Rev­o­lu­tion­ary turns un­likely hero in Iran

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY IASON ATHANASIADIS

TEHRAN | 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 on June 12 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 June 16 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 Mah- moud 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 IranIraq 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 blue- prints 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 June 16 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 June 15. “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 June 15 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 last week 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. Iason Athanasiadis re­ported from Tehran in part with a grant from the Pulitzer Cen­ter for Cri­sis Re­port­ing.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mir Hos­sein Mousavi now ad­vo­cates less con­fronta­tion with the West.

GETTY IM­AGES

Sup­port­ers of de­feated pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mir Hos­sein Mousavi set fires in the streets of Tehran on June 16 as demon­stra­tions raged over what pro­test­ers called elec­tion fraud.

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