Reformer without Form

Mir-Hossein Mousavi has become a hero of the Iranian opposition – rather unexpectedly, given his previous political record. Rudolph Chimelli has the details

Mir Hossein Mousavi has become a hero of the Iranian opposition – rather unexpectedly, given his previous political record. Rudolph Chimelli has the details

Mir Hussein Mousavi (photo: AP)
A beacon of hope for the green protest movement in Iran: the presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi

​​ When this man calls to protest, the masses take to the street – hoping he can lead the way to a better future. Mir Hossein Mousavi spurs people on and placates them, gives people courage and calls for calm.

He's the man of the moment in Teheran right now. Yet he was also a key player in the early days of the Islamic Republic: one of very few people on first-name terms with the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. This can be a badge of honour, but also a burden.

When Mousavi announced his candidacy for the president's office in May, still shying away from publicity, he asked a friend what he thought of him in his campaign. "You're like an old, rusty runner, who will hopefully get back to form during the race," was the answer.

Mousavi had been in discussion as a presidential candidate on behalf of the radical wing of the establishment on two previous occasions, in 1989 in place of Hashemi Rafsanjani und in 1997, when Mohammed Khatami took a surprising victory. But he didn't want to enter the race back then. This time, he campaigned as a "reformer" – but there is nothing in his previous political life to indicate he is one.

Mir Hossein Mousavi had the great fortune that he was not in the Islamic Republican Party's Teheran headquarters on 28 June 1981, when a bomb planted by the opposition People's Mujaheddin went off there, killing 82 people.

"Our second revolution"

A week after the bombing he was appointed foreign minister at the tender age of 30, and only three months later he was Prime Minister. He remained in office throughout the eight-year war against Iraq. He had steered the Iranian economy through the difficult war years with some success, keeping prices fairly stable, avoiding shortages through strict rationing, and nationalising large parts of the private sector.

Iraqi attack on the Iranian port of Khorramshahr during the Iranian-Iraqi War in 1980 (photo: dpa)
Mousavi proved his strength as a political leader during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, steering the country's economy with relative success, writes Chimelli

​​ But by the end of his time in office, the dollar had risen from 700 to 4800 rial. And even today, liberal critics still point out the site where the old chamber of commerce once stood in Teheran. Mousavi had it demolished to make way for a home for war refugees. He praised the 1979 occupation of the American embassy by radical students as "our second revolution".

It was during Mousavi's time as foreign minister that relations to Saudi Arabia were severed, after Iranian pilgrims to Mecca had demonstrated at the holy sites. When the Goethe Institut in Teheran was closed down in 1987 in response to a tasteless German comedy programme showing Khomeini being presented with ladies' underwear, the prime minister saw the incident as a sign of West Germany's "racist and fascist" policy.

The later reformist president Khatami was minister of culture in Mousavi's cabinet. But his first interior minister was Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, a prominent advocate of exporting the revolution in the young Islamic Republic, later ambassador to Syria and the founder of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

Past not forgotten

The same two men are still standing by Mousavi in his battle to have the election declared null and void, and are symbolic of opposite undercurrents within his green wave. The millions of Iranians marching in support of the sudden hero Mousavi rarely ask after his political manifesto.

​​ Yet the past is not entirely forgotten. At an internal discussion between politicians and journalists during the election campaign, one woman asked about the thousands of innocent people executed in the 1980s: "Why?" She meant the mass killing of the People's Mujaheddin, for which Mousavi was not directly responsible but which he did not condemn as prime minister.

Mohammed Atrianfar, a close colleague of Mousavi then and now, answered on his behalf: "Friends, at the beginning of the revolution we were all like Ahmadinejad. But we have changed our path and our behaviour."

Today's Mousavi defines himself as a "realistic conservative". He had to take action, he has said, because he saw "the Islamic Republic in danger for the first time". His stated goals are stability, détente and dialogue with the West, first and foremost with the USA. And he has announced his willingness to discuss the Iranian nuclear programme "with full transparency".

Mousavi's revolutionary side

But just like the current president, he would not scrap the programme. "Nobody in Iran would accept that," he claims. In contrast to Ahmedinejad, however, he leaves no room for doubt that he recognises the Nazis' mass murder of the Jews as a historical fact and condemns the Holocaust.

Mir Hussein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard (photo: DW)
Zahra Rahnavard is the wife at Mousavi's side, a confident political scientist and artist with an exemplary career behind her, who takes a clear stand in political debates

​​Mousavi now favours a strong private economy for Iran, as he sees no chance of tackling unemployment through state investment. He wants to abolish the Islamic moral police, which spies on and harasses the Iranians.

In his position on women, Mousavi is more than a reformer – he is practically a revolutionary. He presents himself hand in hand with his wife Zahra Rahnavard, looking all the part of an American presidential candidate. No politician in post-revolutionary Iran has ever dared the like.

Two great opponents

Since the Shah and Empress Farah left the country in 1979, the wives of high-ranking men have remained more or less invisible. Zahra Rahnavard, meanwhile, had achieved a degree of career autonomy as chancellor of Al-Zahra University – until Ahmedinejad dismissed her in 2006 – that Mousavi wants to enable for all Iranian women. The couple have three children.

Pro-Mousavi demonstrator in Tehran (photo: AP)
The opposition has demanded a recount in the hope that Mousavi will introduce wide-reaching political reforms and bring change to the authoritarian system

​​Mousavi was born in 1941 in Khameneh, in the province of East Azerbaijan – the place from where the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei's family name is derived. The two great opponents are in fact distant relatives. Mousavi speaks fluent Azerbaijani Turkish, English and Arabic as well as Persian.

He studied architecture and urban planning at the University of Teheran. Those Iranians who consider titles important call him "Mohandes" (engineer), friends simply call him "Mir Hussein". Ahmedinejad, on the other hand, often stresses the fact that he has a doctorate.

Mousavi disappeared from the public eye when the office of prime minister was abolished in 1989. But he did not leave politics. He was an advisor to the two presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. And he is also a member of the Expediency Discernment Council, set up under Rafsanjani to solve conflicts between the organs of the state.

The council steps in for example, when the parliament, constitutional court and supreme leader fail to agree on legislation. Before Mousavi launched his bid for the presidency, the younger half of the Iranians had never registered him in this important but obscure role.

Wooden and correct

At his first public appearances he appeared wooden, correct and utterly lacking in charisma. But the electronic communication routes cleverly used by his aides have transformed him into a political star in a matter of weeks.

During his years of silence, Mousavi became president of the Iranian Academy of Islamic Art, founded in 1998. He is a respected architect and enjoys painting when he has the time. He is a particular lover of abstract art.

His wife too – who wore her hair uncovered and western clothing rather than the chador before the revolution – is an enthusiastic artist, creating wooden, metal and glass sculptures. And now they are working together on a new Iran.

Rudolph Chimelli

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2009

Rudolph Chimelli is one of Germany's most knowledgeable experts on Iran and the Middle East, and correspondent to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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