Did Santorum Suggest Iran Wants Nukes to Bring Back Messiah?

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With the exception of Ron Paul, Republican presidential candidates haven’t been shy about expressing their hardline views on Iran out on the campaign trail.

But as international inspectors confirmed Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow plant, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum went further than the others, laying out a bold claim that Iran’s leadership deliberately located the plant to hasten the return of a revered messiah and an apocalyptic “end-of-times scenario.”

Here’s how Santorum explained it at at a town hall in Salem, N.H. on Monday:

They’ve located the facility in a little town called Qom. Qom happens to be a rather significant city in Iran. … The Shi’ites have one of their holiest sites … in Qom, because there’s a well there called the Jamkaran well, where — they call it the Mahdi — the equivalent of, in some respects, a Jesus figure, who is gonna come back at the end of times and lead Shi’a Islam in the ruling of the world in peace and justice. That’s what their end-of-times scenario is. Well, he comes back at a time of great chaos. And so there are many who speculate that there are folks over in Iran who wouldn’t mind creating a time of great chaos, for religious reasons. And the fact that they built this nuclear program in this city, next to where this man is supposed to return, leads one to think that there may be more to it, since they could pick any other place in the state, in the country, to do so, that there may be other reasons than to develop domestic nuclear power.

The former Pennsylvania senator brought up the idea again on Fox News this week, so we asked two scholars of religion to weigh in on his claims. Here’s what they had to say.

What Do Shias Believe About Mahdi?

Most Shias regard Muhammad al-Mahdi as their Twelfth Imam, a messianic figure whom they believe will return during a period of intense chaos. According to Shia belief, Mahdi never died; he disappeared in the 9th century in what is known as the occultation.  Many Shias believe Mahdi will return in some form one day with Jesus Christ and bring about a time of prosperity and the day of judgment. There isn’t consensus on where he will reappear; some believe it’s an area in the city of Qom known as the Jamkaran well, while others believe it could be in parts of Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

But Shias don’t necessarily believe Mahdi’s return is imminent, says Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and expert on Shiism. “Shias believe the same thing many Christians believe about the second coming of Jesus, but they are no more or less [than Christians] dwelling on this as an imminent event.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has often referred to Mahdi’s return and the need to prepare for it, but Najam Haider, an assistant professor of religion at Barnard College, says the president is using the symbolic value of Mahdi’s return to win domestic political support.  “When [Ahmadinejad] talks about the coming of Mahdi, it promises a better future, a finer restoration of justice,” he explains. “He’s pandering to a particular audience.”

Some of Iran’s highest religious authorities have clashed with the president over his remarks about Mahdi. “The Ayatollahs certainly don’t think in these terms,” says Haider. “Almost every single high jurist in Iran you speak to will say, ‘We don’t know when he comes. Only God knows what time he will show up.'”

Reading Mahdi’s return as imminent and assuming the state is at agreement about that is “faulty analysis,” says Nasr. “It’s extremely simplistic to define a whole nation and its history in such a caricature fashion.” What Santorum doesn’t realize, Haider adds, is that he’s “taking literally ideas that aren’t meant to be literal in public discourse in Iran.”

How Close Is the Facility in Question to Qom?

In Iran, they don’t refer to the area where this plant is as Qom, says Nasr. “They call it Fordow,” after the town it’s located in.

Fordow is about 20 miles north of the city of Qom, according to the International Atomic Energy Association [PDF], not in it, nor even next to the Jamrakan well, where Shias believe Mahdi once appeared to pray.

The map below plots the the Jamrakan well and the coordinates of the two possible locations [PDF] of the underground site, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.


View this in a larger map

Nasr adds that it’s obvious why Iran chose that location for the plant: “It’s a mountainous area, so they could build this site underground in order to hide their nuclear capability against airstrikes.”

How Much Is Religion Driving Iran’s Nuclear Motivations?

“Yes, you have a head of state that is religious, you have a theocracy, but the reasons why Iran wants to project power in the Middle East or defend itself is not unique to Muslims or Shiites,” explains Nasr. “It’s a pretty standard international relations practice.”

Instead, Nasr says Santorum’s argument is “trying to portray the U.S. standoff with Iran as a war of civilization, as a religious war,” which is more marketable. “Trying to read Iran’s motivations and behavior through the prism of religion, especially when you don’t even understand the religion, to me seems not very productive.”

Bonus: Mapping Iran’s Nuclear Sites

Explore Iran’s various enrichment centers, reactors, uranium mines and the Middle East’s first civilian nuclear power plant in this interactive map from Al Jazeera English.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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