The following is by an Iran expert who wishes to remain anonymous.
Two years ago, Iran’s ruling ayatollahs united to save the presidency of the fraudulently reelected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after he was challenged by hundreds of thousands of protesters intent on removing him and building a more democratic Iran. Ahmadinejad survived and the Green Movement, as the opposition was called, was crushed. Thousands of people were arrested, and many were tortured; more than a hundred were subjected to a televised show trial; and dozens were killed in the crackdown. The clerical establishment, which has considerable sway over the government through the Supreme Leader and the various councils and other bodies that answer to him, ultimately supported the vote counts on which Ahmadinejad based his victory.
Since then, however, Ahmadinejad’s alliance with the clerics has been torn apart by a controversy over religious doctrine. The chief disputants are Ahmadinejad and his former patron, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the man who has provoked the rupture is Esfandiyar Rahim Mashaei, President Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and close adviser, a lay revolutionary. In defending Mashaei, Ahmadinejad has suffered repeated insults and challenges to his authority. The mullahs who make up the country’s conservative establishment hate Mashaei because he is reputed to be in contact with the Twelfth Imam—a messianic figure who, according to the dominant branch of Shiism, has been in a state of “occultation” (in effect, hiding or concealment) since the tenth century.
The ramifications of Mashaei’s alleged “gift” of having relations with the Twelfth Imam are enormous. Most Shia Muslims endorse a dynastic line of claimants to the leadership of Islam that began with Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was elected caliph in 656 and murdered five years later. There were eleven more of these hereditary imams, or guides, and all but one of them met a violent death at the hands of their enemies—the forebears of today’s Sunni community, who had rejected the dynastic principle and established their own caliphate. According to the Shia tradition, in 941 the Twelfth Imam was occulted, promising to reveal himself at an unspecified moment in the future to end vice and confusion.
The prospect of an infallible imam who might return at any moment (having miraculously retained his youth) holds obvious attractions for an embattled minority religious community, and the history of Shiism is full of controversial figures who have alleged—or let it be alleged on their behalf—that they have met the Twelfth Imam. But these claims are a challenge to Shia clerics, who regard themselves as the rightful intermediaries between God and the community. What if someone from the community claims to be in direct contact with the imam, and can transmit his wishes to society?…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.