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Story Publication logo June 17, 2009

Iran Revolutionary Turns Unlikely Hero


Media file: 1619.jpg

After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


Based on his resume, Mir Hossein Mousavi is an unlikely hero to have sparked the massive protests that have paralyzed Iran's capital since presidential elections Friday ended in allegations of fraud.

A supporter of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, Mr. Mousavi was Iran's prime minister in the 1980s when the nation revived a nuclear program that now worries its neighbors and the West.

The 67-year-old architect, painter and writer was absent from politics for the next 20 years before entering this year's presidential race; suddenly he has become a lightning rod for change.

Iran entered the fourth day of its political crisis Tuesday with a second enormous demonstration stretching from Vali Asr Square to the offices of Iran's state-run broadcaster, IRIB.

The government, which initially confirmed lopsided results giving incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 63 percent of the vote and Mr. Mousavi 33 percent, has promised a selective recount in some districts. However, it also has arrested more than 100 people, barred Iranian reporters from covering the demonstrations and told foreign journalists that their visas would not be extended.

Mr. Mousavi is among the many grizzled revolutionaries here who supported the taking of the U.S. Embassy to stamp out U.S. interference in Iranian affairs but now advocate less confrontation with the West. He is also remembered fondly by many Iranians for socialist-style polices that allowed Iran to survive the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Prime minister from 1981 to 1989, Mr. Mousavi is among the few Iranian leaders with knowledge of Iran's efforts to purchase centrifuge components and blueprints for a clandestine nuclear program from the black market run by Pakistani A.Q. Khan. In 2007, the Iranians submitted to international inspectors a copy of a letter from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization to Mr. Mousavi seeking approval to move forward with acquisitions from the Khan network.

Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, said, "I think what is important is not to draw too many conclusions about his opinions today, but certainly he is not a kindergarten teacher with respect to the nuclear program."

Mr. Mousavi has offered to negotiate with the United States about the program but said Iran has a right to retain uranium enrichment.

"It's not so much his background that is capturing people's imagination, since many of his supporters have no living memory of what he did 20 years ago," said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, a researcher of Iranian contemporary history. "What is fresh is his remarkable capacity to stand up for his own position and his supporters and instill the idea that he will not back down over the presumed rigging of the election."

Former President Mohammed Khatami, a more charismatic speaker than Mr. Mousavi, initially entered the race but dropped out when Mr. Mousavi decided to run. Mr. Mousavi is now seen as the frontman for both Mr. Khatami and another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a canny political operator whose family controls a business empire in Iran and abroad.

Some observers see the contest playing out now as not so much between Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Ahmadinejad as the revival of the antagonism between Mr. Rafsanjani and the supreme leader.

President Obama said Tuesday that "the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised."

"Either way, we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States," Mr. Obama told CNBC.

Some Iranians appeared to agree.

"They all have their hand in the same pot," a taxi driver said as he inched up the street toward Revolution Square, the scene of a massive protest rally on Monday. "But we've been hoping that this mess will become violent enough to allow someone else to rise up."

"Yes, agha [sir]," rejoined a passenger sarcastically. "How great it would be if it got to the point where we were in civil war."

"We already are, khanum [lady]," the driver replied. "And not even your Mir Hossein can save us from that."

Iranian political analysts say Mr. Mousavi's message has been calibrated to resonate with Iranians who lived through the 1979 revolution even as it captures the imaginations of those so young that they learned about those times only from their parents or at school.

"Because Mousavi has good relations with many of the ayatollahs and the people have good memories of him, some very surprising people came out in his support, like the conservative head of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the prayer leader of Shiraz and a series of ayatollahs in Qom," said Mohsen Hassanpour, an analyst.

Mr. Mousavi is a poor public speaker, but delirious scenes greeted his vehicle-borne appearance Monday in Revolution Square, where his words were often drowned out by cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). One slogan shouted by demonstrators called Mr. Mousavi "the prime minister of the Imam" a reference either to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, or the religious figure that devout Shi'ites believe disappeared as a boy in the ninth century and will reappear at a moment of great injustice.

"Despite the fact that he's not a reformist in the sense that he won't be coming out and speaking against the system, he does believe in changing the system from within," said Jahanshah, 24, a journalist who lost his job at a government news agency for supporting Mr. Mousavi too openly and who asked to be identified only by his first name. "Now he's been transformed into a symbol of resistance against an administration and not against the Islamic republic."

Mr. Mousavi was very close to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and rumors spread Monday night that he might seek refuge at the ornate Khomeini mausoleum in South Tehran.

After Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, President Ali Khamenei became supreme leader, Mr. Rafsanjani became president and Mr. Mousavi's job was eliminated.

"Let's not forget that Mousavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi [another reformist candidate] are as integral to the regime as Ahmadinejad is," Mr. Randjbar-Daemi said. "So if this problem is solved in a legal way the Islamic republic has all the more to gain by nullifying the outside opposition's claims that this regime is dictatorial. And Mr. Mousavi can claim enormous popular legitimacy far beyond any Western politician if he can come back on the cusp of an enormous popular movement."

A political writer who works for a conservative newspaper and asked to be identified by only his first name, Hamid, said Mr. Mousavi is the only person with the courage to "take us from this manipulated democratic-looking monarchy into more democratic society."

But Heshmat Hosseinian, an Ahmadinejad supporter, told The Washington Times that Mr. Mousavi is a one-week hero.

Mohammad Reza Ghaemi, a student at Imam Sadegh University, called Mr. Mousavi "a mumbling, nervous and a dishonest person to Islamic republic values" who is "supported by foreign governments and their nosy media to run our holy country."

Yahya, a scholar at Rasht University on the Caspian Sea, said in a telephone interview, "whatever happens, he undermined Khamenei's supremacy and paved the way that people can chant 'death to dictator.' "

"It's a turning point," he added. "He is a hero because he resisted the pressures and did not give up as the former President Mohammed Khatami did."

Eli Lake and Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this report from Washington.

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