Who Is Mir Hossein Mousavi?

After a long absence, Mir Hossein Mousavi has re-emerged on the public scene. He is the most unlikely revolutionary leader imaginable.

Mousavi, 68, is best known for holding the premiership between 1981 and 1989, a period of time punctuated by the Iran-Iraq War. After his resignation in 1989, the position of the prime minister was abolished altogether, and Mousavi vanished from the public eye.

For many Iranians, his 20-year hiatus from politics imbues him with mystical qualities of men of God who abandon political power for the sake of higher spiritual goals. Claims that Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, favored him and that he is allegedly descended from the Prophet Muhammad reinforce the image. Meanwhile, Western diplomats and more educated Iranians appreciate his soft-spoken eloquence and general dignity, which stand in sharp contrast to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boorishness.

Perhaps most vital to Mousavi's future is the tension between his own self-image and the demands of his supporters.

Mousavi also benefited from some timely endorsements that helped unify his reformist camp against the Principalists. Former president Mohammad Khatami's endorsement helped Mousavi tap into a network of volunteers and managers who secured Khatami's two consecutive landslide victories.

And former president (and now Ayatollah) Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's endorsement helped Mousavi's campaign coffers, even if Rafsanjani's support for his old party comrade from the Islamic Republican Party, effectively the Islamic Republic's single party until it was disbanded in 1987, arose out of fear of Ahmadinejad rather than affection for Mousavi.

The two men have starkly different views on the economy, for instance. Rafsanjani has called for economic liberalization, while Mousavi's state-centered economic development policy and nationalization of private enterprises and introduction of ration cards during the war earned him the name "the Coupon Prime Minister."

Mousavi's strengths are also potential vulnerabilities. Though he is favored by Khomeini, he is disliked by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So strong was Khamenei's antipathy for Mousavi that, according to Rafsanjani, Khamenei threatened to resign from the presidency up until Mousavi formed his second cabinet.

As a supporter of the private sector, Khamenei loathed Mousavi's leftist economic policies during the 1980s. And, given Mousavi's pious image, Khamenei may worry about his own religious legitimacy. Also the helping hand from the Rafsanjani clan to Mousavi's campaign has been and is likely to be used against him in the future as Ahmadinejad consistently tries to tie Mousavi to the alleged corruption of the Rafsanjanis.

Perhaps most vital to Mousavi's future, however, is the tension between his own self-image and the demands of his supporters. Although Mousavi views himself as but a cautious reformer--Khatami minus 10%--his supporters are demanding that he act like a revolutionary; an Iranian Alexander Dubcek, for example. Interestingly, this is also how some media outlets portray Mousavi.

The implications of depicting Mousavi as a staunch activist could prove grave--since they can only intensify Khamenei's paranoid belief that Mousavi, the unlikely radical, might become an agent of velvet revolution.

Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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