MASHUP IN MASHHAD
Despite having to contend with yet another powerful earthquake, Iran's second city, and also its holiest, has just proffered a surprise presidential candidate barely a month before the country goes to the polls.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in the holy city of Mashhad
Tragedy has again struck Iran's second city. Last week a 6.1-magnitude earthquake occurred some 76km southeast of the city, leaving deep cracks in the streets and killing two.
Yet the country is no stranger to faultlines; some 90% of Iran's territory is crisscrossed by geological faults, and earthquakes have taken at least 126,000 lives in the country since the beginning of the 20th century. This seems to have done nothing to dent the city or country's resilience, however.
Home to some 2.8 million inhabitants, Mashhad is thought to host nearly 20 million pilgrims a year who flock to the Imam Reza shrine, which houses the tomb of the eighth imam in Twelver Shia Islam. It is one of the most important Shia shrines in the world. The city is also located near an oasis which once lay on a key Silk Road route, nestled between the outpost of Merv (near Mary, in modern-day Turkmenistan) and Nishapur (Iran), and within five-hour drive (370km) of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city and principal western settlement.
In addition to its crucial location as Iran's gateway to Central Asia, Mashhad has long been a hub for traditional Iranian manufacturing, with textiles, leather, dried fruit, saffron, and nuts being produced here for centuries, and it also hosts the country's second-largest automobile manufacturer. and over half of its hotels, with the Imam Reza shrine having a great deal to do with this latter.
Having quadrupled in size since 1979, Iran's holiest shrine is now larger than the Vatican (60ha versus to 44ha). But piety and tourism are not the only things contingent upon the eighth imam's peaceful resting place, with much of the city's social welfare having become intertwined with the fortunes of the shrine.
The organization which manages it, the Astan Quds Razavi, is not only the largest charity in the Muslim world, but one of the most powerful institutions in Iran. Its custodian, appointed by the Ayatollah himself, oversees a vast empire managing not only pious donations, but also extensive real estate and commercial holdings—particularly in Mashhad.
Though the shrine has helped boosted the city's wealth, prestige, and cultural significance since 1979 in particular, rarely has it played as significant a political role as it has until earlier this week.
On Sunday 9 April, the hardline conservative cleric and custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally and intimate of Ayatollah Khamenei, threw his hat in the presidential ring. After gaining the support of Iran's largest conservative political coalition, the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces, Raisi will challenge reformist incumbent Hassan Rouhani in the forthcoming elections of May 19.
Though Rouhani is still the favorite, Raisi's candidacy presents a formidable if somewhat puzzling challenge: oft-considered a very possible successor to Ayatollah Khamenei himself, many were puzzled that he'd stoop so low as the presidency.
Concluding it was his “religious and revolutionary responsibility" to run for the second-highest office in the land, Raisi's campaign blamed “recession, unemployment, and obstacles in the way of businesses" as his reasons for running—more than a subtle nod to the economic flowering that failed to materialize once sanctions were lifted in the wake of the landmark nuclear deal in January 2016.
Whatever the case, the fortunes of Mashhad are intimately tied to the state of the nation—and the region. On the one hand, it carries enormous clout from its relative prosperity and reputation for piety; of the 5 million foreign visitors that come to Iran each year, fully half cite Mashhad as their chief destination.
On the other, it also benefits greatly—however inadvertently—from increasing sectarianism. Since violence in Iraq began spiking in recent years, and particularly since ISIS started making serious territorial gains, the number of Iraqi Shia visiting Masshad and the tomb of Imam Reza has risen sharply.
Thus at the crux of the city's fortunes are two competing visions for the future: one as a commercial gateway and multinational hub for domestic manufacturing, light industry, and middle-income tourism; the other as a seat of piety and holy introspection in a region where nations are leaning increasingly heavily upon religious credentials.
Whatever way the electoral winds blow on May 19, Mashhad is sure to have its say.