A Relative Unknown Leads Challenge in Iran
President's Key Opponent, a Revolution-Era Prime Minister, Wins Support by Taking on Ahmadinejad

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."

But many remember a different Mousavi, a hard-line revolutionary who they say played an important role in closing Iranian universities for two years, forcing female students to wear head scarves and purging professors deemed Western.

Mousavi has publicly denied being part of what is called the cultural revolution here. But Abdolkarim Soroush, a former member of a council that organized the purge, has accused him of not being honest about his past.

"Tell us about your important role in these events. Tell us the truth," Soroush, one of Iran's main contemporary political thinkers, recently wrote in an open letter.

Back then, Mousavi, who briefly served as foreign minister, said Iran's revolution must be spread around the "entire world."

Freedom of speech was not on his agenda in those days. "Anyone can think in their hearts, but whoever speaks out or acts against the revolution would see the system fighting him with all its strength," he said in 1983 after becoming prime minister.

But reality sank in as he tried to manage the country through its eight-year trench war with neighboring Iraq.

During the war, Mousavi played a key role in logistical planning and created a coupon system to ensure that Iranians' basic needs were met despite sanctions imposed by many Western countries, who largely supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Mousavi "created a war economy that helped us fight Saddam Hussein," said Hussein Alaei, an influential retired admiral in the Revolutionary Guard Corps who had extensive contact with Mousavi in those years. "The country was stable, inflation was low . . . there was war, but nobody was hungry. We all respect him for his management."

In 1984, Mousavi said on state radio that exporting the revolution was no longer a realistic goal.

"It seems that we were wrong in our initial assessments with regard to the fast spread of the revolution," state newspaper Kayhan quoted him saying a year later.

Over the years, "Mousavi evolved from a revolutionary to a pragmatic manager," said Masoud Soltanifar, a former deputy governor of one of Iran's Persian Gulf provinces.

Premier in Wartime

In 1988, the last year of the war, Soltanifar was one of the first Iranian officials to learn that the USS Vincennes had shot down an Iranian civilian airliner en route to Dubai, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.

"I called Mousavi. He didn't believe it. 'The Americans wouldn't do such a thing,' he said," Soltanifar recalled.

Mousavi ordered him to sail out to debris floating in the Persian Gulf. It soon became clear there were no survivors. "Only when I told him what I saw with my own eyes he realized the Americans had really shot down a civilian aircraft," he said.

The U.S. Navy said the downing was an accident. Iranian officials are convinced the plane was shot down to pressure Iran into signing a cease-fire agreement with Iraq.

The eight-year war ended a month later.

After Mousavi's two-term tenure ended in 1989, Iran's constitution was changed and the post of prime minister was abolished for administrative reasons.

During a debate televised live on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad accused Mousavi of being a pawn of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most influential politicians in Iran. Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani of leading an elite of power-hungry politicians who think of themselves first and the people later. Mousavi denies that, saying that the president makes public allegations to cover up his own failures.

During a debate Sunday with cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the other significant challenger to Ahmadinejad, Mousavi strongly attacked the president.

"We are facing a phenomenon: a person who can stare at the camera and say outright lies to people," he said of Ahmadinejad, who during the debate showed numerous statistics indicating that inflation and unemployment were both down.

"When the president sits here and lies, nobody confronts him. I'm a revolutionary and speaking out against the situation he has created," Mousavi said in closing. "He has made the country full of lies and hypocrisy. I'm not frightened to speak out. Remember that."

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoei contributed to this report.

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