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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.
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
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
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
Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at AEI.
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