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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."

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.

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