Most tours of Tehran begin in one of two places—the stately Imperial Palaces, where Muhammad Reza Shah spent his final years as king of Iran, or the massive mausoleum where Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Republic, is entombed.
The ayatollah’s mausoleum sits just outside of Tehran, near the massive Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery, where hundreds of the shah’s political enemies and tens of thousands of soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war lie buried. I arrive early on a stiflingly hot morning, deposit my shoes at the door, and enter reverently through the entrance marked for men. Though the mausoleum is the size of a city block, the tomb itself is a simple structure. Yet it is precisely its simplicity that draws your attention.
Inside the complex, the floor is littered with scraps of paper on which supplicants have written their entreaties to God. The sick and elderly clutch desperately at the metal grate encircling the tomb. The mausoleum is built so that those who kneel in prayer are obliged to face Khomeini’s tomb as they do so.
Suddenly, it dawns on me. This is not the tomb of a political leader but the shrine of an imam—the semidivine “saints” of Shiism who can intercede on behalf of God, heal the sick, and grant forgiveness of sins. There are 12 Shiite imams, beginning with Imam Ali in the seventh century and ending with the “Hidden Imam,” who went into occultation in the ninth century; it is said that he will return at the end of time as the messianic restorer known as the Mahdi.
I remember when Khomeini first returned to Iran, people whispered furtively that the Mahdi had finally arrived. This was an intolerably heretical statement, though Khomeini never bothered to disabuse people of the notion. Indeed, he eagerly consented to the title “Imam” while he was alive and relished the messianic symbolism of the term. Now, in death, that symbolism seems to be fixed for all time. I am visibly ill at ease when, as I collect my shoes to leave, an old man touches my shoulder and cheerfully says, “May the Imam deliver your prayers!”
Directly across town, at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, lies the walled compound of the shah’s palace. I walk through the colossal grounds with an enthusiastic young guide, marveling at the priceless silk carpets and the vulgar surplus of Louis XIV furniture crammed into every room. Everywhere I look there are symbols of ancient Iran—the sun, the lion—reminders of Iran’s regal past.
Pundits in the West like to say there are two Irans: the Iran of the Reformers, represented by the elected parliament and its champion of reform, President Muhammad Khatami, and the Iran of the Conservatives, led by the unelected Council of Guardians and the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ali Khameini (Khomeini’s hand-picked successor). Certainly, the virtual standstill in the government and the collapse of Iran’s economy is a direct result of the unremitting and unbalanced contest between these two broad political bases. But the “two Irans” theory is an oversimplified and meaningless bifurcation that conceals the incredible diversity of political and religious thought in this country.
If one truly wishes to speak of two Irans, it would not be with regard to dueling political or religious ideologies but to dueling symbolisms. Unlike the rest of the Muslim world, Iran has never struggled to reconcile its Islamic and nationalist identities. On the contrary, Iran has been a continuous entity for nearly 2,500 years. Half of that time has been as an empire founded upon the ancient Zoroastrian ideal of the “just ruler”—the divinely sanctioned shah, or king, whose omnipotent rule reflects the authority of the gods. The other half has been as an Islamic, and distinctly Shiite, community anchored in the principle of the “righteous martyr,” who willingly sacrifices himself in the fight against oppression and tyranny.
Like an exquisite Persian rug, these seemingly divergent symbols—the crown and the turban—had been perfectly interwoven for centuries to form a uniquely Iranian Islamic identity. But in the 1960s, these two ideals became the weapons with which Khomeini the cleric and Muhammad Reza, the shah, fought for the future of Iran. While the shah turned his back to Islam and wrapped himself in the ostentatious pageantry of Iran’s ancient past, the cleric appealed to traditional Shiite sentiments.
I have a distinct memory of the day my best friend would no longer play chess with me because of its imperialist symbolism. “Why does the king have to be the most important piece on the board?” he said, when I begged him to change his mind. “Why must the pawns always be sacrificed to protect him?”
The battle between the turban and the crown ultimately tore the tightly woven fabric of Iranian society apart. Almost overnight, 1,500 years of co-existing symbolism were transformed into an utterly Islamic theocracy. But while Khomeini may have won the battle of symbols, it is still unclear who will win the war over Iran.
Hardly anyone visits the ayatollah’s mausoleum anymore. Almost everyone I see is traveling from distant cities. They have stopped here for a stretch, some cool air, and a quick picnic before continuing to Tehran. Yet the shah’s palace is bursting with young Iranians, clicking pictures and pointing excitedly at the tawdry furnishings. By the looks on their faces, it seemed obvious that it is not excess and corruption they see, but wealth and power. When they read the placards contemptuously announcing where Charles de Gaulle sat or President Carter ate, they do not recall a time in which foreign infidels were wined and dined while normal Iranians were starved and brutalized. Instead, they seemed to imagine a distant era when Iran had a place of power and prestige in the world.
Outside the palace, not far from a lonely pair of bronze boots standing—all that is left of the shah’s statue—next to the ticket counter where five apathetic young men are paid by the government to do a job that one person could do if there weren’t a staggering 20 percent unemployment rate in Iran, a torn and battered banner declares, “Victory to the Revolution!”