Christopher Hitchens has an interesting piece in this month’s Vanity Fair also carried in Front Page:
Driving down through the desert, from Tehran to the holy city of Qom, I am following the path of so many who have made the pilgrimage before me. They either were seeking an audience with, or a glimpse of, Ayatollah Khomeini or, if they were journalistic pilgrims, were trying to test the temperature of Iran’s clerical capital. As I arrive, darkness is gently settling over the domes and spires of the mosque and the Shia theological seminary, the latter of which is demarcated by a kind of empty moat which doubles as a market. But I am not headed for these centers of spiritual and temporal power. My objective is an ill-paved backstreet where, after one confirming cell-phone call, a black-turbaned cleric is waiting outside his modest quarters. This is Hossein Khomeini. The black turban proclaims him a sayyid, or descendant of the prophet Muhammad. But it’s his more immediate ancestry that interests me. This man’s grandfather once shook the whole world. He tore down the throne of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and humiliated the United States. His supporters seized the American Embassy and kept 52 members of its staff prisoner for 444 days. The seismic repercussions of this event led to the fall of Carter, the rise of Reagan, the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, and quite possibly the occupation of Afghanistan by the Red Army. It moved us from the age of the Red Menace to the epoch of Holy War. It was, at one and the same time, a genuine revolution and an authentic counterrevolution. I have become almost averse to shaking hands in Iran by now, because it isn’t permitted for a man to shake a woman’s hand in public in this nerve-racked country, and if you unlearn the conditioned reflex in one way, you unlearn it in another. But as I feel young Khomeini’s polite grip, I fancifully experience a slight crackle from history.
Iranian hospitality is one of the most warming and embarrassing things it is possible to encounter. Before any conversation can begin on these grand questions, there must be fragrant tea, a plate of sohan, the addictive pistachio-and-saffron brittle that is the Qom specialty, and a pressing invitation to stay for dinner, and indeed for the night. The pressure is re-doubled on this occasion because the last time we met and talked I was the host.
Young Khomeini has been spending a good deal of his time in Iraq, where he has many friends among the Shia. He is a strong supporter of the United States intervention in that country, and takes a political line not dissimilar to that of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. In practice, this means the traditional Shia belief that clerics should not occupy posts of political power. In Iranian terms, what it means is that Khomeini (his father and elder brother died some years ago, so he is the most immediate descendant) favors the removal of the regime established by his grandfather. “I stand,” he tells me calmly, “for the complete separation of religion and the state.” In terms that would make the heart of a neocon soar like a hawk, he goes on to praise President Bush’s State of the Union speech, to warn that the mullahs cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and to use the term “Free World” without irony: “Only the Free World, led by America, can bring democracy to Iran.”
Read it all.