several politicians and economists, his policies have led to disorganization in the administrative system.

The belief in the coming of the Mahdi is deep-rooted among Iranians. Every Tuesday night, the predicted evening of his arrival, thousands of Iranians gather at the shrine of Jamkaran in the city of Qum. They write wishes on pieces of paper and throw them in a well where the imam is supposed to have appeared.

"Like in Christianity, one is hopeful for a better future. It's a kind of messianic thinking," Nader Talebzadeh, a filmmaker and politician supportive of Ahmadinejad's views of Imam Mahdi said. "The president is unabashed about this, and this makes it easy for political enemies to hurt him. But his thinking and expectations about the last imam don't differ much from that of many people in Iran."

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