A riddle: What does the Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei have in common with a Hilton Hotel? Answer: both of them routinely ask their guests, before leaving, to fill out a performance questionnaire. In the ayatollah's case this survey, written in English on a plain printed sheet, consists of three columns. In the first, the question is: "Why did you come to see Grand Ayatollah Saanei?" The second column reads: "What was your opinion of Grand Ayatollah Saanei before coming to see him?" The last one says: "What was your opinion of Grand Ayatollah Saanei after coming to see him?"
I gave him an excellent rating. Saanei is a short, wizened man with a sprout of gray hair peeking out of the front of his white turban. Only clerical descendents of Mohammed get to wear black turbans; Saanei is merely a marja, or a "source of emulation"-one who is apparently incapable of talking without preaching. That's understandable; it's what Saanei does for a living. In Islam, a mullah's worth is often judged by how many followers he can win over. As we sat in the conference room of his seminary, Saanei preached in long stretches about the glories of Islam and how it would bring peace to mankind, speaking in the same sing-song voice he uses in the classroom. I listened patiently, because I had journeyed to the holy city of Qom to meet Saanei for a specific reason: he's a troublemaker. A big one.
Qom is a dusty, squat town 90 miles south of Tehran that might look at home in the American Midwest-except for all the mullahs and mosques around. Its main industry is producing Shiite clerics; it is "the idea factory for a regime that seeks to regulate daily life," as The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino wrote in "Persian Mirrors," her lively 2000 account of the Islamic revolution. It was here that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, got his start and built his political base.
But Qom today is also a place of ferment, and it is home to some of the most well-known dissidents confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saanei is among the most dangerous, at least ideologically. Once a close follower of Khomeini's and a member of Iran's Guardian Council - he was also the regime's prosecutor general in the early years - Saanei has since become, at least by Tehran's lights, the wrong kind of radical. He has openly challenged many of the traditional strictures that have kept women in a second-class position in Iranian society - for instance, rules preventing them from holding senior positions in government or reducing the value of their witness testimony at trials to one half that of a man - and he is a passionate believer in democracy and free speech. "Whatever the people want, they can turn into laws and pass for themselves," Saanei says. While he still believes in Islamic rule, he is also is open to the idea that the Iranian people might decide to vote the clerics out of power one day. "It's entirely possible," he says. "There's no need for the clerics to be in charge. If people don't want them, they don't want them." He says that Ayatollah Ali Sistani's "quietist" approach to religion and politics next door in Iraq-which prevents clerics from directly running government - is just fine with him.
At one point in our conversation, Saanei he even took me to task for not criticizing the Iranian government more strongly in an earlier "Tehran Diary" entry, which had been reproduced in a Tehran newspaper this week. "Why don't you warn your readers about the Guardian Council?" he said reproachfully. Saanei believes this all-powerful body he once belonged to-created to ensure that Iranian laws and practices adhere to Islamic code - is out of control, intruding far too much in the lives and politics of Iranians. Saanei says the entire budget for the Guardian Council in the early days "was only like $2,000; it's getting millions of dollars now," and the Council has become a means of eliminating reformers and dissidents from running for office when it should play a much more low-key role.
This is as radical an idea as you will ever hear from even the most secular reformist politician in Tehran. But it cuts deeper coming from Saanei because he is such a revered figure, and because he and his fellow clerics represent the raison d'etre of the Islamic state. If they are questioning its viability, then why should the millions of young men and women who chafe under its control in Tehran and other cities continue to stand for it? Saanei is hardly the only turbaned counterrevolutionary speaking out in Qom. Among the most influential is Grand Ayatollah Hassan Ali Montazeri, who was once Khomeini's designated successor - and helped to draft the Islamic constitution - but who was later placed under house arrest for questioning the regime's practices. He continues to preach sedition behind closed doors in Qom today.
This is not to say the Islamic regime is in danger of disintegrating any time soon; clerics like Saanei and Montazeri are very much a minority in Qom. And the regime has become so deeply institutionalized in Iranian society, so much a creature of the vested interests of religious conservatives like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his "new right," that any such fundamental democracy movement will probably take decades to form and rise up. But in Qom, even some conservative clerics who believe passionately in the durability of mullah control are questioning whether the revolution has gone overboard. Among them is Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani, a highly regarded scholar who runs his own seminary in Qom. "This state should be under special guidance of someone who knows Islam and who is able to decide about issues based on Islamic values and concepts," he says. But he adds that he has his own problems with the Guardian Council; he thinks more exact standards for evaluation should be created to specifically vet political candidates, who are often barred from running for arbitrary reasons by the Council. "There are many, many criticisms; so it should be," he says. "The main source of the power in Iran is the people ... if they do not support the regime this system will not work."
Those in the West-especially in the Bush White House-who are still pining for regime change in Iran should pay heed to what's going on in Qom. Maybe one day there will be a newer, more American-friendly regime in Tehran, but this is how it will almost certainly happen: from within, incited by the Iranians themselves, rather than by $75 million democracy promotion programs run by Voice of America. In contrast to the monolithic view of clerical control in Iran that is still so prevalent in Washington, a startling degree of debate - democratic in the truest sense-is taking place in Qom. Enlightened mullahs like Saanei are fighting a pitched battle for influence and are actively soliciting support for their views, not unlike the factional fighting that goes on in any functioning legislature in the West. Hence Saanei's almost comical request for a positive approval rating from the visitors to his seminary; he needs all the help he can get. What was my opinion of Grand Ayatollah Saanei after coming to see him? "Very high," I wrote on his questionnaire.