Across the street from the sprawling shrine to Fatima al-Masumeh, the revered sister of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam, a group of campaign workers on a rooftop are busy unfurling wall-sized election posters for a conservative candidate in Iran’s March parliamentary election. We’re in downtown Qom, a city of 1 million about 100 miles southwest of Tehran. Qom is Iran’s religious capital, the wellspring for a host of fundamentalist clerics who’ve ruled Iran since 1979, and it is an eerie place. Unlike some other cities in Iran, where urban professionals, merchants and the middle class try to push back against onerous restrictions on freedom of expression and women’s dress, there’s little evidence of that in Qom. Women are cloaked head to toe in black garments, and turbaned mullahs on motorbikes are a common sight.
Under a brilliant blue sky, mourners are lining up to enter the shrine and pay their respects to Fatima, whose remains are entombed inside an Oz-like green-mirrored vault. Among the mourners, in formation behind a green banner, are a phalanx of grim-faced, muscled militiamen, members of the Basij corps, wearing black T-shirts and black headbands. The Basij is an estimated million-strong volunteer paramilitary force that serves as an adjunct to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and in 2005 the Basijis voted en bloc to help elect hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president.
I’m standing in the inner courtyard of the shrine, a vast public space surrounded by vaulted enclaves, towering minarets and spectacular entrance halls bedecked in blue, green and gold tiles. With me is Muhammad Legenhausen, 55, a New York-born, ex-Catholic professor of philosophy who converted to Shiism, changed his name from Gary and moved to Iran in the 1980s. Legenhausen tells me he teaches philosophy at four universities and institutions in Qom. At the powerful Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, he also serves as an aide to Ayatollah M.T. Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely seen as the chief backer of President Ahmadinejad and who has even been mentioned as a possible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s next Supreme Leader.
It’s true, says Legenhausen, that Mesbah-Yazdi was the power behind Ahmadinejad’s 2005 candidacy. “He was concerned that the reformers had opened things up too far,” Legenhausen says, with an odd twinkle in his eye, in his distinct New York-accented English. “On that, he agrees with Ahmadinejad 100 percent.” But how, I ask, can you work for someone who supports a conference to deny the Jewish Holocaust? “Oh, that!” he says. “When we heard about that, Mesbah-Yazdi and I just rolled our eyes. That was all Ahmadinejad’s doing. We said to each other, ‘What can you do?'” He shrugs, as if to imply that this was just Ahmadinejad being Ahmadinejad.
To understand where the power in Iran lies–and where the money goes–it’s enough to glance at the gleaming new headquarters of the Dar al-Hadith Research Institute in Qom. Astride one of the main approaches to the city, the Dar al-Hadith, which translates roughly into “house of Islamic traditions,” is an imposing orange-yellow edifice with blue and green decorative tiles under a yellow tiled dome. It stands in sharp contrast to the dilapidated buildings that crowd the downtowns of many Iranian cities. Inside the Dar, a bustling staff of clerics and researchers, working in modernistic surroundings and aided by computers and a vast library, spend their time assembling and reassembling the medieval opinions of Muslim scholars, compiling them into compendiums that are published in Farsi, Urdu and Arabic. It’s a labor of love.
In a large, well-appointed conference room, the head of Dar al-Hadith holds forth for visitors. He’s an impressive man, nicknamed “the scary ayatollah.” Slim and balding, with a gray-flecked beard, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri wears rimless glasses with thick lenses under a white turban. In the early ’80s he was one of Iran’s first ministers of intelligence, a post in which he developed a reputation for brutal acts of repression and summary executions. Today he is the head of a major shrine foundation in Tehran and a member of the Assembly of Experts, which selects the Supreme Leader. Surrounded by a dozen staffers, including six mullahs, he says without irony, “Islam is the religion of logic, ethics and justice.”
One of his jobs in Iran is to oversee the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the duty of all devout Muslims. Under his supervision Iranians visit not only Mecca but Najaf and Karbala, the Shiite holy cities in Iraq. He is frank about Iranian support for the Baghdad regime. “You must be aware that the government in Iraq is a government supported by us,” he says. Given that tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit Iraq each month, in a migration overseen by a former intelligence minister, it’s not unlikely that some of them, at least, are on official business.
Reyshahri makes his exit, but later, over a lunch of kabobs, yogurt and rice, I find myself engaged in a vigorous political discussion with one of his aides, a mullah named Mohammad Mahdavi. Portly and grandfatherly, with a white turban, Mahdavi is a well-connected senior cleric, a hojatolislam (a rank below ayatollah), who not long ago turned down a job as deputy foreign minister. How, I ask, can Reyshahri talk about justice when the regime sends the Guard onto the campus of Tehran University to throw protesting students out of the dormitory windows to their death? When assassins are sent to hack liberal politicians like Darioush Forouhar and his wife to death in their beds? “There are conspiracies,” he says, unfazed. “There are spies. So, of course, sometimes we have to take strong measures against the protesters.” He justifies such actions by citing reports that the United States is trying to break up Iran, to provoke separatist movements in Kurdistan, Baluchistan and the oil-rich Arab province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran, though the evidence of such covert US activity is mixed at best.
I ask Mahdavi why the regime doesn’t allow reformists, secular parties or the left to organize and run for office freely. “People who go into Parliament must swear allegiance to the Constitution, and that requires that they support Islam. They do not. If they say they do, they are lying. Should we send liars to Parliament?” We send liars to Congress all the time, I reply, and he laughs, adding, “For myself, I would allow all of them to run. Why not? If they ran, well–” He wipes his palms together. You mean they wouldn’t get any votes? “Exactly,” he replies. “But you must understand. Our people are very religious. If we did that, there would be big protests by the people. They would ask, ‘Why are you letting these people run?'”
Ahmadinejad’s election was the first step by Iran’s hard-line clergy to uproot the reform movement in Iran. The other shoe dropped on March 14, when hard-liners consolidated their control in parliamentary elections, ensuring the ultraconservatives near-total control of all three branches of government: the presidency, the judiciary (which is controlled directly by the Supreme Leader) and the Parliament. From the start, the election was rigged in favor of the right. Two thousand candidates were disqualified from running. Liberal and secular parties, and those who don’t accept the premise of a clergy-run Islamic Republic, have been banned outright for years. Harsh restrictions were placed on those who did run. And candidates who managed to get approval got the nod so late that they were unable to gain any traction.
Not surprisingly, under such conditions many Iranians are not enthusiastic about voting. Although in 2008 overall turnout was 60 percent, in Tehran it was far lower, just 30 percent, and in runoff elections only 26 percent showed up. Many who did go to the polls went only because the regime stamps Iranians’ ID cards when they vote, and those who fail to vote can find it impossible to be hired as, say, teachers or other state employees. From dozens of discussions with ordinary Iranians–in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Kashan–it is clear that most Iranians are disenchanted with the clerical regime.
First, though, a word about talking with Iranians. I’ve come to Iran as a journalist, part of a small delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization founded in 1914. The delegation is hosted by the Center for Interreligious Dialogue, an Iranian government organization whose staff says that it is “linked to the office of the Supreme Leader.” When I engage Iranians by myself, whether through random encounters or in prearranged meetings, people want to talk. When they find out I’m an American, they tell their stories with enthusiasm. But whenever I’m accompanied by a minder, in the form of an official from the Center for Interreligious Dialogue, an oppressive chill descends and people clam up.
In almost every conversation, Iranians’ attitudes toward the regime of the mullahs range from sullen tolerance to bitter hostility. In the Tehran bazaar, two young men who sell carpets want to talk politics. “Do you know the mullahs?” one asks. “We hate them. They are stupid.” And they both laugh. In Shiraz, the historic and beautiful city of poets in the south, I have dinner with four women and three men, ranging in age from 20 to 40. Mehri, one of the women, is a dentist in her late 30s. Earlier that day, we’d met at Persepolis, where the breathtaking ruins of the palaces of Darius, Xerxes and Cyrus the Great lie sparkling in the intense sunlight, and I’d invited her and her friends for dinner. “We had such hopes for [the previous reformist president, Mohammad] Khatami,” says Mehri. “But you see what happened. The regime killed everything. Now we don’t know what is better to do: do we vote for the reformers, even though we know they can’t do anything? Or do we stay home and not vote at all?”
On a hiking trail in the snow-covered mountains north of Tehran, Hirad, a young notary public, complains about how hard it is to get a job and–in a complaint I hear repeatedly–how hard it is to meet women in the face of severe harassment by the morality police. “This regime is terrible,” he says. Suddenly he notices the bearded man in a blue blazer who’s been assigned to accompany our group this morning. The two men shake hands and exchange greetings, and then Hirad and I walk quickly away. He glances over his shoulder. With contempt, he spits on the ground. “Fucking beard!” he says, lashing out at the symbol of loyalty to the Islamic Republic.
A few days later I have a chance to ask a top Iranian official about public disenchantment with the regime. M. Hossein Saffar-Haramdi, minister of culture and Islamic guidance, has an easy manner and a ready grin, and looks like a carbon copy of Ahmadinejad: wiry, with a short, neatly trimmed beard. It’s his job to enforce Islamic discipline on the media, the arts and other forms of public expression. “The solution to the problems of the world,” he says earnestly, “is to move closer to religion.” A layman and former deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Saffar-Haramdi served for ten years as chief of the guard’s political bureau. Asked why he forcibly closes newspapers, he is defiant. “Any press activity that would disturb the fabric of society or create some sort of disruption, the law must be applied,” he says. “The press is free, as long as it does not start insulting political personalities and religious beliefs.”
Unlike the frown-faced, fire-and-brimstone mullahs cast in the mold of the scowling Ayatollah Khomeini, Mohammad Khatami seems gentle and avuncular, and when he was elected president in 1997 he embodied the hopes of Iranians who longed for a thaw in Iran’s frozen politics. But he ran afoul of the hard-liners, including Khamenei, the Guardian Council and the courts, and his efforts at reform were stymied. Conservatives like Mesbah-Yazdi, along with the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, mobilized against him, and in three successive elections–parliamentary elections in 2004, the presidential election in 2005 (won by Ahmadinejad) and the March parliamentary election–the Islamic rightists won big.
Today, sitting in a high-ceilinged room at the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations, which he founded in 1999, Khatami appears relaxed and confident. He’s sitting cross-legged in a black turban and black robe, sporting penny loafers, wearing a turquoise ring. I ask him to reflect on his eight years as president, about what went wrong and where to go from here, and he laughs. “That answer calls for a two- or three-hour meeting!” he says. He makes it clear that despite everything, he is either unwilling or unable to challenge the regime directly. “We are reformists,” he says. “Reform takes place within the system, not against the system. Once you go outside the system, then it is a revolution you seek.” He is willing to work for incremental gains. “The path we have chosen is the right path,” he says. “I am not pessimistic.”
Khatami hopes for better relations with the United States, but he leaves no doubt that the Bush Administration destroyed any possibility of rapprochement. “During my tenure, many steps were taken to eradicate misunderstandings. I believe the Clinton Administration did not object to these efforts. But I am sorry to say that certain forces were opposed. When Bush came into power, everything was turned upside down. When the Iran of the Khatami era is branded as the axis of evil, despite the fact that Iran’s cooperation was the most important factor in America’s success in Afghanistan [in 2001], these misunderstandings become more powerful.”
A few seats away, nodding in agreement, is Sadegh Kharazi, the former deputy foreign minister who is now an aide to Khatami. Five years ago, Kharazi helped write a secret offer to cooperate with the Bush Administration on a broad range of issues, from Israel and terrorism to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, but the offer was rebuffed.
The campus of Iran’s foreign ministry, stately and tree-lined, is an oasis amid the noisy, traffic-clogged streets of Tehran. Inside, I meet Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director of the section of the ministry that deals with the United States. “We don’t have relations with your government, but ironically we are the busiest department in the ministry,” he says. Rezaie oversees a staff of ten people, including six who specialize in American affairs, and he works closely with the ministry’s in-house think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies.
I ask Rezaie about Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent comment that he could envision a time when Iran and the United States renew ties. Rezaie says that among Iran’s political elite, a debate is raging about whether and how to seek better relations with the United States. “The significance of [Khamenei’s] statement is that at a high level the debate is a live one, and it’s very important. It’s not ideological, and it’s not based on imperatives from the top.”
But the United States is sending conflicting and contradictory signals, he says, combining bellicose rhetoric and a push for sanctions against Iran with less hostile actions, such as the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program nearly five years ago. “It’s confusing for many of us here,” he says. “We don’t see honesty from the US side. They are just looking to diminish our power, our role, our influence in the region.” Whether the United States seeks a rapprochement with Iran or continues to be hostile, America’s goal of hegemony in the Persian Gulf will not alter. “It doesn’t matter if you have cooperation or confrontation. In both ways they are trying to diminish us. Confront us or embrace us, it’s the same goal.”
Over at the think tank, Dr. Sayed Kazem Sajjadpour is worried. They’re watching the US election campaign carefully, he says, and they’re worried that the White House might escalate tensions with Iran in order to create a climate of confrontation that could benefit John McCain. “We’re concerned that the United States will be harsh against Iran in order to facilitate votes for the Republican candidate, who will seek to profit over tension with Iran,” he says. “The Republicans are likely to use the issue of Iran to divert attention from other problems.”