Has the Iranian Regime Forsaken Khomeini?

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Beyond the lavish palaces of the last Shah in north Tehran, beyond the sweeping Enqelab (or Revolution) Street, which cuts through the city center, and even beyond the southern outskirts of the city's rambling tenements, looms the Islamic Republic's most notable landmark: the $2 billion tomb of its founder, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. Though situated on a desolate piece of desert convenient only if you're headed to the international airport, the enormous scaffolding-enclosed shrine, still under construction 20 years after the Supreme Leader's death, is an essential part of the pilgrimage for devout Iranian Shi'ites.

Especially after this summer's postelection chaos, the mausoleum has become ground zero for hard-line conservatives. Supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi rarely go there to pray or seek blessing from the Imam, but fans of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are more concentrated in the area than in most neighborhoods of Tehran. Indeed, on a recent visit, hundreds of men with unkempt beards, ill-fitting pants and untucked white shirts — the trademark garb of the Basij paramilitary vigilantes — milled about in the sprawling parking lot, said to be able to fit 20,000 cars. Dozens of tour buses sat idle after bringing in crowds from nearby Shi'ite strongholds like Iraq, while the license plates of the mostly run-down, domestic-made Paykans in the lot indicated that many traveled from the far corners of this country: Kermanshah in the west, Shiraz in the south, Yazd in the southeast.

A flimsy but in-your-face blue sign near the entrance displays one of Khomeini's best-known declarations: "We will stand until our last breath, last house, last drop of our blood to elevate the word of God." The shrine's interior, reminiscent of an airport hanger, reflects the Imam's austere outlook. During his rule, Khomeini received all manner of dignitaries in a bare room at his daughter's modest residence in the theological center of Qum, and refused to eat anything more extravagant than fruit, yogurt and rice. In contrast, his sarcophagus has now been enclosed within a gaudy green and white cage, with the floor inside filled knee-deep in cash, bills inserted as donations by the pious. Some visitors are so zealous they openly weep at the sight of the tomb, including a few of the grim-faced bearded men...

... Therein lies the predicament for the regime. It has cast the street demonstrations as a supposedly Western-led, secular velvet revolution. But Shi'ites, who are the overwhelming majority of Iranian Muslims, believe that only an Imam's surviving lineage can accurately interpret his ideology. So to have so many Khomeinis jump ship set off alarms for the ruling hard-liners.

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