In Iran, a Hall of Mirrors

By Steve Inskeep
Sunday, March 8, 2009

I spent the early weeks of President Obama's administration looking into one of the new president's most imposing challenges: Iran. Traveling across that country, I tried to learn what matters most to its people at this moment. And some of the most insightful words I heard came from a guard at Iran's holiest shrine.

Imam Reza, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, is buried in Mashad, a city in far northeastern Iran, near the plains of Central Asia. Pilgrims approach his shrine along streets lined with tourist shops selling prayer rugs, sandals and glass jars stuffed with red saffron.

The faithful have come here for centuries to pray in a series of outdoor courtyards, each surrounded by walls of gold leaf and blue mosaic tile. Non-Muslims like me are asked to enter through a single gate, and I had to visit so many checkpoints before finding the correct one that my Iranian interpreter joked to a guard, "Security here is tighter than at the nuclear facility at Isfahan!"

"This shrine," the guard replied, "is more important than the nuclear facility at Isfahan."

By then I had been in the country for nearly two weeks, talking with real estate agents, presidential candidates, window shoppers in bazaars, and it struck me that the guard may have been right.

In the West, we fixate on Iran's enrichment of nuclear fuel, which symbolizes national prestige as well as real power. But the shrine of Imam Reza represents something more, something perhaps deeper: Iran's dominant religious tradition, its glorious history, its widespread cultural influence and, not incidentally, cash. It's a major tourist destination. It's located in the hometown of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And like the rest of the country, it is preparing for a presidential election.

In this city of 2.5 million, I could visualize what analysts inside and outside the country had been telling me. Understanding Iran requires that Americans confront all the complexities of Iranian life, not just the hot-button issues that concern Washington most directly.

My guide told me that 12 million pilgrims make the trip to the shrine each year, and I hadn't been in town very long before I was chatting with a visitor from Saudi Arabia. Steady streams of people flowed through the checkpoints even on a freezing Friday afternoon, when the mountains outside town glistened with snow.

As it has elsewhere in Iran, inflation has eaten away at Mashad's natural prosperity. On a side street near the shrine, I met a retired banker named Ali who owned a small tourist hotel. Over tea in his spotless lobby, he noted that local wages were rising, but that the prices of home appliances, such as refrigerators, had jumped "forty or fifty percent."

Such economic concerns will be at issue in the upcoming election. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces challengers including Mohammad Khatami, a former president known for his attempts to reach out to the West. The sitting president is campaigning defiantly for a second term. In fact, when we arrived in Mashad, we discovered that the president was also in town, having flown in that day to give a speech. Widely disdained in the capital, Ahmadinejad has spent much of his four-year term traveling to the outlying provinces, where he says ordinary Iranians support his policies and his combative rhetoric about Israel and the West.

The winner in June will of course affect Iran's future direction, but he won't have the final say on Iran's foreign policy. That distinction belongs to the man from Mashad: Khamenei.

Iran's Supreme Leader grew up near the shrine of the Imam Reza, on a twisting alley where his father owned a four-room house. It's still there, its bare rooms and simple kitchen utensils largely preserved as they were when the family last lived there. Schoolchildren are bused in to see it. Old men who remember Iran's 1979 revolution visit the tiny rooms to pray. One told me that Khamenei was arrested in that house during the last days of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran's regime.

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