For 20 years, Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi was mentioned as the “dark horse” in successive Iranian presidential elections.
In 1989, he was expected to enter the race to prevent Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani from becoming president. He didn’t.
Eight years later there was some buzz about his candidacy among those who expected him to represent the radical faction of the establishment. Again, he decided to remain at the ringside, giving tacit support to Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah who went on to become president for two terms.
Last winter, when Mussavi’s name began circulating as a possible challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, few believed he would actually throw his hat into the ring.
This month, Mussavi surprised many by doing precisely that.
This time, however, he is presented as the standard-bearer of the “reformist” faction. Khatami who had announced his own candidacy has since decided to step aside in favour of Mussavi. There is also talk of Mahdi Karrubi, another mullah and a candidate, to endorse Mussavi.
Thus, the stage seems set for Ahmadinejad’s opponents on the so-called “moderate” wing of the regime to challenge him with a single candidate.
Who is Mussavi, or Mir-Hussein as his friends prefer to call him?
Born into an Azerbaijani family 68 years ago, Mir Hussein grew up in Tehran where he obtained a master’s degree in interior decorating, hence his title of “muhhandess” or “engineer”. (Khomeinists attach great importance to titles. Ahmadinejad seldom forgets to mention that he is a Doktor, that is the holder of a Ph.D.)
Mussavi’s family hails from Khameneh, the same village that also produced the family of Ayatollah Ali Husseini Khamenehi, the current “Supreme Guide”. Mir-Hussein’s family claim descent from Mussa bin Jaafar, the seventh imam of duodecimal Shi’ism. Based on that claim, Mussavi at times uses the title of “sayyed” (sir), to underline his noble Arab descent.
A painter and calligrapher, Mussavi has been President of the Islamic Academy of Art since 1990.
After a brief flirtation with Marxism in the 1960s, Mussavi joined one of thousands of educated middle class Iranians who believed that only Islam could unite the people in a bid to destroy Iran’s ancient monarchic system. The radical mullahs who pulled the strings used these middle class allies to reassure urban Iran that regime change would not mean rule by the clergy.
Mussavi’s rise within the new regime was meteoric.
In 1980, he became Foreign Minister, a position he used to accelerate the new regime’s move towards militant anti-West postures.
In 1981, he became Prime Minister, a post he held for almost eight years.
Mussavi’s tenure as Premier coincided with the Iran-Iraq war during which he introduced rationing and austerity that hit the poor the hardest.
His critics accused him of pursuing an economic policy modeled on North Korea’s juchi (self-reliance) doctrine, and blamed him for the dramatic fall in Iranian living standards.
During his tenure, the value of the rial, Iran’s currency relative to the US dollar, fell from 70 to one to 480 to one.
Mussavi’s North Korean style economics angered many mullahs, including Rafsanjani, who favoured a free market system that would enable them to make money.
Throughout his premiership, Mussavi was engaged in political warfare against Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Islamic Assembly, Iran’s ersatz parliament, and top advisor to Khomeini. The fight with Rafsanjani and other right-wing mullahs, pushed Mussavi closer to Marxist groups, including the pro-Soviet Communist Tudeh (Masses) Party. At the same time, Mussavi maintained ties with Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, then designated as Khomeini’s political heir.
The duel between Mussavi and Rafsanjani reached its peak when both opened secret channels to Washington in the hope of enlisting American support for their rival bids for power.
According to US Congressional investigation reports, Rafsanjani used Qorban-Ali Dorri Najaf-abadi, a junior mullah at the time, as initial contact with the Americans. Later, Rafsanjani sent his own son Mahdi to Washington. There. Mahdi visited the White House and promised to restore Iran’s pre-revolution close alliance with the US.
Mussavi’s contact man with the Americans was his deputy, Abbas Kangarloo, who used Manuchehr Qorbanifar, an Iranian businessman in Paris, and George Cave, a CIA Iran expert, as channels to Washington.
At some point in 1985, the Reagan administration decided that the Rafsanjani faction was potentially the more powerful, and shut the channel with Mussavi. That prompted Mussavi to expose the operation through a Lebanese magazine financed by his government.
The result was the “Irangate” scandal and the shutting down of all channels between Tehran and Washington.
The episode enraged Rafanjani.
He first moved against Montazeri and managed to oust him as Khomeini’s “heir-apparent” 18 months later.
Rafsanjani’s efforts to oust Mussavi failed because the latter continued to enjoy Khomeini’s confidence. However, once Khomeini was dead, Rafsanjani engineered a constitutional amendment that abolished the post of prime minister, leaving Mussavi out in the cold.
In one of those ironies of history, Rafsanjani now supports Mussavi as the lesser of two evils when compared to Ahmadinejad.
After a silence of almost 20 years, no one knows what Mussavi’s politics is today. Is he the North-Korean style firebrand he was as prime minister? Or has he matured into an elder statesmen with moderate views?
No one knows. Perhaps, not even himself.
His few statements since he announced his candidacy are marked by generalities, double-talk and slogans that could be interpreted any which way. He has said almost nothing on foreign policy. But the fact that he has not repeated the regime’s standard anti-American clichés may be a sign that he rejects Ahmadinejad’s policy of confrontation. His friends describe him as “reformist”, although he has given no hint of what he intends to reform.
Some had suggested that he might try to restore the authority of the state over the revolution by abolishing the position or, at least, reducing the powers of the “Supreme Guide”. However, he has praised the principle of “supreme-guardianship” in a “taqiyyah” style discourse, making it impossible to gauge his position.
Ahmadinejad should be happy to have Mir-Hussein as adversary.
Most Iranians do not remember Mussavi. Some 25 million of them were not even born when he was prime minister. Mussavi’s double-talk stands in contrast with Ahmadinejad’s straight talk that his supporters cite as a sign of his sincerity.
It is , of course, too early to dismiss Mussavi’s bid for power.
Many things could happen before 12 June.
At this moment, however, Mir-Hussein’s chances of ousting Ahmadinejad appear slim.
* Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution” has just been published by Encounter Books, New York and London.