Enemies and brothers
The Guardian: Iran, with its unabashed nuclear ambitions, is top of the US's next-to-invade list. Is the mood in the country fearful or defiant? James Meek sounds out hardline clerics, Tehran liberals, mosque-goers, workers and the near-destitute - and finds surprising resonances with their superpower enemy READ MORE
Perhaps it was my imagination, but I'm sure those two girls in the Peugeot were cruising us on Valiasr Avenue that warm Sunday night. What is it, to cruise? The car slowed down, came closer to the kerb; the girls leaned their heads forward, grinning, nodding slightly, made eye contact; shouted something, laughed, drove off. It was as innocent as that and they were, of course, headscarved. This was Iran, after all.
Valiasr runs for 12 miles, south to north, through the blocky expanse of Tehran, so enormous, like London, that it seems to be a country all by itself of concrete and Tarmac and windowpanes. Valiasr heaves with traffic until the small hours. The shops stay open late and the kiosks sell fresh fruit juice and coffee and newspapers. The young Iranians promenade on four wheels, in and out of each other's cars, the impatient ones tossing phone numbers in through the open windows.
It is one view of Iran: peaceful, benign, a little sensual. It is a true view. It is only one of many true views, some pleasant, some frightening, of this powerful, oil-soaked country. Not for a long time has it been so important for western countries to understand what is going on there, yet Iran and the west view each other through the distorting media of political rhetoric, satellite television and the internet. A wave of young, western-educated Iranians has returned to the new Iran. They are a bridge across the comprehension gap between Persian and western culture - yet are they, too, giving a misleading impression from inside their Tehran bubble of how much Iran has changed?
The mutual misunderstanding is at its most extreme between Iran and the US, which is afraid that Iran's nuclear ambitions will end with Tehran having atomic weapons. The US lacks the manpower now to invade Iran, and George Bush recently described suggestions of an imminent attack on the country as "simply ridiculous". Yet America has invaded the two countries on either side; Iran is the only one of Condoleezza Rice's six "outposts of tyranny" - the updated "axis of evil" - which has a chance of getting nuclear weapons, but doesn't have them yet. If Bush has a next-to-bomb list, Iran is at the top of it.
What is it like, living in Washington's crosshairs? The threat of a US attack, even limited raids on Iran's known nuclear facilities, is troubling to Iranian liberals and conservatives alike. "I daresay there may be some who'd like to see US marines in Tehran, but such people are so few," said Taghi Amirani, who lives in Britain and has begun visiting Iran to make films. "There's nothing like an external threat to unite a country."
Iran has been in Washington's sights ever since the revolution in 1979 toppled the Shah, replaced autocracy with a theocracy, and saw the US embassy overrun and its staff taken hostage. The two countries still don't talk officially and, although Iran has changed much, cleave to old stereotypes. "A high percentage of Americans' views of Iran is shaped by Fox News," said Amirani. "Quite a lot of Americans still get Iraq and Iran confused. Who was it said 'War is God's way of teaching Americans geography?'"
Amirani, who left Iran when he was 15, three years before the revolution, has just finished a documentary about the young journalists of Shargh, a daily newspaper braver than most in Iran in challenging the government. North Tehran, the poshest, most liberal part of the capital and, therefore, the poshest, most liberal part of Iran, is full of people like him these days - Iranians whose families emigrated west after the revolution and who are coming back to experience small new freedoms.
One evening I went with another returned exile, Houman Mortazavi, to Darband, up in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, on the northern edge of Tehran. Beside the path winding up a narrow gorge, kiosks were selling pots of fresh mulberries and new season walnuts, shelled, peeled and bobbing in big jars of brine, like miniature brains. Other vendors were selling something else - an Iranian cleric called Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Portraits of his Rembrandt-like features were everywhere. It was a few days before the first round of Iran's presidential election and everybody in north Tehran understood that Rafsanjani, the pragmatic old cleric, the wily insider, was going to win. The only question was whether he would win outright or go to a second round. His rivals, in a field of seven, were two relatively reform-minded contenders and a former interior minister. Nobody mentioned the other three runners, although I had a vague idea that the mayor of Tehran was one of them.
Mortazavi, a US-trained artist and designer who now runs an ad agency in Tehran, has been back in Iran for a year. He left a few years after the revolution, in the early 1980s. In the immediate aftermath of the Shah's downfall, a bloody struggle broke out between the Shia clergy and leftists. The clergy and its armed supporters won, giving the religious zealots enormous power over Iranians, power that was further strengthened by the unifying effect of invasion by Iraq. Thousands of suspected leftists, some of them children, were arrested, tortured or shot; severe and supposedly Islamic punishments, like stoning adulterers to death, were implemented, and codes of Islamic dress and private conduct were enforced.
Mortazavi returned to see an Iran that had changed again. "It's a brand new country from when I left," he said. "You see colour everywhere. During the war it was all grey. Now there's colour. The women are beautiful. Eight years ago, plastic surgery was still a luxury. Now everybody's having their nose done." In north Tehran, you often hear that word, "everybody". Meaning, it is understood, not "everybody in Iran" but "everybody I know in Tehran with money".
Mortazavi went on. "It's a young nation now. What are you going to do with all those hormones? You've got to let go. God knows how many times I was stopped, searched, arrested before, because I was with women I wasn't related to or because my breath smelled of alcohol. Now nobody even questions you." He hesitated, feeling he was being too optimistic. "Of course, this is temporary," he said. "Wait till they start putting up the checkpoints again."
Walking through the Darband gorge, Mortazavi pointed to a young man and woman in front of us, holding hands. Such public intimacy would have been forbidden a few years ago, he said.
I asked who would have been responsible for stopping the couple holding hands.
"The basiji," he replied , referring to the national youth organisation, its ranks stuffed with vigilantes.
"What happened to them?"
"They got introduced to money," said Mortazavi. "They're still around."
Whenever Pedram Bagher goes to a party in Tehran, he assesses the escape routes first: back doors, windows, garden fences. His caution has paid off. In the course of about a thousand parties, he's been arrested eight times. Each time he got away, except once. That time, he was flogged. Bagher - he asked me not to use his real name - is 28 years old, single, and works in Tehran's bazaar, the quaintly named hub of the city's powerful wholesale import-export businesses. He likes to drink alcohol and to dance with women. Unfortunately for Bagher, both activities are illegal in Iran. Fortunately for Bagher, boozing and mixed-sex dancing, like watching satellite television or wearing nail varnish, have gone from being dangerous acts to manageable risks.
True, under the "night clubs" entry in the Lonely Planet guide to Tehran are just two words - "dream on" - but every night in the capital there are hundreds of private parties, up to virtual clubs with DJs, bars and drugs. Sometimes they grow so full-on that the authorities take a stand. Bagher's low point was on western New Year's Eve 1999, when 300 people, including foreign ambassadors, actors and sports stars, were invited to a shindig in a penthouse in central Tehran. "Five minutes before I was planning to leave, we got busted," said Bagher.
A shot was fired in the air, women screamed, the lights went up, the music stopped, and the party was over. The partygoers were force-marched down 21 flights, sorted by gender, handcuffed, pushed into minibuses and taken to a detention centre. In court, a cleric, without formalities of evidence or lawyers, read out guilty verdicts. "The judge would say, 'You are convicted of taking part in Bacchanalian revelry,'" said Bagher. "We were punished on the spot." Bagher was given 74 strokes with a leather whip, "from the nape of the neck to the ankle."
Which is the more reliable indicator of the way Iran is going? The one party that resulted in Bagher being flogged, or the 999 that didn't? The readiness of Iran's unelected clergy to intervene violently in the personal lives of Iranians is part of the justification for America's branding of the country as an "outpost of tyranny". Yet it is in the very realm of personal freedoms that Iran seems to be changing.
Optimists see it as the positive effect of eight years' tenure by the outgoing, relatively liberal president Khatami, a foretaste of more meaningful freedoms. Sceptics see it as bread and circuses, the mullahs cutting the wealthiest, best-educated kids some slack on dancing, lipstick and emails, calculating that this will prevent them from worrying too much about democracy and nuclear confrontation with America.
For women, the liberalisation of the dress code is not a trivial issue. In public, the hijab is still obligatory and universal. The hijab is not a thing; it's a concept of female modesty which changes from time to time and from place to place because the Koran doesn't say exactly what the hijab should be. Iran before the revolution was a Muslim country, but in the big cities women could and did go about bare-headed and short-skirted if they wished. After the revolution, the male religious victors enforced their idea of the hijab: a dull-coloured chadoor - an all-encompassing, shapeless robe, reaching almost to the ground, covering everything except the face.
Over the years, women have chipped away at the restrictions. The far edge of the new look is trousers of some kind - jeans if you like but, for the most daring, a loose version of capri pants cropped at mid-calf. No skirts. Over the trousers, you wear a "manteau" - a buttoned tunic. In theory, a woman's form should not be visible, but in reality the manteau is being cut so tight these days that the figure emerges. The head must be covered, but a simple scarf suffices. Many Iranian women now drape a brightly coloured scarf across their heads in such a way that their hair spills out at the front.
Shiva Mahshid, an English teacher, who was 13 at the time of the revolution, recognised there have been changes, but saw a deeper agenda on the part of the clerics. "They wanted to keep people busy with their appearance. That's why they gave people more freedom to dress as they liked - so they wouldn't think about other things." Her resentment of the clerics was not matched by love of the US as a champion of liberal values. Nor was she opposed to the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons. "This American idea that you're the boss of everything, that you can have everything you want and don't consider it to be right for everybody else to have it - that's arrogance, isn't it?" said Mahshid. "Foolish, too. You can tell that by their president ... I think every country is entitled to have nuclear facilities. It gives power to the country. Why doesn't America try to attack North Korea?"
With a few days to go to the election, which would, I was still hearing, sweep Rafsanjani to the presidency, people in Tehran kept talking about "conservatives" and "reformers". The more I heard, the less I understood what the terms meant. For some, they referred simply to dress codes and lifestyle. For others, the battleground was wider, taking in democracy, fairness from the authorities and free speech. A country can ban alcohol and force women to cover their heads and still be, in other respects, a free country. But Iran isn't.
Two recent cases, in particular, have convulsed Iranian public opinion and caused optimists to suggest the clergy's grip on power is less certain. The first involved Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-born journalist with Canadian citizenship, who was arrested in June 2003, while taking pictures of a protest outside Evin prison in Tehran. She was interrogated and taken to hospital where she died, three weeks later, on July 11 2003.
Originally, Kazemi was said to have had a stroke. A few days later, the government said she had been beaten to death by her interrogators. The judiciary, controlled by the clergy, prosecuted an Iranian security agent on a manslaughter charge, but he was acquitted. Then, a year ago, the judiciary declared Kazemi had not been beaten at all; her head injury was the result of an "accident". This year an Iranian refugee to Canada - a military doctor who said he had examined Kazemi in hospital shortly before her death - said that she had been raped and had suffered a fractured skull, a broken nose and broken fingers. Her body was scratched, bruised and marked by the lash; some of her fingernails were missing. The Iranian government has said the doctor is a liar. Kazemi's body has not been returned to her family.
The second case was that of Hashem Aghajari, a leftwing historian and wounded veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. In August 2002, he made a speech that struck Iran's ruling clergy like a slap in the face. Comparing them to the remote, corrupt hierarchy of the medieval Roman Catholic church, Aghajari said the country's fundamentalists sought a relationship with Iran's believers not of teacher and pupil but of master and slave. Aghajari was arrested, tried and sentenced to death by hanging for, among other things, blasphemy. It was a step too far by the clergy.
The anger from overseas could have been dealt with; protests from within the country could not. The remnants of the liberal media erupted, student demonstrations broke out, the secular government expressed dismay, and, most dangerously for the ruling clergy, divisions within the ranks of senior clerics were exposed. The death sentence was withdrawn. Last year Aghajari was released on bail.
"The case was a good test for Iran," Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told me in his office in Tehran. "If the clergy and its allies could have carried out the verdict, they would have. One of the senior clerics, Ayatollah Nouri-Hamedani, said at the time that Aghajari was worse than Salman Rushdie, because Rushdie slandered God and the prophet Muhammad, but Aghajari slandered the clergy." He laughed. Nikbakht believes external events helped concentrate the minds of the mullahs. "Two dictatorial governments, both with a religious, fundamentalist viewpoint, one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan, have changed - in Afghanistan completely, in Pakistan gradually. The government of Iraq, with its ideology of nationalism and religion, has been annihilated by coalition forces. Other changes have taken place on a global scale - Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine and recently Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan. It all reassures people that dictatorships in any clothes will not remain, and that Iran is not like before."
It might sound like music to the ears of a US hawk urging military intervention in Iran. Yet that is not Nikbakht's point. His is an argument you hear in Tehran time and again: Iran is already moving in a democratic direction from within. Let the US and Europe put pressure on the country over human rights - but military action would only turn the clock back. Nikbakht believes concerns over the country's nuclear programme will evaporate if the government behaves with more respect for its people and for world opinion.
And what if America didn't believe Iran when it insisted it didn't want nuclear weapons, only peaceful nuclear energy? What if it bombed Iran? "If America or other foreigners intervene in Iran, especially by attacking nuclear facilities, the people will unite. The government would acquire legitimacy in the face of such an external threat; it would continue to repress people's freedoms; and it would make common cause with other dictatorships around the world, like Syria, Cuba and North Korea."
I met Abdullah Momeni, one of the student leaders who has for years led demonstrations against the ruling clerics. He is a brave man, never far from the possibility of arrest. In the face of censorship, the closure of newspapers the clergy doesn't like, detentions, the torture of suspects and the ability of the clergy to bar any candidate from office, Momeni has little patience with liberal western newspapers, such as the Guardian, which question US motives in Iran.
From Britain, it may look as if Europe and the US are playing good cop, bad cop with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. From where Momeni is sitting, it looks as if the US cares about people, and Europe doesn't. "It seems America has been much more sensitive than European countries towards the issue of human rights in Iran," he said. "It seems these European countries, which have entered into dialogue with Iran, are more interested in getting financial benefits." Like Nikbakht, he believed the answer lay in Iran's hands: if it became more democratic, the world would believe it when it said it didn't seek nuclear weapons.
What if the US jumped the gun and bombed Iran's nuclear facilities? "It would cause some problems," he said. "In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan there weren't groups inside the country working to establish democracy. Iran is quite different. There are movements working to create democracy from within. Even a limited military attack by the US would stop democracy in Iran; it would give the conservatives the excuse to make the entire country 'secure'."
Iran's political set-up seems designed to confuse the outsider. There are two parallel regimes, the secular one - the government, the elected president and the elected parliament - and the religious one, consisting of the unelected supreme leader and the unelected Guardian Council. The secular government, headed until June by President Khatami, has considerable responsibilities and little power. The religious regime, headed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, has vast powers and few responsibilities. On everything that matters - laws, the appointment of judges, foreign policy, who can run for election - the supreme leader has the final say.
It's not easy to get representatives of the ruling religious side to talk but Muhammad Taghi Rahbar agreed. Now 70 and one of the elected MPs for the city of Isfahan, he studied Islam for 55 years. It's fair to describe him as a conservative. Rahbar's first remark was to ask my female interpreter to roll down her sleeves to cover her wrists, "so I can look at you comfortably". "We're not against working women, women's education, we're not even against them being professors at university, lawyers," he said. "But the main point is maintaining the boundaries of the hijab, chastity, ethics."
I asked Rahbar whether Islam maintains that only senior clerics could have a dialogue with God, or could all Iranians, all Muslims, talk to God directly? "In Islam, talking to God needs no intermediary, and any moment that a person wants to talk to God, it's possible all the time, at any time, in any circumstances," said Rahbar.
Then why did the people not have any say in choosing the supreme leader or the Guardian Council, whose role was defined as interpreting God's word? "The majority of people have voted for this constitution," said Rahbar. Could it ever be changed? "It's not a holy book."
Up to this point I had no sense that Iran felt hemmed in by American encirclement, although the US has military bases in four of the seven neighbouring states. For all its repressiveness, the country appears an island of relative liberalism or tranquillity compared with its America-friendly neighbours - the carnage in Iraq to the west, the poverty and lawlessness of Afghanistan to the east, the pathological personality cult of Turkmenistan to the north or the tottering mix of monarchy, fundamentalism and decadence in Saudi Arabia on the south side of the Gulf. But with Rahbar I got my first reminder of the extent to which America is still despised. Iranians have neither forgotten nor forgiven the CIA's role in the British-prompted coup that brought down Iran's first elected government in 1953, or America's support for the autocratic Shah, or its backing of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
Rahbar sides with the anti-US insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. US opposition to Iran's nuclear ambitions, he said, was nothing but an attempt to hold Iranian scientists back from catching up with other countries. Iran didn't want nuclear weapons, but it had as much right to them as any other state. "We believe nuclear weapons are enemies of mankind, and Israel must not have them," he said. "But the world doesn't protest against it. America makes nuclear weapons, and the world should denounce that." And if the US should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities? "We're ready," he said. "We'll answer them. Israel is at the point of our missiles, the US Navy is in the Gulf."
I was uneasily aware that I had seen little of this vast country outside north Tehran. There, I was assured that the country was moving in a reformist direction. Two-thirds of Iranians, I was reminded, live in big towns and cities. Two-thirds of Iranians are under 35. Religious fundamentalists, I was told by Reza Khojasteh Rahimi, a political reporter from Shargh, made up no more than 15% of the population. Everybody was watching foreign TV; everybody was on the internet. "We have 8 million internet users. The people who work with the internet are the geniuses, the elite of the country, and they influence the rest of the population," said Muhammad Ali Abtahi, a liberal mullah with a popular website who used to be Khatami's chief of staff.
It was easy to believe millions of restive, young, urban Iranians wanted change; less easy to find out whether their aspirations coincided with wealthy young Tehranis, or reformist students, or Americans.
On the eve of the first round of elections, I boarded the overnight sleeper to Isfahan, 300 miles south.
In the small hours of the morning, halfway towards its destination, the train hauled its secondhand Spanish sleeper cars past the city of Natanz. You couldn't see it, but slumbering under the desert moon, buried underground and ringed by anti-aircraft defences, was the Iranian nuclear installation that worries the US, Israel and Europe most: a plant designed to enrich uranium, using a cascade of tens of thousands of centrifuges.
Western governments could probably live with Iran having civilian nuclear power plants. Washington would not accept Iran publicly declaring it wanted nuclear weapons. Natanz occupies a dangerously ambivalent middle ground between the two extremes. It could be, as the Iranians claim, a means to make their own civilian nuclear fuel. It could also be, as the US, Israel and many in Europe suspect, a means to make the material for nuclear weapons; the fact that Iran concealed its existence until three years ago is not encouraging.
Britain, France and Germany, with arm's-length US support, are trying to persuade the Iranians to back away from enrichment, in exchange for trade and technology deals. The Iranians are digging their heels in. If no agreement can be reached, Iran faces sanctions and, eventually, the risk of US military strikes, either on Washington's own account or for fear that if it does not bomb Iran, Israel will.
Next day, election day, I attended Friday prayers at Isfahan's Imam Mosque, a blue-tiled masterpiece of Safavid architecture on Imam Square. Thousands of men and boys, and scores of women and girls, streamed into the vast prayer space. There was a mood of piety and the comfort of repeated ritual. We listened to the sermon. Early on, the preacher cursed "America, England and all the other enemies", and led the congregation in a brief chant of "Down with the USA! Down with Israel!" The weary tone of the cursing was not different from that with which, in between the two geopolitical moments, the preacher said: "Please turn off your mobiles."
Afterwards, I stood by the main door of the mosque and picked out a worshipper at random to talk to, an amiable-looking man in his 40s. I introduced myself. "God curse you," said the man, genially, as if wishing me good morning. He reached into the plastic bag he was carrying, took out a strip of green cloth and tied it around his head. "Death To America," was written on it in Persian. As he talked, his words grew more extreme, but his tone of voice never changed from a sort of bluff cheeriness. "England has been fucking us over for 400 years. We believe that America and Israel are in the hands of England," he said. "Everybody hates you and you're all spies. You're a spy in the role of a reporter. You are the real terrorist."
A crowd had gathered and was pressing in close. The mood was remarkable for its absence of menace. Voices in the crowd were telling the man he was an idiot. I didn't sense, as long as the US was not actually bombing Iran, that the country's disagreement with the west over nuclear technology was the main preoccupation of Isfahan's 1.6 million inhabitants on election day. In Isfahan it was easier to see a confrontation centred on class and money: between the poor and the ordinary versus the privileged elite, whether that privileged elite was a corrupt clergy up to its neck in business deals, or foreign-educated north Tehran liberals.
I first heard the name of the mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the lips of a house painter called Majid Hammami, visiting the great wooden-columned terrace of the 16th century Ali Qapu palace that day with his fiancee, Leila Attarzadeh. Hammami, who was 28, wore a Nokia T-shirt and jeans. His fiancee wore a black chadoor and hung back, several paces behind, declining to talk. Ahmadinejad was a candidate who had been given no chance by pundits in the capital. "He has a very simple and honest manner," said Hammami, explaining why he was going to vote for the mayor. "His election would be like a fist in the face of western and eastern powers." And what about the easing of rules on Islamic dress? What about human rights? "Iranians are not capable of freedom," said Hammami. "People should take it on themselves to limit the freedom that the authorities give them."
In one of the teahouses under the Si-o-She bridge over the river Zayandeh, I talked to 23-year-old Mohsen Jafari, a goalkeeper with an army football team, who said he, too, was voting for Ahmadinejad. "I will vote for the person who I think could do something for me: the mayor of Tehran," he said. "He's a believer, and he's a guy from the poor."
Ahmadinejad's popularity seemed to stem from a successful campaign portraying him as a humble, plain-talking man of the people, in contrast to the wordly, lordly cleric Rafsanjani. Not everyone I talked to in Isfahan said they were going to vote for Ahmadinejad, whose record as mayor of Tehran was of trying, unsuccessfully, to enforce a severely Islamic, anti-western ambience on the streets. But what was striking was how people proposed all sorts of alternatives to the status quo which had little in common with western liberal ideals.
I spoke to one businessman who despised the fundamentalist clergy, their corruption, petty rules and reckless foreign policy - yet saw no need for democracy, and thought Iran should have a nuclear bomb. I spoke to a teacher who thought the restoration of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy was the best safeguard against corruption. And I spoke to Iranians who have given up on politics completely, turned off by corruption, unemployment and drugs.
North Isfahan is like south Tehran, the wrong side of the tracks. In Zeinabeye district in north Isfahan, the buildings are smaller and more dishevelled, the cars more beaten-up, the streets narrower. Everywhere you see the high cheekbones and narrow eyes of the Hazaras, members of a put-upon minority in Afghanistan: refugees and illegal immigrants, ready to do the jobs the Iranians won't do.
In a scruffy park full of rosemary bushes and young men hanging around, I got talking to a young Iranian, Reza Sadeghi. At 18, he already talks like an old man. He's worked since he was 10, and now he's washed up. He comes from a large family. He has six brothers and sisters. His father died of a heroin overdose. "The number of junkies is going up," he said. "Things are just getting worse and worse." Sadeghi went to school, but before and after classes he would toil to bring money home. He worked as a welder, a pizza delivery boy, a butcher.
A few months ago, on a motorbike, he collided with a 13-year-old boy driving a car. Sadeghi suffered a disabling back injury which required major surgery. The boy's brother was a lawyer and Sadeghi ended up being held responsible for the crash. He had to pay for the boy's hospital treatment as well as his own, plus repairs to the car. The cost ran to thousands of pounds. Before the accident, Sadeghi was earning less than a pound a day. Now, he can't work because of his injury. He is in debt. He described his life. "I sleep for 20 hours, I lie down for another three, and I spend an hour in this park." Was he in pain? Yes. Did he take drugs himself? No.
I asked Sadeghi about the assertion of the north Tehran liberals that all the young folk of Iran were internet-wise these days. Sadeghi nodded to a group of young men gathered around a fountain a few yards away. "They don't even know what the internet is," he said. (I asked later: they didn't.) "The people you've interviewed, well, perhaps they had rich fathers." Sadeghi hadn't voted. "I like politics, but politics doesn't have anything to do with me," he said. "Nobody voted unless they were owned by the government or one of the candidates. If anyone says that the government's good, that the government supports people, they're lying. With this government, everything is based on connections. If you don't have connections, you're nothing."
The only organisation helping Sadeghi is a charity named after Ayatollah Khomeini, which offers a dole to the pious of about £3 a month. "I wasn't born when the Ayatollah Khomeini said that we'd given our oil money away to our enemies," said Sadeghi. "So where's the money going now?"
Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual father of the revolution, the man who rallied Iran in the face of Iraq's invasion, has been dead since 1989, but the country's religious leadership does its best to keep him alive. You catch him on fuzzy video late at night. Like Stalin, who tried to persuade the Soviet people that he was Lenin's heir by covering the country in posters of the two together in profile, the image you see everywhere in Iran is that of the two Ayatollahs, Khomeini and his successor Khameini, snugly together.
Khomeini was named for his birthplace, Khomein, an unremarkable market town about three hours drive south of Tehran. On the day Iran woke up to the news that Ahmadinejad, the mayor, had achieved a stunning upset in the presidential election, beating all other contenders to finish as runner-up to Rafsanjani, I went to have a look at the house where Khomeini was born.
Entering the grounds, the white brick house looks modern and institutional. But pass through a series of doors and yards and you find yourself in another epoch: a miniature medieval castle, with thick mud and straw walls, stables for horses and a fortified watchtower. Khomeini was born in 1901 into the family of a minor feudal baron who kept a troop of armed retainers on constant guard against the attacks of rival warlords. The Ayatollah's father was murdered when he was still a baby; Khomeini grew up well versed in the arts of musketry even as he embraced the Koran.
Looking out over the mud ramparts, imagining the recent time when the Khomeini family's sentries would see dust clouds on the edge of town resolve into armies of horsemen, the argument over Iran's nuclear ambitions took on a new perspective. What if medieval England or France had been fastforwarded into the 21st century, as Iran has been, in just 100 years? And what if, having learned so much so fast, having built their motorways, airports and mobile phone masts, they were told there was one feature of modernity, a nuclear fuel plant, which they just weren't allowed to have?
Early in my visit to Iran I met Mahmood Moosavi, a retired archaeologist. His life story characterised the Iranians' conflicting attitudes of resentment, affection and curiosity towards the superpower that now opposes them. For decades, in the Shah's time, he worked alongside foreign archaeologists, particularly Americans; glad to learn the science from them, frustrated to be a subservient colonial, helping foreigners steal the glory of revealing Iran's past. Yet he was sorry to see them go after the revolution, and glad, recently, to see them beginning to return, now as partners. I asked Moosavi, a staunch supporter of Iran's right to nuclear technology - though less keen on nuclear weapons - what message he would have for President Bush. "As an archaeologist, I've seen the sites of a lot of ancient superpowers," said Moosavi. "There was a time, during the Achaemenid period, when Darius the Great ruled this country. The borders of Iran ran from the Danube to India, from the Oxus to Egypt. Now, that superpower is finished. No superpower will remain for ever."
As the world now knows, Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani in the run-off. His powers, as president, are limited; his intentions unknown. Publicly, he has reaffirmed Iran's right to nuclear technology. It is small comfort to the White House that there was something quite American about Ahmadinejad's campaign and the manner of his victory. A socially conservative, God-fearing patriot, a regular guy, sold to an electorate disoriented by modernity, feeling vaguely cheated by life and looking for scapegoats as the candidate to shake up the fat cats and foreigner-loving liberal elites of the capital. When Bush comes to decide what to do about Iran, he may find himself looking at his reflection.