The layers of contradiction that make up the modern Islamic Republic of Iran are both pervasive and confounding, and not any less so in Yazd. Set amid the blistering deserts of central Iran, the city is home to the kind of fierce religiosity bred in Islam’s starker landscapes, and many of its sons were sacrificed to the bloody war with Iraq. Yet it is also a capital of pre-Islamic Persia, and is well known for its Zoroastrian temples and grave sites. (At one fire temple, priests continue to tend a flame that they claim has burned for more than 500 years.) It is the only city in the world that can boast two native sons, Khatami and Moshe Katsav, who simultaneously served as presidents of Iran and Israel. Even the mosque where Sadoughi leads prayers is named after a Jewish convert.
The sermon that Sadoughi had delivered that morning had been equally impossible to categorize. He defended the inflammatory speech that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered earlier that week at a United Nations conference on racism, chiding Western nations who “allegedly are … defenders of free speech” for walking out. But he also criticized the government, in this case for failing to ensure that Iranian pilgrims traveling to Iraq were adequately protected, a large number of them having been killed the day before in a suicide bombing near Baghdad. And he conceded that the United States had elected a new president who had promised to change its relationship with Iran. He declared that Iranians were waiting to witness real deeds from Washington, not mere rhetoric. But at the end of his 30–minute sermon, unlike past Friday prayers and prayers that same day in Tehran, there were no chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel,” not even halfhearted ones. Later that night in his office he repeated, wistfully, the same sentiment—that words alone were not enough from the United States, not for Iranians, who are master rhetoricians, and who well understand the many uses to which they can be put.