Mind over Mullahs
By : Christopher Hitchens

Even under a brutish theocracy, Iranians live as if they are entitled to their heritage of civilization and culture. This month's sham election won't oust the ruling mullahs, though. As the author discovers, even Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson is looking to the U.S. for hope

Driving down through the desert, from Tehran to the holy city of Qom, I am following the path of so many who have made the pilgrimage before me. They either were seeking an audience with, or a glimpse of, Ayatollah Khomeini or, if they were journalistic pilgrims, were trying to test the temperature of Iran's clerical capital. As I arrive, darkness is gently settling over the domes and spires of the mosque and the Shia theological seminary, the latter of which is demarcated by a kind of empty moat which doubles as a market. But I am not headed for these centers of spiritual and temporal power. My objective is an ill-paved backstreet where, after one confirming cell-phone call, a black-turbaned cleric is waiting outside his modest quarters. This is Hossein Khomeini. The black turban proclaims him a sayyid, or descendant of the prophet Muhammad. But it's his more immediate ancestry that interests me. This man's grandfather once shook the whole world. He tore down the throne of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and humiliated the United States. His supporters seized the American Embassy and kept 52 members of its staff prisoner for 444 days. The seismic repercussions of this event led to the fall of Carter, the rise of Reagan, the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, and quite possibly the occupation of Afghanistan by the Red Army. It moved us from the age of the Red Menace to the epoch of Holy War. It was, at one and the same time, a genuine revolution and an authentic counterrevolution. I have become almost averse to shaking hands in Iran by now, because it isn't permitted for a man to shake a woman's hand in public in this nerve-racked country, and if you unlearn the conditioned reflex in one way, you unlearn it in another. But as I feel young Khomeini's polite grip, I fancifully experience a slight crackle from history.

Iranian hospitality is one of the most warming and embarrassing things it is possible to encounter. Before any conversation can begin on these grand questions, there must be fragrant tea, a plate of sohan, the addictive pistachio-and-saffron brittle that is the Qom specialty, and a pressing invitation to stay for dinner, and indeed for the night. The pressure is re-doubled on this occasion because the last time we met and talked I was the host.

Young Khomeini has been spending a good deal of his time in Iraq, where he has many friends among the Shia. He is a strong supporter of the United States intervention in that country, and takes a political line not dissimilar to that of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. In practice, this means the traditional Shia belief that clerics should not occupy posts of political power. In Iranian terms, what it means is that Khomeini (his father and elder brother died some years ago, so he is the most immediate descendant) favors the removal of the regime established by his grandfather. "I stand," he tells me calmly, "for the complete separation of religion and the state." In terms that would make the heart of a neocon soar like a hawk, he goes on to praise President Bush's State of the Union speech, to warn that the mullahs cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and to use the term "Free World" without irony: "Only the Free World, led by America, can bring democracy to Iran."

Anyone visiting Iran today will quickly become used to hearing this version of street opinion, but there is something striking about hearing it from the lips of a turbaned Khomeini. Changing the emphasis slightly, he asks my opinion of the referendum movement. This is an initiative, by Iranians inside the country and outside it, to gather signatures calling for a U.N.-supervised vote on a new Iranian Constitution. One of the recent overseas signatories is Reza Pahlavi, the son of the fallen Shah. Khomeini surprises me even more by speaking warmly of this young man. "I have heard well of him. I would be happy to meet him and to cooperate with him, but on one condition. He must abandon any claim to the throne."

(The opportunity of delivering a message from the grandson of Khomeini to the son of the Shah seemed irresistible, and the first thing I did upon my return to Washington was to seek out Reza Pahlavi, who lives in Maryland, and put the question to him. We actually met in a basement kitchen in the nation's capital, where he was being careful to be as unmonarchical as it is feasible to be. His line on the restoration of kingship is one of "Don't ask, don't tell." He doesn't claim the throne—though he did at one point in our chat refer bizarrely to his father as "my predecessor"—nor does he renounce it. All he will say, and he says it with admirable persistence, is that the next Iran must be both secular and democratic. So, even if they remain at arm's length, it can be said at last that a Khomeini and a Pahlavi agree.)

Iran today exists in a state of dual power and split personality. The huge billboards and murals proclaim it an Islamic republic, under the eternal guidance of the immortal memory of Ayatollah Khomeini. A large force of Revolutionary Guards and a pervasive religious police stand ready to make good on this grim pledge. But directly underneath these forbidding posters and right under the noses of the morals enforcers, Iranians are buying and selling videos, making and consuming alcohol, tuning in to satellite TV stations, producing subversive films and plays and books, and defying the dress code. All women are supposed to cover all their hair at all times, and to wear a long jacket, or manteau, that covers them from neck to knee. But it's amazing how enticing the compulsory scarf can be when worn practically on the back of the head and held in place only by hair spray. As for the obligatory manteau, any woman with any fashion sense can cut it to mold an enviable silhouette. I found a bootlegger on my arrival at Tehran's airport and was offered alcohol on principle in every home I entered—Khomeini's excepted—even by people who did not drink. Almost every Iranian has a relative overseas and is in regular touch with foreign news and trends. The country is an "as if" society. People live as if they were free, as if they were in the West, as if they had the right to an opinion, or a private life. And they don't do too badly at it. I have now visited all three of the states that make up the so-called axis of evil. Rough as their regime can certainly be, the citizens of Iran live on a different planet from the wretched, frightened serfs of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.

Tehran is in fact more or less uncontrollable by anybody. It's the Mexico City or Calcutta of the region: a vast, unplanned, overpopulated nightmare of all-day traffic jams and eye-wringing pollution, tissue-paper building codes, and an earthquake coming like Christmas. It's also the original uptown-downtown city, built on the steep slopes of the snowy Elburz Mountains, which, on a good day, one can sometimes actually see. In the northern quarter, there are the discreet villas where the members of the upper crust keep their heads down and their wealth unostentatious. At the bottom of the hill, you can lose yourself in the vast bazaar, whose tough stall owners were the shock troops of the 1979 revolution. "Beware of north Tehran," one is invariably told. "Don't take its Westernized opinions at face value." So I didn't. Indeed, at one party, where the women by the interior swimming pool didn't have a scarf or a manteau among them, and where the butler handed me a card printed in English that advertised special caviar supplies, and where the bar went on for a furlong, I met a sleek banker who, full of loathing for the regime as he was, defended Iran's right to have nuclear weapons. In fact, his was the most vociferous defense that I heard. (Like all the others who ask so plaintively why Israel and Pakistan can have nukes and not Iran, he temporarily chose to forget that the mullahs keep denying that they have such weapons, or even seek them.)

Never mind Qom, which is an easy four-hour drive. I went as far from the north-Tehran suburbs as I could reasonably be expected to go. In the city of Mashhad, way up toward the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border, the air is clearer and the traffic lighter. The place wears an aspect of prosperity and contentment, as befits the home of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. This is the shrine of Imam Reza, the only one of the 12 Shia imams who is actually buried in Iran. The gold dome—not gold-leafed but gold—is at the center of a series of spacious courtyards and squares into which the Iraqi mosques of Karbala and Najaf could both easily fit. The main door is a continuously busy portal for groups of men bearing coffins either inward or outward, since all the devout dead must be taken as near as is feasible to the tomb of Imam Reza himself. I have to slightly muffle my next sentences, to protect some friends, but I had an introduction to a man who was a guardian of this holy place. Presenting myself, I was led wordlessly to what looked like a tapestry on an interior wall. This curtain was drawn aside to reveal an elevator door, and I was then, like some intruding raider of a lost ark, whisked upward. At the top level, I had a heart-stopping perspective on the gold dome: a view that I think few if any infidels have ever shared. I was as near as I could hope to be to an inner sanctum (to use the word properly for once) and also to something that I can only guess about: the pulsing and enduring and patient heart of Shiite Islam. Offered a cushion on the floor, and some tea and segmented oranges, I was, as usual, made more welcome than was easy for me. My host was a very serious man. Not by any means skipping the traditional questions about my health and my journey and my needs, he soon drove to the point. "Do you suppose," he inquired, "that the West will ever come to our aid? Or is it all hypocrisy?" I asked him in return how he would know, or how he would define, success. An invasion? He seemed to think it a fair question and gravely replied, "The minimum would be to have an American Embassy back in Tehran."

This answer might strike you as rather oblique. (Welcome to Iran, in that case.) But it was also admirably straightforward. In September 2002, an editor and columnist in Tehran named Abbas Abdi was among those who helped conduct a Gallup poll that had been commissioned by the foreign-affairs committee of the Iranian parliament, or Majlis. The finding of the poll was that nearly 75 percent of all Iranians were in favor of "dialogue" at the very least with the United States. The chairman of the relevant Majlis committee was named Mohsen Mirdamadi. Abbas Abdi was imprisoned simply for publishing those findings. Mohsen Mirdamadi has since been disqualified by the mullahs from running again for elected office, and in December 2003 was beaten and clubbed by state-sponsored Hezbollah goons while giving a speech in the provincial city of Yazd. You may not know the names of A.A. or M.M., but you might like to know that both of them were among the student group that vandalized the American Embassy in November 1979 and violated the diplomatic immunity of its staff. And A.A. had probably marked himself for even more trouble with the authorities for having a reconciliation meeting, in Paris in 1998, with his former American hostage Barry Rosen. Both were acting "as if" a decent relationship between the two peoples were already extant.

The Islamic republic actually counts all of its subjects as infants, and all of its bosses as their parents. It is based, in theory and in practice, on a Muslim concept known as velayat-e faqih, or "guardianship of the jurist." In its original phrasing, this can mean that the clergy assumes responsibility for orphans, for the insane, and for (aha!) abandoned or untenanted property. Here is the reason Ayatollah Khomeini became world-famous: in a treatise written while he was in exile in Najaf, in Iraq, in 1970, he argued that the velayat could and should be extended to the whole of society. A supreme religious authority should act as proxy father for everyone. His own charisma and bravery later convinced many people that Khomeini was entitled to claim the role of supreme leader (faqih) for himself.

But the theory has an obvious and lethal flaw, built into itself like a trapdoor. What if some lamebrained mediocrity assumes or inherits the title of supreme leader, with its god-given mantle? You might as well accept the slobbering and gibbering firstborn of some hereditary monarch who claims divine right. For this reason, several ayatollahs in Najaf and Qom and other spiritual centers rejected the Khomeini interpretation as soon as it was proposed. Among other things, they doubted that any human was fit for the post of supreme leader or guardian, at least until the 12th and last of the Shia imams reveals himself again and concludes the long period of mourning and grief that is everyday human life. And this division between mullahs, dear reader, is why you have to concentrate with breathless interest on the difference between an Iranian-born mullah who lives in Iraq (al-Sistani) and an Iranian mullah who went into exile in Iraq and came home (Khomeini). It is also the reason why several senior Iranian mullahs are in prison or have been in prison under what claims to be an Islamic republic. Get used to learning these names, too, while there is time. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Ayatollah Shabestari. These men, and their courageous disciples, say that Khomeini's version of the velayat has no Koranic justification. Hence my welcome in that small house in Qom. Hence, also, the present dictatorship by Ayatollah Khamenei: a semi-literate megalomaniac who presumes to regard his subjects as his pupils and his charges.

One almost wishes the "orphan" part of the theory were truer than it is. But Iran's problem is not a surplus of orphans. It is, rather, that the country is afflicted with a vast population of grieving parents and relatives, whose sons and daughters and nephews and nieces were thrown away in the ghastly eight-year war with Saddam Hussein, and who were forced to applaud the evil "human wave" tactics of shady clergymen who promised heaven to the credulous but never cared to risk martyrdom themselves.

The word "martyr," or shahid, is another expression that has become cheapened by overuse in Iran. Every ugly building and intersection seem to be named for one, and people are increasingly bored and sickened by the term. Still, I am bound to say that I was struck almost mute by the cemetery to the south of Tehran. I have made visits to the memorials of the Western Front, where headstones and arches bear the names of the unidentified dead of the First World War, and I have also been to the mass graves of Bosnia and Iraq. But this awful necropolis is of a different order. I don't think I met a family in Iran that didn't have a missing or "martyred" or mutilated relative from that era. The total butcher bill for the war was close to a million. Thus, even though the cemetery is placed right next to the hideous memorial to Ayatollah Khomeini (and "why the fuck," said the guard at the subway station when I asked directions, "would you want to go to that bastard's grave?"), I approached it with due respect. The Iranian expression for the war with Iraq is "the imposed war." The odd phrasing reflects the belief that Saddam Hussein was an ally of the West when he launched his aggression, and this time I knew that there was more truth than propaganda to the accusation. (Iranian physicians are the world's experts in treating those whose lungs have been corroded by poison gas, or whose skin has been agonizingly scalded by chemical bombardment. They have whole hospitals full of ruined patients.)

Despite the terrifying culling of its youth in the 1980s, Iran is once again a young country. Indeed, more than half of its population is under 25. The mullahs, in an effort to make up the war deficit, provided large material incentives for women to bear great numbers of children. The consequence of this is a vast layer of frustrated young people who generally detest the clerics. You might call it a baby-boomerang. I am thinking of Jamshid, a clever young hustler whom I part-employed as a driver and fixer. Bright but only partially educated, energetic but effectively unemployed, he had been made to waste a lot of his time on compulsory military service and was continuing to waste time until he could think of a way of quitting the country. "When I was a baby, my mother took me to have my head patted by Khomeini. My fucking hair has been falling out ever since," he said. You want crack cocaine, hookers, pornography, hooch? This is the downside of the "as if" option. There are thousands of even younger Jamshids lining the polluted boulevards and intersections, trafficking in everything known to man and paying off the riffraff of the morals police. Everybody knows that the mullahs live in luxury, stash money overseas, deny themselves nothing, and indulge in the most blatant hypocrisy. Cynicism about the clergy is universal, but it is especially among the young that one encounters it. It's also among the young that one most often hears calls for American troops to arrive and bring goodies with them. Yet, after a while, this repeated note began to strike me as childish also. It's a confession of powerlessness, an avoidance of responsibility, a demand that change come from somewhere else.

A whole range of sincere Shia believers, from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri to the relatively lesser clerics such as the junior Khomeini, worry about this because they know that a whole generation is being alienated from religion. But I don't think the regime much cares that so many of its talented young people have left or are leaving. The Iranian diaspora now runs into millions, from California to Canada and all across Western Europe. Let the smart ones go: all the easier for us to run a stultified and stalled society. And every now and then they make a move to show who is in charge. Last August, in the city of Neka, a 16-year-old girl named Atefeh Rajabi was hauled into a court for having had sex with a man. She might possibly have gotten away with one of the lesser punishments for offenses against chastity, such as a hundred lashes with a whip. (That's what her partner received.) But from the dock she protested that she had been the object of advances from an older man, and she went as far as to tear off her hijab, or headscarf. The judge announced that she would hang for that, and that he would personally place the noose around her neck. And so, in the main square of Neka, after the Iranian Supreme Court had duly confirmed the ruling, poor Miss Rajabi was hanged from a crane for all to see.

Every now and then you can sit in on late-night discussions where young people wonder when the eruption will come. Perhaps the police or the Revolutionary Guards will make an irrevocable mistake and fire into a crowd? Perhaps, at a given hour, a million women will simply remove their hijabs and defy the authorities? (This discussion gets more intense every year as the summer approaches and women face the irritation and humiliation of wearing it in heat and dust.) But nobody wants to be the first to be blinded by acid, or to have their face lovingly slashed by some Hezbollah enthusiast. The student activists of the Tehran "spring" of 1999, and of the elections which seemed to bring a reformist promise, have been picked off one by one, their papers closed and their leadership jailed and beaten. What else to do, then, except tune in to the new Iranian underground "grunge" scene, or kick back in front of the Italian soft-porn channel or one of the sports and fashion and anti-clerical channels beamed in by satellite from exiles in Los Angeles? As if …

For what was Persian culture famous? For poetry, for philosophy, for backgammon, for chess, for architecture, for polo, for gardens, and for wine. (The southern city of Shiraz, once a vineyard town, may have a better claim to the invention of sherry than the Spanish city of Jerez.) The special figure of all this ancient civilization was Omar Khayyám, whose name means "maker of tents" but who flourished as a scholar and poet in the city of Neyshabur in the 11th and 12th centuries. He is best known for his long, languorous poem Rubáiyát: a collection of quatrains, exquisitely rendered into English by Edward FitzGerald, among others. Khayyám was an astronomer and mathematician and was among those commissioned to reform the calendar. In his four-line stanzas, he praised wine, women, and song, found speculation on afterlife pointless, and ridiculed the mullahs of his day. He lived and wrote "as if" they didn't count. I made a special journey to Neyshabur to see the tomb of this man, who had somewhat cheered up my boyhood. The study of his poetry is not exactly encouraged by members of the theocracy, but they know better than to denounce anything that touches on national pride, and you can visit the site without hindrance. My escort, a quiet man who was slow to commit himself, could quote several quatrains in Farsi, and I was delighted to hear that they sounded exactly the same way as their rhythm fell on an English ear. As we compared notes and recitations, he began to melt a little and accepted a swig from my bootleg flask, and soon I was hearing a familiar story: no prospects, a depraved government, the school friends thrown away in hysterical warfare.

The museum of Omar Khayyám stands a little way from the tomb and contains some beautiful scientific instruments, including an intricate astrolabe, from medieval times. At last, a public place that was not dominated by black-draped and forbidding superstition, and that cared for learning and for reason. Deciding to make a stab at the visitors' book, I wrote out my favorite quatrain, from the Richard Le Gallienne translation, in which the poet speaks of the arrogance of the faithful:

And do you think that unto such as you / A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew / God gave a secret, and denied it me— / Well, well, what matters it? Believe that too.

A few visitors did look over my shoulder, but nobody seemed to mind.

Mashhad and Neyshabur are supremely worth seeing, and also well worth going to see, but nobody can claim to have tasted Iran without having seen Esfahan. It is well inland, so idle comparisons with Venice or Dubrovnik don't quite work. It is small and modest, so it is not Rome or Prague either. It is a thing unto itself: an imposing miniature and a miracle of proportion. Many fine bridges span its river, one with 33 arches in which slits have been carved through three walls. When you stand back and view them from the right angle, they give the perfect outline of a candle, while allowing you to see through to the other side. This miracle of perspective—such ingenuity for such a slight but pleasing effect—is seconded, if you like, by the tower which will convey the merest whisper from one stone corner to another. As for the symmetry of the azure Sheikh Lotfollah mosque on the grand but modest main square: the masons and decorators must have finished the job quite speechless with what they had achieved.

It is a few miles from this triumph of civilization and culture that the Islamic republic, hostile to every form of modernity except advanced weapons and surveillance techniques, has decided to dig a huge, ugly tunnel into a hillside, the better to conceal its ambitions to become a nuclear state. The tunnel, along with some other "facilities" at Natanz and Bushehr, has been laboriously exposed in the course of a long, dreary inspection that has caught the regime lying without conscience, and also lying without fear of reprisal. The Bushehr reactor was actually begun in the time of the Shah, and it's a good thing that he slightly outlived his mad kingly ambitions, because if he'd completed the work then the mullahs would have inherited a nuclear capacity ready-made.

And it is unlikely that sanctions will be lifted while the regime also continues to harbor so many wanted criminals, not just on its territory but among its leadership. Consider the repellent figure of Ali Fallahian, a former minister of "intelligence," who faces an arrest warrant from a court in Berlin for sending a death squad to murder Iranian Kurds in the Mykonos restaurant in 1992. We also have the names of those Iranian officials who are wanted for blowing up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

All of these crimes were committed, without conscience and (so far) without reprisal, during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was also the local star of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages racket, the last time that an Iranian connection threatened to bring down an American president.

On the first occasion when I managed to breathe the same air as Rafsanjani, he was addressing a conference of Iranian women, who were made to sit swaddled in heavy clothing while he took his sweet time making some tedious observations about females and the Koran. One of the women's magazines in Tehran is run by his daughter, but then, there is hardly an enterprise in the country, from the pistachio-nut monopoly to airlines and oil, in which Rafsanjani doesn't hold an interest. The second time I was able to drink in his words was at "Friday prayers" at the university, the weekly grandstand from which the mullahs address the masses.

On this occasion, Rafsanjani was bursting with sound and fury and insult about imperialist threats to Iran, and swelling like a turkey-cock. (He's a short guy, and is regularly lampooned on the street for his inability to grow a proper beard. In 2002, the last time he ran for election in Tehran, he came in below the bottom of the already fixed "list," and some deft work was required to show him registering in the poll at all.) Demagogy aside, everybody knows that if a deal is to be done with Europe and the Americans, then it will probably be Rafsanjani who brokers it. He's been on both sides of everything, all of his life, through war and revolution. He supported Khomeini in prolonging the war with Iraq, and then persuaded him to accept the U.N. resolution that ended it (and that may have killed the older man). He railed against the Great Satan, yet welcomed Reagan's shamed envoys when they brought the cake and the Bible and offered to deal arms for hostages. He's what our lazy press means when it describes some opportunist torturer and murderer as a "moderate," or a "survivor." I even met Iranians, completely sickened and disillusioned and ready to boycott any sham vote, who wearily said that Rafsanjani would be an improvement.

In Esfahan I met a woman, one of the few I saw who wore the whole black chador. She was devout, and she listened for a long time while the family who hosted me exhausted all its frustration and argued about the best way of overthrowing or outliving the mullahs. After a pause, she broke in softly, even wistfully. "Do you think," she inquired, "that the West could come here and remove the rulers but only stay for a week and then leave?" I put out my hand reflexively, not to take her palm but just to touch it, as if to reassure her that what she said was not childish or naïve. As if … And if only. And now I know that, until this is over, and until Iran recovers some of its Persian soul, I will never be able to see her, or Esfahan, again. Meanwhile, the trunk of the tree of the country simply rots, and millions of lives are being lived pointlessly while the state of suspended animation persists.

Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens's latest book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, will appear this month as part of the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. His articles on Iraq and North Korea appear in his collection, Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, published recently by Nation Books and available at the V.F. Store.