A Relative Unknown Leads Election Challenge to Iran's Ahmadinejad

Students chat at the Iranian Academy of the Arts, designed by presidential candidate and architect Mir Hossein Mousavi. Critics say he helped purge pro-Western academics in the Islamic revolution.
Students chat at the Iranian Academy of the Arts, designed by presidential candidate and architect Mir Hossein Mousavi. Critics say he helped purge pro-Western academics in the Islamic revolution. (By Newsha Tavakolian For The Washington Post)

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 8, 2009

TEHRAN, June 7 -- The main challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's presidential election is a relatively unknown candidate who says he joined the race to save Iran from his opponent's "destructive" policies.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, who served as prime minister in the early years of the Islamic revolution, had stayed away from politics for the past 20 years. But he entered the race on a main promise to stand up to Ahmadinejad, which has earned him the support of influential clerics, politicians and young people alike.

Each night, tens of thousands of youths gather in Tehran's main squares to cheer their support for a man who just a month ago they barely knew by name. Mousavi has emerged as the only serious alternative for those who oppose the policies of Ahmadinejad, who has the support a small group of hard-line clerics and some influential members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"Mousavi will make us free," a girl shouted from a car Saturday night, waving at the masses of young supporters. "I don't really know who he is. But he is the only one that can beat Ahmadinejad."

Those close to Mousavi, who is also an architect, describe a worldly intellectual who is not hungry for power but who thinks that Iran's bad economy and international isolation require him to try to effect change. Others, however, accuse Mousavi of having played a pivotal role in the purging of pro-Western professors and students in the first years of the Islamic revolution.

But most Iranians say that Mousavi, like many of the founders of the Islamic republic, has changed. They say the dogmatic hothead who wanted to spread the Islamic revolution around the world has become a pragmatic politician who firmly believes in Islamic governance but also has called for greater freedoms and civil rights protections.

"One of my slogans is 'freedom from fear,' " Mousavi said recently on state television. " 'Fear' does not have only a physical meaning, rather, peace of mind should be created in the society."

Yet it is not his plans for Iran's future that draw people into the streets to campaign for him.

"Mousavi is so popular because many people dislike Ahmadinejad's policies," said Majid Hoseini, a political analyst in Tehran. "He doesn't have any charisma. It's the worries in the society that will get him votes."

Years as a Hard-Liner

On a recent day, Mousavi's son-in-law Mahdi Makinejad strolled through the new Iranian Academy of the Arts building, which Mousavi designed. He stopped by a traditional closed courtyard, purposely made accessible to the public from the busy street it faces, and pointed at marble columns decorated with calligraphy, writings from Iran's pre-Islamic and Islamic years.

"He feels that all should be represented in Iran and all should have a place," said Makinejad, an artist who specializes in ceramics and glass.

More than 15 years ago, Makinejad walked into Mousavi's office, trying to explain that he was in love with Mousavi's daughter. "I was so nervous. But he asked me which books I read. That was very surprising," he said. "Mousavi is always respectful and calm. He makes people feel at ease."

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