Shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran's fifth post-revolutionary president in July 2005, he convened a cabinet meeting for an urgent discussion of one of the issues closest to his heart - the return of the 12th Imam. All streams of Islam believe in a divine saviour, known as the Mahdi, who will appear at the End of Days. For many Shia Muslims, the 12th Imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who went into occlusion in the ninth century at the age of nine, is the main object of their faith.
Devotion to the 12th Imam is particularly prevalent in Iran where the majority of the population are known as "Twelvers". It is an article of faith for Iranian Shia that the return of the Hidden Imam, as he is also known, will be preceded by cosmic chaos, war and bloodshed and then lead the world to an era of universal peace.
From the moment he assumed the presidency, Ahmadinejad, who is a dedicated adherent to the cult of the 12th Imam, wanted to make sure that everything was ready for the return. At one of his first cabinet meetings, Ahmadinejad told his newly-appointed ministers, "We have to turn Iran into a modern and divine country to be the model for all nations, and which will serve as the basis for the return of the 12th Imam."
One minister helpfully suggested the government should undertake a programme of hotel expansion to accommodate all the visitors that would flock to Iran when the Mahdi finally returned. Several months later, while on a tour of the provinces, Ahmadinejad made the outlandish suggestion that the Western powers were so concerned about the Mahdi's possible return that they were scouring the world trying to find him, to prevent him returning to Iran and establishing justice on earth. He even made a reference to the 12th Imam in his Christmas Day broadcast to Britain on Channel 4.
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