- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chances of dislodging Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may rest with a former hard-line prime minister who lacks charisma but vows to soften Iran’s extremist image.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, who is running for president in the June 12 election, is the “Bob Dole” of Iranian politics, said Karim Sadjadpour, a specialist on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was referring to the former senator from Kansas and unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1996 who, Mr. Sadjadpour said, was “generally well regarded but not very inspiring.”

Mr. Mousavi, who served as Iran’s prime minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, was seen as a good manager of the Iranian economy during one of the country’s most difficult periods. His post was eliminated in 1989 in a constitutional shake-up, and he has been largely absent from the Iranian political scene for the past 20 years. However, his timing in running now may be good.

Many Iranians appear disenchanted with both the ineffectual reformism of Mohammed Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, and the economic mismanagement and harsh rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Mousavi, considered a hard-liner a decade ago, now looks like a reformer in comparison with the incumbent president and has appeal to both the reformist and hard-line camps.

“We need a pragmatic reformist. Khatami was an idealist,” Ehsan Saeedi, 22, an artist serving his mandatory 18-month military service, told The Washington Times by phone from Tehran.

Mr. Khatami said he would run but pulled out after Mr. Mousavi entered the race last month. Another reformist, Mehdi Karroubi, is also running and there could be further additions before a final slate is certified next month.

Under the Iranian system, a cleric - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - has the final say on key policies, especially in foreign affairs and defense. A clerical Council of Guardians reviews candidates for elected office, eliminating anyone who opposes Iran’s form of government. However, the president has considerable influence on domestic affairs and on the tone and substance of Iran’s relationship with the outside world.

In his first news conference earlier this month, Mr. Mousavi criticized as “not well thought out” Mr. Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, which have consisted largely of handouts to the poor and have increased inflation without creating jobs.

Mr. Mousavi also expressed concern about the harm Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust have done to Iran’s international image. At a U.N. racism conference in Geneva, Mr. Ahmadinejad triggered a walkout by Western nations this week with his criticism of Israel.

“Extremism has damaged us greatly,” Mr. Mousavi said. “We have to actively work to earn trust at the international level.”

In an interview last week with the Financial Times, Mr. Mousavi said he would not give up Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but pledged confidence-building measures to show that Iran will not divert the program to build weapons.

“Progress in nuclear technology and its peaceful use is the right of all countries and nations,” he told the paper. “This is what we have painfully achieved with our own efforts. No one will retreat. But we have to see what solutions, or in other words, what guarantees can be found to verify the non-diversion of the program into nuclear weapons.”

A fervent revolutionary in his youth, Mr. Mousavi helped found the Islamic Republican Party, the ruling party for several years after the 1979 revolution. He served as editor-in-chief of the Islamic Republic newspaper, the party’s primary mouthpiece.

Mr. Mousavi also burnished his radical credentials by briefly serving as foreign minister during the hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. In that post and later as prime minister, he favored the redistribution of wealth and the nationalization of industry, and he opposed contact with the West. Facing extreme deprivation and rising casualties due to the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Mousavi implemented a socialist-style, coupon-based ration system that helped keep the economy afloat.

While that earned him respect at the time, it is not clear whether his populist record will help him now because it seems similar to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies that have led to 26 percent inflation and 30 percent unemployment.

However, Mr. Mousavi’s economic views appear to have evolved. He told the Financial Times: “We need the private sector to help resolve unemployment. There is no bright prospect to deal with such problems through government investments.”

Also unclear is the relationship between Mr. Mousavi and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The two clashed during the 1980s when Ayatollah Khamenei signed off on the elimination of the prime minister post.

A retired Iranian diplomat, who spoke on the condition he not be named to avoid offending the leader, said he believes the relationship has improved.

“Ayatollah Khamenei is in a difference place now and his differences with Mr. Mousavi are no longer to the degree it was before,” the diplomat said.

After the elimination of the office of prime minister, Mr. Mousavi headed the Iranian Academy of Arts, focused on his career as an architect and pursued his hobby of painting.

Mr. Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, both worked as senior advisers to the Khatami administration on cultural affairs. The first Iranian woman appointed as a chancellor of a university after the revolution, Mrs. Rahnavard was removed from the post at the all-female, state-run, al-Zahra University by the Ahmadinejad administration.

Iranian analysts say Mr. Mousavi might appeal to urban dwellers while Mr. Ahmadinejad will do well in small towns and villages, which have benefited from government largess.

Iran’s state-run media are focusing on Mr. Ahmadinejad, making it difficult for Mr. Mousavi to get national attention. The president has also been trying to steal the reformist’s thunder by advocating talks with the United States and appearing to question the conviction of an Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, on what the U.S. says are bogus spying charges.

A key question is whether Mr. Mousavi will appeal to Iran’s youth, who represent more than two thirds of the population and about half the electorate. Iran is no longer the revolutionary state of the 1980s. Young men who sport beards now emulate actor George Clooney in the movie “Syriana” rather than Muslim prophets. Young women flirt over coffee with their boyfriends, attend underground parties and push the limits of Iran’s modest dress code, all the while ignoring revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s proclamation that “there is no fun in Islam.”

Bijan Khajehpour, an economic consultant in Tehran, said Iran’s showing in two World Cup qualifying matches just before the election might determine the youth vote. If Iran loses, Mr. Khajehpour said, Mr. Ahmadinejad may be blamed. If Iran wins, “the mood will shift” in favor of the incumbent, he said.

Carnegie’s Mr. Sadjadpour said another critical factor will be the attitude of Ayatollah Khamenei. If the leader wants to mobilize the regime’s base - members of the Revolutionary Guards and the popular militia known as the Basij - he can tip support to the incumbent or to a rival, including several religious conservatives who are contemplating entering the race.

Since the revolution, most Iranian presidents have served two terms, so a rejection of Mr. Ahmadinejad would be unusual.

“The president of Iran has to be trusted by the supreme leader,” Mr. Sadjadpour said. “Khatami could work with the U.S., but was not trusted by the leader. Ahmadinejad has the leader’s trust but can’t work with the U.S. Mousavi potentially checks both boxes. He won’t call [as Khatami did] for a ‘dialogue of civilizations,’ but he won’t deny the Holocaust.”

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