Unlikely leader of Iran's uprising
The man battling Ahmadinejad for the presidency is a veteran of the country's Islamic revolution and more a believer than a reformer.
TEHRAN, Iran — His followers have begun calling him "the Gandhi of Iran." His image is carried aloft during Iran's vast opposition demonstrations, his name chanted in rhyming verses that invoke Islam's most sacred martyrs.
Mir Hossein Mousavi has become the public face of the movement, the man the protesters consider the true winner of the disputed presidential election.
But he, in some ways, is an accidental leader, a moderate figure anointed at the last minute to represent a popular upwelling against the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi is far from being a liberal in the Western sense, and it is not clear how far he will be willing to go in defending the broad democratic hopes he has come to embody.
He has advocated repairing relations with the United States, but cautiously.
He and his advisers promise free-market economic reforms, but as prime minister during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he introduced a command-style economy and government subsidies.
He's shredded tradition by campaigning with his wife, but when it comes to pushing social freedoms and human rights, he takes a back seat to former Parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, the most liberal of the four presidential candidates running in last Friday's election.
Mousavi may be a "reformer" compared to Ahmadinejad, but "moderate" or "moderate-conservative" might be more accurate on Iran's limited political spectrum.
"He doesn't claim to be a reformer," said a top Karroubi aide, Elyas Hazrati.
"He is a moderate. He tried to show himself in the debates and in propaganda that he is a moderate and is someone who can bring together all of the factions of the Islamic Republic," said Mohsen Sazegara, a Harvard professor who served as deputy prime minister when Mousavi was prime minister. "He is not a liberal at all, and he would definitely deny that. He is a moderate revolutionary."
Mousavi, 67, is an insider who has moved toward opposition, and his motives for doing so remain murky. He was close to the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but is at odds with his successor, the current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some prominent figures have rallied to his cause, including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. So it is not clear how much this battle reflects a popular resistance to Ahmadinejad's hard-line policies, and how much is about a struggle for power.
Khomeini was a fan
Mousavi began his political career as a hard-liner and a favorite of Khomeini and long has had an adversarial relationship with Khamenei, but Mousavi's insider status makes him loath to mount a real challenge to core institutions of the Islamic Republic. He was an early supporter of Iran's nuclear program, and as prime minister in the 1980s he approved Iran's purchase of centrifuges, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Yet, like many founding figures of the revolution, he has come to believe that the incendiary radicalism of the revolution's early days must be tempered in an era of peace and state-building, acquaintances say.
"He is a hybrid child of the revolution," said Shahram Kholdi, a University of Manchester lecturer who has written about Mousavi's political evolution. "He is committed to Islamic principles but has liberal aspirations."
In recent days, Mousavi has been pushed inexorably toward a confrontation that carries terrible risks for both sides. If authorities use force on a major scale to quell the protests, it could crush the movement. It also could generate martyrs and deeper public anger, swelling demonstrations into a broader threat to the system Mousavi hopes to preserve.
The steadiness he has shown since election results were announced Saturday has helped solidify his role as a leader and has heartened his followers.
"The demands of the people are the most important goal of the Islamic Republic," Mousavi said as polls closed Friday night, in what widely was seen as a shot across the bow of Iran's clerical leadership, and a warning that he would take his case public in the event of voter fraud.
Mousavi in some ways is an unlikely figurehead. Calm and deliberate, he has a soporific speaking manner, and even his most ardent defenders grant that he has little charisma. He was out of public life for two decades, a soft-spoken architect who loves to stay home watching movies and was overshadowed for years by his distinguished wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a professor and artist.
Yet many also describe him as a resolute figure whose hard experience as Iran's prime minister taught him not to fear risky decisions.
"He was an artist, a university professor with no experience, but he managed under harsh conditions to run a country of 35 million people through trial and error," said Muhammad Atrianfar, who served as deputy interior minister under Mousavi, and later became a journalist. "The biggest result for him was the self-confidence he gained from that."
Longtime foe of Khamenei
As prime minister, he often clashed with Khamenei, president at the time, mostly over economic issues — Mousavi favored greater state control over the wartime economy, and Khamenei argued for less regulation. The president was more moderate on some issues and, unlike Mousavi, sometimes drew rebukes from Khomeini, then the supreme leader. In that sense, they have switched positions, but remain adversaries.
After stepping down in 1989, Mousavi kept a hand in politics, serving on Iran's Expediency Council. But most of his time was devoted to architecture and painting.
Although deeply religious, Mousavi appears to hold relatively liberal social views. His wife is a well-known political-science professor who promised that, if elected, he would advance women's rights and appoint "at least two or three women" to the Cabinet.
His oldest daughter is a nuclear physicist. The youngest prefers not to wear the Islamic chador, and her parents do not mind, a close relative said.
In recent years, Mousavi was deeply dismayed by the excesses of the morality police, and by government decisions to shut down newspapers, his relative said.
He decided to run for president to save Iran from what he said were Ahmadinejad's "destructive" policies. But a popular movement didn't begin to build behind him until a few weeks ago. As the campaign drew to a close, Mousavi began answering the president's rhetorical broadsides with strong language of his own.
"When the president lies, nobody confronts him," Mousavi said last week, during his final debate appearance. "I'm a revolutionary, and I'm speaking out against the situation he has created. He has filled the country with lies and hypocrisy. I'm not frightened to speak out. Remember that."
Once compared unfavorably to Mohammad Khatami, the charismatic reformist cleric who was president from 1997 to 2005, Moussavi has held firm against the government in ways Khatami never would have, many say.
"He's not as open-minded as Khatami," said Nasser Hadian, a political analyst. "But he's more of a man of action."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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