On the Road in Iran

On a warm Friday in late April, as I rode back from prayers at the Molla Esmail Mosque in the dusty central Iranian town of Yazd, my companion was a loaded Kalashnikov rifle. The weapon belonged to the man who had just led the Friday prayers, as he does every week: Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Sadoughi, a kindly 60-year-old cleric who normally uses a cane but leans on the rifle when he delivers sermons. Sadoughi is the official representative of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution for Yazd province. This means that, in addition to leading Friday prayers, he plays host to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whenever the Iranian leader visits Yazd, where his mother's family is from. This afternoon I too would be a guest at Sadoughi's sumptuously restored historic home in the ancient city center. While I have spent most of my life in the West, Yazd is my hometown as well, and whenever I visit Iran I return there to see relatives, one of whom (through marriage) is Sadoughi's wife, Maryam. Mrs. Sadoughi is a highly educated and erudite woman who, notwithstanding her black chador and obvious Islamic piety, holds reformist—even liberal—political views and is a strong supporter of her brother, the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami. So too is her husband, owner of the Kalashnikov that lay next to me.

The layers of contradiction that make up the modern Islamic Republic of Iran are both pervasive and confounding, and not any less so in Yazd. Set amid the blistering deserts of central Iran, the city is home to the kind of fierce religiosity bred in Islam's starker landscapes, and many of its sons were sacrificed to the bloody war with Iraq. Yet it is also a capital of pre-Islamic Persia, and is well known for its Zoroastrian temples and grave sites. (At one fire temple, priests continue to tend a flame that they claim has burned for more than 500 years.) It is the only city in the world that can boast two native sons, Khatami and Moshe Katsav, who simultaneously served as presidents of Iran and Israel. Even the mosque where Sadoughi leads prayers is named after a Jewish convert.

The sermon that Sadoughi had delivered that morning had been equally impossible to categorize. He defended the inflammatory speech that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered earlier that week at a United Nations conference on racism, chiding Western nations who "allegedly are … defenders of free speech" for walking out. But he also criticized the government, in this case for failing to ensure that Iranian pilgrims traveling to Iraq were adequately protected, a large number of them having been killed the day before in a suicide bombing near Baghdad. And he conceded that the United States had elected a new president who had promised to change its relationship with Iran. He declared that Iranians were waiting to witness real deeds from Washington, not mere rhetoric. But at the end of his 30--minute sermon, unlike past Friday prayers and prayers that same day in Tehran, there were no chants of "Death to America" or "Death to Israel," not even halfhearted ones. Later that night in his office he repeated, wistfully, the same sentiment—that words alone were not enough from the United States, not for Iranians, who are master rhetoricians, and who well understand the many uses to which they can be put.

Anyone reading a translation of Sadoughi's sermon would quite likely miss the sincerity of his appeal, the doors it carefully left open. After 30 years of enmity, the United States and Iran have almost entirely lost the capacity to interpret such subtle signals. Very few serving U.S. officials have met their Iranian counterparts, and almost none have ever visited Iran. Yet such expertise is more critical than ever, as the administration of President Barack Obama prepares to embark on what could be months of difficult negotiations aimed at halting Iran's nuclear-enrichment program.

After Obama videotaped a Persian New Year's message for the Iranian people, reiterating his offer of unconditional talks, most Western commentators interpreted Khamenei's lengthy and defiant response as a slap in the face. But what would have been most significant to any Iranian listening was a passage at the very end of the speech, when Khamenei said, "If you change, our behavior will also change." Iran's supreme authority had never before used the word "change" in such a context, for up until now the Islamic Republic's position has been that there is nothing objectionable about its behavior. If the Obama administration truly wants to forge a new relationship with Iran, it will have to learn to hear the things Iranians are saying to them, whether it be the Supreme Leader or the rifle-toting Sadoughi.

I had come to Yazd to begin a road journey north, to Tehran. The route is a well--traveled one; it starts all the way in the south at the ports on the Persian Gulf, crosses deserts, and runs past cities such as Isfahan and Qum before entering the capital, a megalopolis that is home to 20 percent of Iran's population. While that 20 percent is of great significance in terms of what Iran is and how Iranians think, we, and even Iranians themselves, often forget or neglect the other 80 percent. Only by getting out of the confines of Tehran can one fully appreciate all the different, contradictory worlds that constitute modern Iran.

The drive from Yazd to Isfahan, along highways 71 and 62W through the vast desert, can be a colorless, mind-numbing journey, punctuated by occasional patches of green as one crosses villages and towns, and green highway signs every few miles praising Allah or offering a Shia exhortation. If one has any doubt that the common people of Iran are as pious as their government, one need only read the signs painted on virtually every private truck and bus traversing the highway, which all spell out the same messages. They often compete with absurd images of Mickey Mouse or misspelled English words like "rode warrier," and even Shia expressions written in the Latin alphabet.

Along the highway, I passed through two police checkpoints, one ostensibly to catch illegal immigrants (Afghans, mostly, who cross the border almost as frequently as Hispanics do the Mexican border with the United States), the other to catch smugglers (mostly opium and heroin, again from Afghanistan). The magnitude of Iran's drug problem—more than 1 million Iranians are estimated to be addicted to narcotics—was visible not just from the checkpoint but also at a teahouse I stopped at near Naien, where a young man in his 20s was dozing off on a bench by the door. Every few minutes he would open his eyes and stare absent-mindedly into the distance, ignoring my driver and me, and then nod off again. When the proprietor brought out our tea, he looked at me apologetically and gestured to a third cup on his tray. "When they smoke a pipe, they get sleepy," he said, shaking his head as he placed the cup in front of the young man and exhorted him to drink.

Built by the 16th-century Safavid dynasty (which first declared Shia Islam the national religion) as its capital, Isfahan is perhaps Iran's most beautiful city. Famous for its large town square and the mosques and palaces that surround it, the city is also known for its bazaar and for the business acumen of its citizens, some of whom trade in the exquisite Persian carpets that, along with its stunning architecture, make Isfahan world-renowned (or at least that's what the Isfahanis think). Isfahanis seem to other Iranians the way Iranians often seem to the rest of the world: they can be a prickly lot and fiercely chauvinistic, not least because they view their city as the epitome of culture, and have, for as long as can be remembered, referred to Isfahan as "nesf-e-jahan," or "half the world." This self-regard is evident almost from the moment one enters the city, as first my Yazdi driver asking directions complains about the surly reaction from locals, and then the clerk at my hotel, after having a few words in English with an irate European tourist, turns to me and says, in Farsi, "They ride us over there and want to ride us here too."

Our image of a bazaar—a maze of tiny shops and shopkeepers hawking inferior goods or preying on unsuspecting and often lost customers—is only partially accurate. Isfahan's bazaar houses not just hundreds of stalls but offices, often hidden away, where the real business is done: the coppersmith hammering pots and pans may be working for a man engaged in the wholesale trade of copper wire and piping. When the bazaar goes on strike (as it did during the revolution, contributing greatly to the fall of the shah) or threatens to do so (as it did more recently, in reaction to a planned new tax) it's not just shoppers who are inconvenienced; the entire economy of the country can grind to a halt.

At one dark shop selling shoes, not too far from the bazaar's grand entrance, I noticed some traditional slippers interspersed among cheap Iranian- and -Chinese-made shoes. They are hard to come by, since most Iranians prefer Western styles, and I engaged the shopkeeper, asking him which style he thought was best. This threw him for a moment. He sized me up, wondering if I might be a tougher negotiator than he'd imagined. "Who do you want them for?" he asked. "Yourself?" I told him I was just wondering, and he then listed the relative advantages of each style, told me which city they were from and why each of them might be best suited to my ambiguous purpose. He guided me to one pair that I'd paid a little more attention to than the others, rather nice, and told me they were particularly fine, and only $40. I picked up the pair next to it, identical to the ones the doormen at my hotel wore, and he launched into a sermon on how they were the finest shoes, completely handmade and indestructible. They happened to cost only $60, he said, but I knew they could be had for less than $40 in Tehran. I also knew, of course, that I could bargain him down to $40, but I thanked him and left.

Contrary to the perception that bazaar merchants will follow a customer out of the store, as some do in tourist-heavy Arab countries such as Morocco, in Iran a bazaari would consider that kind of behavior beneath his dignity and a sign of weakness and desperation. The shoe salesman knew two things: one, that if I really wanted a pair of Persian slippers I would be back, and two, if I came back he'd negotiate in earnest and make a sale. He did not need to waste time with someone he wasn't sure was serious, and he would not enter into negotiations unless he felt both he and the customer could and would deliver, and part satisfied with the transaction. Negotiating, in the bazaar or elsewhere, is a practical matter for Iranians. As Ali Larijani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator and now speaker of Parliament, said when asked if he'd been moved by Obama's video message: "Our problems with America are not emotional."

The highlight of the drive from Isfahan to Qum, at least for someone from the West, has to be the Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility, located outside a once unremarkable town and conveniently right alongside the highway. It is easy to miss, but few drivers resist the temptation to point it out, especially to foreigners. What is visible in the distance are a number of buildings, which can also be seen on Google Earth, but it is up to one's imagination to picture the now thousands of centrifuges spinning tens or hundreds of meters below ground, depending on whom one believes. Stopping by the side of the road will invite a swift response by the Revolutionary Guards. Still, the facility's presence right there for all to see on one of the more heavily traveled highways in Iran naturally raises the question of whether Iran's nuclear program has been worth the cost. The answer is yes, according to the vast majority of Iranians, even though some may disagree with their government on almost any other matter.

Ever since Iran's enrichment program was revealed, the government has done a much better job of justifying it to its own people than to the outside world. Iranians know well that before the Islamic revolution, their country suffered at the hands of the great powers—Great Britain, Russia and the United States—whether through cripplingly one-sided tobacco and oil concessions, land grabs or outright regime change. Framing the nuclear issue as one of the rights, or haq, of the Iranian people that the same powers now want to deny them was a brilliant move. It ensured support for the government's insistence on taking full advantage of every right afforded it under the Nuclear Non--Proliferation Treaty, whether absolutely necessary or not. The United States has questioned Iran's need to make its own fuel for reactors not yet built. But to Iranians, the idea that their nation should be dependent on outside sources for fuel when the reactors finally are built is anathema. If President Obama would like to liberate America from dependence on foreign oil suppliers, many Iranians argue, then why should Iran be forced to depend on foreign sources for its energy?

That doesn't mean every Iranian agrees with the Ahmadinejad style of negotiating the nuclear issue, in which he's conflated defending Iran's rights with denying the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist. But Iranians do agree with the fundamental principle, one that the more genteel Khatami government also adhered to—i.e., that Iran will not give up its haq simply because greater powers say it should.

My driver on the road to Qum—an off-duty Isfahan policeman who much to my alarm could barely keep his eyes open at the beginning of our journey, thankfully due to a sleepless night of crimefighting rather than a heavy dose of morning opium—was no exception. I wondered, given that he admitted he couldn't make ends meet on his policeman's salary of $300 a month and was forced to drive a car two or three days a week, whether he might still be as enamored of President Ahmadinejad as he was when he voted for him four years ago. "He's done many good things," he said to me, "and he works really hard for the people." Patrolman Ali was unconcerned with Israel, and granted that better relations with the United States could improve the deteriorating economic situation in the country. But he felt that he should leave the big political issues to the experts, for he had only a high-school diploma. That Iranian scientists have mastered enrichment technology at Natanz is not only a source of pride for Isfahani policemen, but also for almost all Iranians, who place a premium on scientific study and who rigorously apply an honorific—"Mohandes"—to anyone who has a degree in engineering.

Qum, Iran's religious capital, holds a special place in the hearts of the pious, though my driver was not starry-eyed about its virtues. "Blessed as this place is," he said as we entered the city, "it is cursed by its hot weather and salty water. God gives and he takes." I mentioned that the birthplace of Islam in Arabia was also no paradise in terms of ab o' hava ("water and weather," a favorite expression and obsession of -Iranians), and although the thought hadn't occurred to a native of Shiraz who lived in Isfahan, two cities known for good ab o' hava, it only confirmed to him that Allah works in mysterious ways.

Qum is home to a major pilgrimage site—the grave of Fatemeh, sister of Imam Reza—and its dozens of seminaries are the foundation of the clerical establishment at the heart of the Islamic Republic. But five minutes outside town lies another mosque, at Jamkaran, the site of a vision of the hidden Twelfth Imam, who went into occultation 11 centuries ago. For years Jamkaran was an obscure site, apart from the Qum orthodoxy, but since Ahmadinejad came to power and started talking about the return of the Mahdi, or messiah, it has grown into what can only be described as a megamosque, and one that dwarfs the megachurches of California or Texas. On Tuesdays (the day the Mahdi allegedly appeared at the site) and on Fridays hundreds of thousands of pilgrims show up, on foot, by car and by coach, to pray, picnic and to drop a handwritten note into a well (actually two wells, gender-segregated but close) where some believe the Mahdi will read them and perhaps grant the wishes of the petitioners. I had visited three years ago on a Tuesday evening, in time for the dusk prayer and in the company of an overflowing crowd of what seemed like millions. But on this trip my car pulled into the new parking area on a Sunday afternoon, a normal workday in Islamic countries. I was struck by the scale of the construction: hundreds of thousands of square feet of new covered space surrounded the main mosque, and new minarets on the edges of the grounds could be seen from miles away.

It is tempting to think of Jamkaran as emblematic of a Shia obsession with the end of days—some have used it to argue that Ahmadinejad's government is seeking nuclear weapons in order to hasten the apocalypse and the return of the Mahdi. But Jamkaran is much more a place for people, admittedly pious, to get away from the rigors of life, and to hope that through their journey here they will somehow be saved. Begging favors of a hidden imam (as preposterous as his presence at the bottom of a well may seem) is not, as far as some Iranians are concerned, that different from Roman Catholic belief in the healing powers of a visit to Lourdes. On this day a group of a half dozen or so women in chadors were picnicking and enjoying themselves under one section of the half-finished extension to the mosque. At the well, I approached a group of young boys dropping notes down to the Mahdi. One of them, trying to peer through the grate into the pitch-black depths, asked me if I had a flashlight. "Do you think there's someone down there?" I asked him. "We want to see," he replied, and I suspected he and his friends were unconvinced by the myth. An older man stood at the counters nearby, deep in thought and jotting down words on a small piece of paper, collecting his thoughts, and then writing some more.

A tall, slender and handsome young woman in a black chador, with the faintest hint of makeup, furiously scribbled at another counter, oblivious to the fact that she was in the men's section. She folded her note, walked up to the well and dropped it through the grate. "A special favor?" I asked her. She looked at me suspiciously for a moment, and I explained that I was a reporter. "It's private," she said, "but we all have problems, don't we?" She walked away, perhaps skeptical that I had no ulterior motives. Her answer and her demeanor, however, spoke volumes. She was purposeful and had no time for state-imposed gender segregation. Whatever her "problem" was she didn't want to take it to a mullah in Qum who might lecture her on the fine points of Islam or Islamic behavior. (Indeed, a yearning for the Mahdi can be seen as a rejection of clerical rule, for the ayatollahs exist to defend Islam only in the absence of the Mahdi, and presumably will have outlived their usefulness upon his return to the physical world.) And she felt she had a place to go, on a weekday when perhaps her family or husband were at work, to unburden herself. Other people I talked to, both times I visited, were hoping for everything from a cure for a backache to a relief from debt, and the presence of well-marked infirmaries on the grounds suggests that Iran, a nation of hypochondriacs, is as concerned with survival as it is with salvation.

Just before reaching Tehran's train station, traditionally the southern gateway to the capital, one passes through a neighborhood called Javadieh. Once a notoriously rough area—Tehran's South Bronx or Compton, and nicknamed "Texas" for its Wild West atmosphere—it is rarely visited by most Tehranis even today. Yet the neighborhood is far less seedy than it once was. Modern apartment blocks compete with the older mud-brick buildings crowded onto narrow alleys and streets. New cars are parked everywhere.

This is Ahmadinejad territory. Although the president was actually raised in a lower-middle-class neighborhood farther north, his appeal as a man of the people, an incorruptible and unpretentious politician who has the interests of the poor at heart, is strongest in places like Javadieh. South Tehran is deeply religious, yes, but, more important, working class—suspicious and resentful of authority, particularly if that authority is identified with Iran's wealthy elite (many of whom are clerics). Residents turn out to vote in great numbers, with good reason: the Tehran mayors they've elected, including Ahmadinejad, have transformed this part of the city. Its denizens now enjoy good schools, parks and clean streets, as well as something that was once impossible in a strict class society: hope. Ahmadinejad's health-insurance plans for the poor and doubling of government pensions have won him many fans in Javadieh, but at least as important is his example of a poor-boy-made-good. Often he is respectfully referred to as Dr. Ahmadinejad, to note his Ph.D. (in traffic management).

The freedoms we value so much in the West are nowhere near as attractive as this new social mobility. On the streets of Javadieh, I stopped to talk to a man parking a late-model Pride (basically an -Iranian-made Kia) in front of a butcher shop displaying the heads and feet of sheep on the sidewalk. "In my father's day we could not have imagined owning a car, much less a new one, or taking vacations," he said, adding, "Shokr"—an expression meaning "one must be grateful." As bad as the economy is in Iran, with double-digit inflation (meas-ured in dollars) and unenviable unemployment statistics, every single motorcyclist I saw on Javadieh's traffic-clogged streets had a cell phone poking out of his pocket.

The Middle East's longest street begins at the railway station. Once vaingloriously and eponymously named by the Pahlavi dynasty, it is now Vali-asr Boulevard, and it runs uphill to the very northern extremes of the city. Whereas downtown one sees mostly older men and women dressed conservatively—even shabbily, almost as a badge of pride—jeans, colorful headscarves and gelled hair become more common in the boulevard's northern stretches. At Vanak Circle, a busy intersection with a JumboTron in one corner that unofficially demarcates North Tehran from the rest of the city, I stopped at a newsstand to pick up an English-language newspaper while a young man pushed in front of me to pay for his. I asked him who he thought would win the June 12 elections. "God forbid that anyone but Ahmadinejad does!" he replied. I was taken aback, and he noticed my surprise. "Let Ahmadinejad win," he explained, "and he'll be the downfall of the entire system."

Sentiments like that often give outsiders the impression that it's only a matter of time before Iran's youth—who make up three quarters of the population—overthrow their government. Yet while young Iranians can be just as focused on having fun as they are everywhere else in the world, the rights we ordinarily think of as lacking in Iran, such as the right to dress or behave as one pleases, are not their main concerns. Generally speaking, they are free to do as they please behind closed doors. They can watch first-run (if bootleg) Hollywood movies, on Samsung flat-screen TVs, while downloading songs to their iPods. (They can also drink alcohol, bootlegged through Kurdistan, and, even more cheaply, do drugs.) Even those who rebel against the austere social climate are as proud of their Persian-ness, their history and their culture as any other Iranian. Although they tend to be wealthy, well traveled and in many ways quite Westernized, they don't necessarily want their nation to be anything but independent of both East and West.

North Tehranis react with the same outrage as other Iranians whenever an American map shows the Persian Gulf as "the Gulf," or whenever Hollywood depicts Persians in anything less than a flattering light (such as in the movies Not Without My Daughter or 300). In late April, reports that Arab countries had demanded that Iran remove the name "Persian Gulf" from medals and brochures for the Islamic Solidarity Games to be held in Tehran in October sparked a particularly strong reaction all over town. "Screw them," yelled a friend of mine, a man educated in the West, completely Westernized, and hardly a supporter of the government. "Let the Arabs stay home—who gives a damn?" His indignant outbursts on the matter continued for days.

Near its end Vali-asr climbs steeply, into the foothills of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains. Here lies the home of the Islamic Revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's family compound, Jamaran. Mrs. Sadoughi's brother, former president Mohammad Khatami, has an office here, in a villa granted to him by the Khomeinis, who are now almost all reformists. Khatami relishes his new role as an éminence grise of Iranian politics, and on the day I visited him in his stately offices, he was besieged in various drawing rooms by politicians, mullahs, women in chadors and journalists, all vying for a few minutes of his time. In private, he appeared relieved that he had abandoned his campaign for the presidency. I told him that there had been disappointment in many quarters when he endorsed another reformist candidate, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. "It is better to be a kingmaker than king," he joked to me in English.

It was a platitude, but I realized he was right. The Supreme Leader is, naturally, the supreme kingmaker in Iran, but there are others, including Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, and Parliament Speaker Larijani. With myriad power centers and constituencies to keep satisfied (much as in the United States), running for or even being president requires compromises that a behind-the-scenes politician need not make. Khatami's decision to forgo an arduous campaign makes sense given the stakes this time around for whoever wins: the possibility of forging a détente with America after 30 years of open hostility. Some U.S. officials may have hoped that Khatami would be their partner in renewing ties, but he did the Obama administration a favor by choosing not to be king. Iran needs a president who can convince not just North Tehran but South, not just Tehranis but Yazdis, that the "change" the Supreme Leader promised is in their best interests. Khatami knows he can be more influential in this process, posht-e-pardeh, or "behind the curtain." In a land of mysteries, it is, not surprisingly, a favorite expression.