- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - Iran’s reformist leaders sought their bearings after a stunning shift of their presidential hopes: thrusting to the forefront an Islamic Revolution champion and amateur artist who has been on the political sidelines for almost 20 years.

Now they hope the new front-runner, Mir Hossein Mousavi, can deliver what former President Mohammad Khatami promised as he bowed out of the race Monday _ a better shot at unseating hard-liners in June’s election by challenging them with a candidate who was once considered one of their own.

In his first comment since Khatami’s withdrawal, Mousavi tried to define himself as capable of straddling Islamic values and the openness to liberalize Iran’s political and social systems.

“Like you, I believe the correct path is reforms that return to (Islamic) principles but refine them,” Mousavi said Tuesday in a message to Khatami. A copy of Mousavi’s statement was made available to The Associated Press.

His remarks could reflect an effort to give reforms a more Islamic hue in an effort to bridge the gap between reformists and the clerics who rule Iran.

Hard-liners fear reformists want to undercut Iran’s theocratic rule, which gives Supreme Leader Ayotallah Ali Khamenei ultimate political control and puts the voices of hand-picked clerics over those of elected officials.

“Mousavi is seeking to win the support of both reformers and moderate conservatives,” said Tehran-based political analyst Hedayat Aghaei.

But to many of Iran’s more than 46 million eligible voters _ and others watching the race for the June 12 election from abroad _ the 67-year-old Mousavi remains an enigmatic figure.

He was firmly part of the political inner circle after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, serving as editor of Jomhuri Eslami, which was the state newspaper at the time. He then was prime minister from 1981-89 _ spanning nearly the entire eight-year war with Iraq that left an estimated 1 million dead and plunged Iran into a crippling economic crisis.

There were early hints, however, that he chafed against the system even as he was hailed as a revolutionary patriot.

He clashed with Khamenei _ then Iran’s president _ over political authority and powers. The prime minister post was eliminated after Mousavi’s term.

Since leaving office, he has generally stayed in the background in advisory roles and as a member of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the parliament and the non-elected Guardian Council, which is directly influenced by the supreme leader.

The reformists hope Mousavi’s revolutionary credentials will siphon votes away from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose popularity has suffered as Iran’s oil-dependent economy slumps.

Mousavi has slowly began to stake out positions that try to contrast his professorial style with Ahmadinejad’s bombast, such as his anti-Western rhetoric and fiery support of Islamic causes. In a speech at Tehran University earlier this month, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of talking about dignity of Palestinians but ignoring the well-being of Iranians who supported him.

While Mousavi is expected to follow Khatami’s policy of easing tensions with the West, there may not be much maneuvering room on Iran-U.S. ties despite possible overtures from President Barack Obama. Khamenei _ his old adversary from the 1980s _ has the final say in all critical state matters such as talks with Washington.

“To hard-liners, Mousavi is a more acceptable version of Khatami. And to reformists, Mousavi is a moderate who won’t seek profound changes,” said Hasan Vazini, a political commentator at the conservative Tehran-e-Emrooz newspaper.

But others believe that this type of middle ground approach will do little to shake Iran’s establishment.

“(Mousavi) is Ahmadinejad without the invective or anger,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He does not appear to be a bold reformer.”

This, however, appears to be what Khatami and his allies are banking on.

Khatami said he was leaving the race to avoid splitting the reformist movement. He also praised Mousavi, saying he had the necessary qualifications to defeat Ahmadinejad. This is widely interpreted as meaning Mousavi may be able to attract moderate conservatives who may abandon the firebrand Ahmadinejad.

Political analyst Vazini said that “with Khatami out of the race, conservatives are not so likely anymore to support Ahmadinejad as their sole candidate.”

The Islamic Iran Participation Front, the country’s largest reformist party, quickly threw its support behind Mousavi, a trained architect who is known as an accomplished amateur painter.

The other reformist candidate remaining in the race, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, has not said whether he will withdraw in Mousavi’s favor. Earlier, he has said he would remain in the race regardless of the competition.

___

Associated Press Writer Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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