ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Seventy-five miles south of Tehran, on the edge of a salt desert, is Qom, Iran's center of learning and piety, the heartland of the Islamic Revolution.
Qom is more conservative than Tehran. Many more women here cover themselves in black, and visitors are expected to do the same. Students and teachers hurry through the streets to and from class. Seminaries in Qom train Shia clergy from all around the world.
In the side streets, a tailor works on the flowing robes worn by clergymen. He has done this for 40 years, he told us, and has seen ayatollahs come and go. He once sewed for Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution, who was exiled from Qom by the shah and who returned here when the revolution triumphed.
Khomeini is still revered in Qom, but these days another grand ayatollah, Ali Sistani, holds center stage. Sistani is Iranian and was trained at a seminary in Qom. But he left for Najaf, Iraq, in 1951, where he studied, taught and wrote treatises that made him a venerated leader in Shia Islam.
He's elusive; there's not much video of him. He works behind the scenes. He was a central figure in urging early elections in Iraq, and so far has promoted a democracy where clergymen guide but do not rule, as they do in Iran. For those struggling for change in Iran, like Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, these ideas are good news.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think the behavior of Ayatollah Sistani has a very deep influence over the government of Iran and over the population and over the community of Iran.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Khatami is a leading reformist politician and a candidate for vice president in elections scheduled for June.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: We think that Ayatollah Sistani is a prototype of the clerics and the religious leaders that should guide the people to the right way but not interfere directly in the events that will happen in the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sistani spreads his views partly through a multi-million dollar, multinational charitable foundation, and some of its key operations are headquartered in Qom. His Iranian son-in-law, Ayatollah Sharistani-- who met with us, but did not agree to an on-camera interview-- is in charge. And Ibrahim Lajevardi works directly under him.
IBRAHIM LAJEVARDI, Aalulbayt Global Info. Center (Translated): There are about 50 cultural, scientific, and welfare centers that are supported by the foundation and by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. They were established by his son-in-law in Iran and in other countries.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A computer center is one of the most important services Ayatollah Sistani provides for Shia around the world. Lajevardi directs all the computer activities.
IBRAHIM LAJEVARDI (Translated): The center hosts three internationally important Web sites that are today among the best in the world, and especially in the world of Islam.
WALID SALMAN: This is our programming section.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Walid Salman, an Iraqi, who manages the Web sites, gave us a tour.
WALID SALMAN: This is al-Shia Web site opening page, in 27 languages: Persian, English, Urdu, French. This is the translation of the holy Koran in English.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The entire Koran is on here?
WALID SALMAN: Yes, in photos, in text, and PDF.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ayatollah Sistani's religious and social views are available for anyone to read on his Web site. On the Arabic and Farsi sites, he answers questions about rule by what's called the "supreme jurisprudent."
Sistani seems to say that the highest cleric should have much say over social, but not political, matters, which is different than what happens in Iran, where the main government leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is seen as a sort of representative of God on earth.
Downstairs is another part of the computer operation, the place where "Dear Ayatollah" questions sent via e-mail are answered.
WALID SALMAN: We have specialists in any other languages -- someone in French or English or Arabic or Persian or any language.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is an interesting question: "My wife has developed a relationship with a married Hindu man since ten years. My heart says to leave her but mind says that since the income is not enough to live alone and take care of the children, I should live in this hell for the sake of my children. What should I do?" Who answer this question about this poor man?
WALID SALMAN: There's a committee -- give the answer, not him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you tell me what the answer is?
WALID SALMAN: If she leaves the first man --
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah, she leaves her lover.
WALID SALMAN: Okay. You can forgive for her.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By 11:00 A.M. when we visited the center, it had already received 800 e-mail questions. The Sistani Foundation has also built a state of-the-art eye hospital, which is just beginning to receive patients. I had my eyes tested and could have gotten Lasix surgery. This is one of many hospitals sponsored by Ayatollah Sistani in Iran and elsewhere.
An ayatollah's power and influence are directly related to the size and reach of his charitable foundation. Sistani's is among the largest in the Islamic world. His people are spreading his ideas, though they are adamant that Sistani is not aiming to influence politics in Iran directly.
Vice Presidential Candidate Mohammed Reza Khatami, brother of the current Iranian president, is convinced Sistani is already influencing the way people in Iran look at the relationship between religion and politics.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think the way that Ayatollah Sistani chose is having many influences over countries like Iran and like other Muslim countries that religion is very important for the people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So far, at least, high government clerics, like Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, are praising Sistani and Iraq's elections last month.
AYATOLLAH ALI AKBAR HASHEMI RAFSANJANI (Translated): This is what the Iraqi Shiite scholars and the people of Iraq wanted. The pressures on America by Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Iraqi clergy and others who struggled, left America with no choice but to hold the elections.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The tailor who has sewn clerical robes for 40 years told us he has seen a lot of change in Qom, and now people are wondering what change will come next.