Author: Kim Sengupta
The days before the presidential election are a tense time at Qom, the bastion of Shia theocracy, a place intrinsically linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. After years in opposition, there is now optimism among the hardliners that the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, betrayed, they charge, by the reformists, will be restored.
The conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat in last year’s parliamentary elections to the liberals. They just did not see what was coming; the election day sermon by Qom’s leader of Friday prayers, Hujjat al-Islam Sayyed Mohammed Saidi, had shown no understanding of the desire for change, focusing instead on the “greedy, dishonest US”, the “wily fox” Britain, and warning people not to be seduced by irreligious modern thinking.
Fifteen months on, many of the conservative clergy are more careful, but predict that their favoured candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, will defeat the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani by focusing on social and economic issues rather than religious ones. One avenue of attack has been the nuclear deal that Mr Rouhani signed with international powers which was supposed to end sanctions and lead to prosperity.
“The situation is not good for ordinary people; the promises Rouhani made he cannot keep; that is his real weakness,” says Imam Haidar Abbasi. “People are angry about this, especially in rural areas, and this is going to be a big issue. I think Raisi has raised this successfully with the voters.”
But Qom is also a home of entrenched reaction. The clergy and Islamic scholars of the city’s seminary are up in arms over remarks made by the governor-general of the province of South Khorasan, which they vociferously claim have undermined the basic tenet of Islam. A letter of bitter protest has been sent to President Rouhani demanding the sacking of the official and claiming that “the inappropriate rhetoric used by yourself and your colleagues” had contributed to this scandalous state of affairs.
So what was the remark so offensive by governor-general Seyyed Ali Akbar Parvazi? It was that “Islam would not be harmed if men and women danced together”. Faced by the wrath of Qom and the “revolutionary clergy” in his own province mounting sit-ins, Mr Parvazi had hastily sought to clarify his position. He apologised profusely for showing any disrespect: “I had brought an example from another province. Words which have been attributed to me which do not conform with my personality. I do not approve of such behaviour. It would have been better if the issue had not been politicised.”
The carapace of religion in the city leads to some unusual juxtapositions. Hamid Ibrahimi, 26 years old, produces maddahi – religious songs – set to techno music. Sitting at a café near Bastani Square, where photographs of Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino and Charlie Chaplin share the walls with ones of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini, he explained why it was natural for him and other modern young people to back Mr Raisi.
Hamid did not believe there was any overreaction by the clergy to the governor-general’s remarks. “You must understand there is a lot of sensitivity over Islam, people must be careful about what they say. People should not be insulting about religion, any religion, it is a matter of respect,” was his view.
The reformists have focused on Mr Raisi’s past. He was once a judge in the “death commissions” which sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows and firing squads. How could people support someone like that? “It was a very difficult time, the revolution was under threat from people trying to sabotage it. What the courts did was harsh, but popular at the time,” says Hamid. “He is still very popular now. There was a big crowd when he came to Qom.” Thousands had indeed turned up, chanting their support and likening him to the grandson of Prophet Mohammed.
But it is another populist, the most powerful in the West, who may have a say in Iran’s election. Donald Trump, who had declared during his election campaign that the nuclear deal was “the worst in history” and that he was determined to “dismantle this disastrous mistake”, is embarking on his first presidential foreign trip, taking him to Saudi Arabia and Israel, two states that view Iran as the enemy. Israel considers Tehran an existential threat and the Sunni Saudis are fighting proxy wars against Shia Iran across the region. Mr Trump is due to make a “landmark speech” in Riyadh on Sunday. It will, according to the American media, deliver a belligerent line on Iran, from the nuclear deal to reiterating the accusation that Iran is exporting terrorism.
The reformists fear that Mr Trump will be aiding the hardliners, giving strength to their argument that the nuclear agreement is flawed and the West, and especially America, cannot be trusted. That President Rouhani had compromised national security for little in return. In his latest pronouncement on the issue, Mr Raisi demanded to know: “Where in the world does a government weaken its defensive potentials; missiles for preventing wars?”
Mr Trump, for 29-year-old Ayatollah Hassan Habibi, is just the human face of an aggressive state. “Trump is worse than George Bush, but America has been hostile towards Iran for a long time,” he said. “This is just an extreme form of this. He is allying himself with certain Sunnis who have their own agendas. But I don’t think it will come to a war, the rest of the world will stop him.”
There are plenty of wars in the region and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have played their parts in them, especially in Syria and Iraq. The guards have begun to establish bases in mosques in the city and these sometimes house members of the Basij, an affiliated militia.
“We will defend Iran and our holy shrines if the Americans attack, or get their puppets to carry out attacks,” declared Mahmoud Hooshang, a Basij member. “But this is Qom, everyone you will meet here, who comes here, supports Raisi.”
That may not strictly be the case. Ali Reza, a 22-year-old history student who had waited for a cleric to finish saying that he backed Mr Raisi, wanted to stress “just because I live in Qom does not mean I am conservative. Most in our generation understand that Mr Rouhani must be allowed to go on with his reform and need another term. And we really want to be open to the world, we want to meet people of my age in other countries, we want to travel. Please mention this.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, 74-year-old Sabbatallah Bahadouri had made the pilgrimage to Qom a number of times from his home near the Iraqi border. He remembers life in the Shah’s reign. “We had more money and more freedom in some things, but there were lots of restrictions on religion.
“Of course those days will never come back,” he reflected. “I am going to vote and I am going to vote for Rouhani – we need more freedom in Iran, not less.”