Qom, the spiritual capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, feels like the centre of some vast, international conglomerate, administered entirely by clerics in the corporate uniform of turban and long robe.
Outside each seminary school is a long line of mopeds. Qom has long set the ideological mood for Iran - even the reformist movement was conceived here by liberal mullahs working among the city's concrete minarets and onion domes. On city radio, a quiz show host interrogates listeners about the Shia imams.
These days the mood is a throwback to the early years of the revolution. Arch-conservatives are again on the rise, their torch carried aloft by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who secured an election victory last summer wrapped in the flag and professing the pious homilies of the people's man. And at the heart of this revolutionary city, there is one conservative ayatollah who has benefited from Mr Ahmadinejad's victory more than almost anybody else. He may even be positioning himself as a contender for the ultimate prize - the supreme leadership of the country.
With the reptilian nickname "Professor Crocodile", Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi is seen as the real ideological force behind the president. His long face and white beard - and the fact that his name rhymes with crocodile in Farsi - gave rise to his nickname, coined by a cartoonist who was later imprisoned. He has sometimes been referred to by Iranian reformists as "the theoretician of violence".
"[When] things go out of government control and Islam is jeopardised, there is no way but using violence," he said a few months after the 1999 student demonstrations when members of the Basij militia attacked a dormitory, killing at least one student and badly beating many others. Liberals fear his rise spells the end of the tentative steps towards reform taken over the past nine years.
"For Mesbah-Yazdi and the President, democracy and republicanism are not important," said a senior liberal cleric in Qom. "They think legitimacy only comes from God. That doesn't bode well for our future.
"Mr Mesbah-Yazdi is a supporter of Tehran's tough line on the nuclear issue. Last year, he praised the nuclear negotiators for making "the adversaries of the Islamic republic retreat from their position".
He also believes in a draconian interpretation of Islamic law and supports suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. In a lecture published on his website, the cleric endorsed Palestinian suicide attacks, saying "when protecting Islam and the Muslim community depends on martyrdom operations, it is not only allowed, but even is an obligation".
Even civilians who have "announced their opposition to their government's vicious crimes" are legitimate targets if they stand between the martyr and the forces of occupation, he said.
The ayatollah's relationship with the President is fuzzy but there is no doubt they enjoy strong mutual respect. Mr Mesbah-Yazdi was the only cleric to openly support Mr Ahmadinejad's election campaign last year. And the rumour mill in Qom says that one of the cleric's key aides has been appointed spiritual adviser to the President.
Mr Mesbah-Yazdi heads the Imam Khomeini Research Institute, the most hardline of Qom's seminaries. The centre teaches traditional subjects such as law and philosophy as well as modern disciplines such as sociology and management.
Later this year, with the election of the Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clerics who have the power to appoint the Supreme Leader, the 71-year-old Mr Mesbah-Yazdi could become more influential than ever. Reformists in Qom say "Professor Crocodile" hopes to bring about the election of political allies who could force the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to become more conservative. Some fear Mr Mesbah-Yazdi aspires to become Supreme Leader himself.
"In the Assembly of Experts, things may move in a direction where those who were not exactly enthusiastic about the revolution may take the initiative," said the former president Mohammed Khatami. "That is dangerous."Reuse content