In Iran, Apocalypse vs. Reform

By Jackson Diehl
Thursday, May 11, 2006

QOM, Iran -- In a dusty brown village outside this Shiite holy city, a once-humble yellow-brick mosque is undergoing a furious expansion. Cranes hover over two soaring concrete minarets and the pointed arches of a vast new enclosure. Buses pour into a freshly asphalted parking lot to deliver waves of pilgrims.

The expansion is driven by an apocalyptic vision: that Shiite Islam's long-hidden 12th Imam, or Mahdi, will soon emerge -- possibly at the mosque of Jamkaran -- to inaugurate the end of the world. The man who provided $20 million to prepare the shrine for that moment, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has reportedly told his cabinet that he expects the Mahdi to arrive within the next two years. Mehdi Karrubi, a rival cleric, has reported that Ahmadinejad ordered that his government's platform be deposited in a well at Jamkaran where the faithful leave messages for the hidden imam.

Such gestures are one reason some Iranian clerics quietly say they are worried about a leader who has become the foremost public advocate of Iran's nuclear program. "Some of us can understand why you in the West would be concerned," a young mullah here told me last week. "We, too, wonder about the intentions of those who are controlling this nuclear work."

Qom is a place where the possible ends of Iran's slowly crumbling Islamic regime can be glimpsed -- both the catastrophic and the potentially benign. There is the rising, officially nurtured last-days cult at Jamkaran, and the extremist rants of Ahmadinejad's own spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who recently suggested that future elections were superfluous because a true Islamic government had arisen.

But also in the winding alleys here, with their mosques and madrassas , are some of the world's most progressive and influential interpreters of Islam -- ayatollahs who insist that democracy, human rights, equality for women and even cloning are all compatible with the Koran. To hear them is to understand that the much-hoped-for Islamic reformation is, at least in the Shiite world, already underway.

The best known of the liberals is Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once the designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader, and in recent years one of Iran's foremost advocates of democracy. Frail at 84, Montazeri was nonetheless firm enough when I asked him about Ahmadinejad's buildup at Jamkaran. While "the 12th Imam does exist and will someday emerge," he said, "using this belief as a political means for deceiving people or leading them to certain decisions is wrong." As a grand ayatollah, Montazeri is one of the few in the country who can make such a public statement without risking imprisonment or worse.

Even more intriguing is Montazeri's near neighbor, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei, 68, who, unlike his elder, is still instructing students at his madrassa and delivering regular sermons and fatwas . Like Montazeri, Saanei favors full democracy in Iran; he has also issued rulings banning workplace discrimination against women, sanctioning abortion in the first trimester and authorizing therapeutic cloning for the purpose of producing replacement organs.

Another early collaborator of Khomeini who long ago returned to Qom, Saanei acknowledges that anti-democratic forces among the Iranian clergy have the upper hand, for now. But he offers two reasons for optimism. One is the growing demand for change among Iranian youth; those under 30 make up more than two-thirds of the population. "We have been doing a lot of work in colleges and universities," says the ayatollah, whose diminutive stature, wispy white beard and leathery brown skin make him appear older than he is. "If you talk to students in these institutions you will see that we have achieved a great deal, and that our ideas have spread very far."

The other factor is Iraq -- where, Saanei says, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has successfully updated the role of Islam in government. "The Iraqis were well aware and informed of events in Iran," Saanei said. "Therefore they have adopted the model of Ayatollah Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani has made the correct decision by staying out of the political system."

The violence in Iraq has galvanized Shiite clergy such as Saanei on the subject of terrorism. "All of these terrorist acts have got to be condemned," he said, abruptly diverging from an answer to another question to deliver a strident sermon. "Terrorism must be hated in any form. And if a powerful and influential figure supports only a small number of these terrorists, he must be condemned as well." The reference to Iran's current rulers seemed unmistakable.

Saanei spreads such views methodically. He meets with journalists nearly every day; aides record each interview on videotape and post transcripts on the ayatollah's heavily trafficked Web site. DVDs of his sermons circulate widely. "Up until now we have had no difficulties" with the Iranian regime, says an aide. "Because he is a grand ayatollah and can express his opinion." As Ahmadinejad's followers flock to Jamkaran, Saanei's might seem a futile enterprise. But then, few believed that the words of his mentor, Khomeini, would foment a revolution.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company