And so, after weeks of preparation and some delays, the Supreme Leader ventures to Iran's religious centre today. The stay in Qom will last about a week, and it starts with a flourish, as Ayatollah Khamenei gives a speech marking the birthday of Reza, Shi'a's 8th Imam.
What is likely to happen? On the public front, that's an easy test --- in front of the crowds, given time off from offices and schools for the day, and given wall-to-wall coverage by Iran's media, the Supreme Leader will display his admired leadership.
It's behind closed doors that the question gets more interesting and far more difficult to answer.
First, the open-air display. The Supreme Leader's journey was supposed to begin last week but was delayed so it would not crowd out attention for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's own roadshow to Lebanon. This was no setback, however, as it offered the space for several more days of headlines, photographs, and expectation. I am not sure would go as far as one analyst to proclaim a "coronation" --- the Islamic Republic is not too fond of Kings --- but state media's screenshots of posters being prepared, slogans placed on roadsides, cars, and motorbikes, and archival snaps of the Supreme Leader waving and smiling to his admirers have set a lavish scene.
But, as in any good mystery, these are just the opening shots for a more intricate tale.
To get a taste of the religion and politics, rewind to Ayatollah Khamenei's last trip to Qom this summer. There was no build-up in this case, no hanging of banners and speakers, only a journey at short notice to see clerics.
After the discussion, there were some perfunctory official photographs of the Supreme Leader and the group, but no description of the conversation. That came instead from fragments of news, speculation, and rumour, largely in the opposition media, which got no closer to answers.
What mattered at that point was the context. The Supreme Leader's journey occurred amidst mounting economic problems, tensions between the Parliament and the President, and approaches by key conservative figures appealing for some move towards "unity". The immediate cause, however, was the concern of senior clerics over attacks on their own --- the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini had been shouted down at the ceremony of his grandfather's death in early June, and there had been attacks on the houses of Grand Ayatollah Sane'i and the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. The assailants may have been shouting the name of the Supreme Leader, but in their support of the Ahmadinejad Government, they were willing to knock down the religious men who were the supposed guardians of the Islamic Republic.
So Ayatollah Khamenei had to offer reassurance. No more attacks, no more disrespect. And, with the notable exception of the September assault on the Shiraz mosque of Ayatollah Dastgheib, a vocal critic of the Government and even of the Supreme Leader, that truce has held.
But beyond that, little has changed. The economy is in an even trickier position as subsidy cuts loom and lack of investment bites, the bitterness between Parliament and President remains, and "unity" is distant --- note the outcome of the Islamic Azad University affair, in which the Supreme Leader slapped down Hashemi Rafsanjani. Senior clerics have been even more vocal in their criticism of the Government, especially Ahmadinejad advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashai. That criticism is not necessarily coming from reformists: Ahmadinejad's purported religious mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, has questioned the wisdom of the President's inner circle, and Ayatollah Jannati at last Friday's Tehran Prayers gave a most public warning about the Government's pursuit of the subsidy reforms.
And then there is the political prisoner issue. A few weeks ago, we noted that Hashemi Rafsanjani, on behalf of the families of detainees, had approached the Supreme Leader and asked for investigation of cases of abuse and unjust arrest. Rafsanjani, however, is not alone in the matter: other senior clerics received letters from the families and, as the repression continues with no repentance or high-level punishment for abuses, they have begun to question the Government's handling of the issue.
So once more the appeal by Ayatollah Khamenei, invoking not optimism but the need to bind together amidst threats, especially the "foreign" challenge and the spectre of sedition. Back the Islamic Republic, back velayat-e-faqih (clerical supremacy). Which means in practice --- although it will not be said and aside from rumours of a proclamation of Khamenei as "Imam" --- back me.
Which is where it gets interesting. EA sources told us two weeks ago that some senior clerics plan to avoid offering an answer: Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani (the father-in-law of Iran's head of judiciary, Sadegh Larijani) indicated he will celebrate Reza's birthday at the Imam's shrine in Mashhad. Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani said he will not be in Qom. While both have told other maraje to welcome Khamenei --- no need for a confrontation through humiliation --- they will not be on hand for an endorsement.
Our latest news is that Safi Golpayegani and Vahid Khorasani have been under great pressure to remain in Qom for the meeting, so they may pull back from their abstention. That, however, is far from a resolution.
So where will we be tomorrow morning, after the first day of the Supreme Leader's visit? There will be no shortage of colourful photographs, laudatory articles, and admiring "analyses" of the public performance. At the centre of the display, however, there is likely to remain a vacuum resounding in its silence. Only in the following days and weeks, when the colour fades and other un-heralded signals emerge will we be able to assess if Ayatollah Khamenei has succeeded in his mission.