Among the Mullahs

In Qom, the site of Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment facility, the Islamic Revolution remains as strong as ever.

Before last fall—when the Iranian government revealed it had hollowed out a nearby mountain, and was planning to enrich uranium there—the most prominent site in Iran’s Qom province was the Shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh. Minutely tiled in blue and green, with mirrored tessellations that make it sparkle in the night, the shrine contains the body of the sister of one of the 12 revered imams of Shiite Islam. Along with the nearby Feyzieh madrassa, the most distinguished center of Shiite learning in the world, the Masumeh shrine has attracted to Qom a population pleased with clerical rule, and made it Iran’s most religious city and the seat of the mullahs’ power. That’s why Qom seemed like an utterly predictable location for the nuclear project when the revelation came in September, during my visit there.

In the protests this summer following Iran’s presidential election—in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed a much-disputed victory over the reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi—Tehran became the obsession of the Twitterverse: no one could be sure what was happening on the streets, but stray messages and videos escaped here and there, and amounted, darkly, to rumors of revolution. But Qom responded somewhat differently. This was the Iran that remained not only un-Twittered but without any desire to Twitter, that was content with things as they were already, and perhaps as they were quite a long time before that, too.

Iranians I met in Tehran had suppressed snickers when I told them my itinerary included several days among the mullahs. It was as if a Pakistani had come to the United States and announced that he would spend most of his trip in Salt Lake City and Tulsa, to see the Tabernacle and Oral Roberts University. Except that in Iran, the religious leaders still hold unquestioned authority. And in Qom, the original Islamic Revolution—the one that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979—remains robust and popular.

The day that I visited the Masumeh shrine, about a dozen people were standing in front of it, looking up at a blue backlit sign, about the size of a truly boss home-theater screen, displaying 14 lines of tightly printed Arabic. Pilgrims usually say the lines before entering, even if, like most Iranians, they speak very little Arabic. I fumbled the words—a long and repetitive series of blessings upon Muhammad, his prophetic predecessors, and his descendants—but the rest of the crowd intoned each syllable just right, with the precision of diamond cutters. Because Qom is a pilgrimage site, it attracts visitors from many parts of the Shiite world. In the right, or maybe wrong, light I can look vaguely Afghan, so the assumption of many fellow pilgrims was that I had come from central Afghanistan to visit Masumeh.

Inside, the shrine is immaculate. The body of Masumeh lies in a cubic metal cage near the complex’s center. Shia converge on it from all sides to pay homage to someone considerably more important, in their view, than Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who is just the latest in a string of worldly fads. Once the pilgrims have ritually cleansed and incanted, they circle the cage counterclockwise, reaching over each other to feel its metal lattice and lunging forward to let their lips linger on the Arabic lettering at its corners. This holy mosh pit sucked me toward Masumeh soon after I entered and, after I grazed the cube’s corner with my hand, spewed me out into a tranquil open prayer area.

A short walk east from the shrine’s entrance, on a large smooth-paved square, is Feyzieh, Iran’s incubator for the powerful, its Sciences Po and its Kennedy School as well as its Vatican. I sat by the square’s fountain and watched robed mullahs come and go. In any other place, their bearing and dress would make them grave and forbidding figures, but so many mullahs were walking through the square, doing so many mundane activities (text-messaging, scolding their children, eating candy), that they seemed no more regal than anyone else.

But Qom is their city, and a visitor eventually notices that here Iran’s religious authorities are at their most confident, and its people at their most observant. The Revolutionary Guards, the uniformed element that executes the will of the mullahs, are uncharacteristically blunt about their suspicion of non-Muslim foreign visitors. Outside Qom they rarely harassed me, and at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran they even invited me for tea and a tour. Here they relished their power and wielded it cruelly, issuing commands and interrogating me on street corners.

I spent a few hours at Feyzieh sneaking photos of clerics, talking with students, and visiting the tiny room where Khomeini had studied and taught for decades. As I was leaving, a soldier noticed my camera (a hot-pink Polaroid i733, perhaps not the best tool of spycraft) and demanded to see the photos I had taken. My camera had on it images not only of the mullahs but of protests in Tehran. While I feigned confusion and smiled dumbly, I slipped out the memory card and eventually handed the soldier a camera with no photos of Feyzieh or protests at all, just a small cache of innocent pictures on its local memory drive—a few of monuments and street scenes in Tehran, and one of me playing air guitar in my hotel room. Only the soldier’s embarrassment at seeing the air-guitar photo, and the intervention of a student I had befriended, persuaded him to release me. Hours later, at the small house where Khomeini once lived, another Revolutionary Guard demanded money in memory of the ayatollah. I gave him 100 tomans, enough for a cup of tea. He said “Sabz, sabz,” or “Green, green—meaning that the ayatollah’s memory was honored only by U.S. dollars, cash.

Despite their conservatism, Qom’s pilgrims seemed motivated not by passion for Ahmadinejad—I never heard anyone say his name, though the “Leader” Ali Khamenei was mentioned repeatedly over outdoor loudspeakers—but by a total denial of politics, and a preference for something much simpler. In Tehran the previous week, I’d heard many rumors about protests, violence, provocation. Here I saw no sign of disloyalty to the government (save one: on a campaign bumper sticker with a picture of Ahmadinejad next to the slogan Man of the People, someone had scraped out his eyes and cheeks). Instead, I felt the opposite of the idealistic flurries of this summer’s protests—the happy docility of a one-party state.