Mostafa Hagighat, wearing a green robe and a salt-and-pepper beard, said that when he travels to towns and villages during the annual holy month of Ramadan to promote Shiite Islam and answer people's religious questions, he receives a cool response.
"People don't even answer us when we say hello," Hagighat said. "It's like they're not on speaking terms with us."
"Imam Khomeini said clergymen should lead a simple life. If you drive a car, it should be a common car. But some clergy and politicians live a luxurious life. Even if they deserve it, in the eyes of the people it is not compatible with austerity."
Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on political and religious matters, but day-to-day governing is delegated to a civilian administration that is popularly selected -- in highly stage-managed elections that ensure that only candidates acceptable to the theocracy can win.
The blurred line between clergy and government -- the current president, Hassan Rouhani, is an establishment cleric -- increasingly creates confusion among the people, Hagighat said.
The government has not stringently enforced the mullahs' rules banning satellite TV dishes and requiring women to cover their hair "because they need votes," he said.
Mohammad Ebadi, a portly cleric in a white turban, agreed that blending Islam and politics had tainted people's perception of the clergy.
"I'm a simple mullah, but people associate me with the theocracy," he said. "When they see me, they put all the blunders of the government on me."
A short walk from the main religious sites, a forlorn shopping center looms over the main road. The Zamzam complex was built several years ago to capitalize on Qom's growth, but few retailers have moved in because the property owner was hit with corruption allegations. Even the holy city isn't immune to shady dealings.
A coffee shop is one of the only functioning businesses in the building. A mural of a European sidewalk cafe filled one wall and a new, Italian-made espresso machine sat on a counter.