'Reformer' is relative for Iranian election challenger

McClatchy NewspapersJune 11, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — Mir Hossein Mousavi, who's mounting a credible bid to make Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the first incumbent unseated since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, has been billed in much of the Western press and even in Iran as a reformer.

That's true up to a point, according to Mousavi's own advisers, his fervent supporters, rival campaigns and independent analysts interviewed this week.

With a milestone presidential election set for Friday, Mousavi remains something of a cipher, at least to Western eyes.

He's advocated repairing relations with the U.S., but cautiously.

He and his advisers promise free-market economic reforms, but as prime minister during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Mousavi introduced a command-style economy and government subsidies.

He's shredded tradition by campaigning with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a professor, but when it comes to pushing social freedoms and human rights, he takes a backseat to the most liberal candidate in the race, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

He may be a "reformer" compared to Ahmadinejad, but on Iran's limited political spectrum, "moderate" or "moderate-conservative" might be more accurate.

"Mr. Mousavi himself, he doesn't claim to be a reformer," said a top Karroubi aide, Elyas Hazrati, who's a newspaper editor and a former member of parliament.

"He is a moderate. He tried to show himself in the debates and in propaganda that he is a moderate and is someone who can bring together all of the factions of the Islamic republic," said Mohsen Sazegara, a prominent Iranian politician who served as deputy prime minister when Mousavi was prime minister. "He is not a liberal at all and he would definitely deny that. He is a moderate revolutionary." Sazegara now teaches at Harvard.

An architect by training, and a less-than-inspiring stump speaker, Mousavi owes his support in part from one inalienable fact: He's not Ahmadinejad.

The elections Friday will be watched closely in the U.S. for clues about whether Iran is ready to abandon the confrontational policies of Ahmadinejad's last four years and respond to President Barack Obama's call for dialogue.

Mousavi is prepared to ease tensions, said Mohammad Atrianfar, a prominent adviser, in an interview Thursday.

"We should decrease our tensions with the West. We should stop the (U.S.-led) sanctions" and defuse the dispute over Iran's suspected nuclear program, Atrianfar said. "We should respond to the positive message of Mr. Barack Obama."

Atrianfar acknowledged, however, that the differences between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad aren't black-and-white. The final say on security matters, in any case, is up to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

"There are some differences. But the macro policies belong to the supreme leader," Atrianfar said.

There's even a view here, usually expressed privately, that when it comes to repairing relations with the U.S., former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaie, who's also running, or Ahmadinejad himself could move more quickly, because of their hard-line credentials — much as Richard Nixon went to China and Ronald Reagan made arms control deals with the Soviet Union.

With no reliable opinion polls, and the sentiments of Ahmadinejad's rural and working-class base uncertain, the election's outcome is difficult to predict. If no candidate gets a majority of ballots, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held June 19.

His gray-haired, gray-bearded visage plastered on surfaces across Tehran, Mousavi, 67, has mobilized a broad coalition, dominated by students whose loud, joyous rallies have been unheard in the Islamic Republic's three decades. But it also includes middle class voters, government employees and even war veterans and their families.

Iran's economy, hobbled by mismanagement, sanctions and a bloated government sector, is Topic A in the election, not foreign affairs. What Mousavi would do in office is something of a mystery.

Saeed Laylaz, a prominent economic analyst here and another Mousavi adviser, said his candidate is committed to privatization. "Mr. Mousavi will try to reduce the share and expense of the government, to make more space for the private sector," Laylaz said.

Sazegara predicted that Mousavi, despite his enormous popularity, wouldn't confront Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader. "There are some policies that the leader dictates. For instance, in foreign policy, it's the leader who dictates. And on the nuclear issue, it is the leader who oversees that policy. I don't see in his background that he can rise up against all of these injustices and unhumanitarian decisions of the leader over all of these years."

Mousavi generally gets high marks for his management of Iran's economy during the grim years following Iraq's 1980 invasion. With strong backing from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the founder of Iran's revolution, Mousavi asserted governmental control of key economic sectors and introduced a system of subsidies for basic foodstuffs that's still partially in use today.

It was a necessary step to prevent Iran from collapse, said Rocky Ansari, a managing partner in Cyrus Omron International, which advises foreign clients on investment in Iran.

"I would say he has changed quite considerably now," Ansari said, explaining that Mousavi and his peers were young, leftist university students when they participated in the 1979 revolution, but have since moved mainstream.

Still, he said, whichever candidate wins will have to enact protectionist trade measures to save Iran's industries, which have been decimated by a flood of foreign imports purchased with oil money from the now-gone boom years.

(Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)

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