Mousavi revives reformist vote
Candidate for Iranian presidency says he will plot new course with the West if he wins.
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2009 08:28 GMT

Mousavi, right, has campaigned on a reformist platform with his wife at his side [AFP]

If Iran is indeed "a messianic, apocalyptic cult", as Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, recently claimed, its government needs to seriously improve its brainwashing techniques.

Riding through Tehran with reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the small hours of Tuesday morning, through tens of thousands of his jubilant and apparently rational supporters, I found it impossible to see any evidence of the "country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation" that Netanyahu so fears.

For mile after mile people chased the bus - on foot, by car, perched in twos and threes on the back of motorcycles; the only suicidal inclination on display was the apparent willingness to be crushed by the bus as they pressed to get a glimpse of their hero, waving through the window.

"This is a little similar to the first days after the victory of the revolution, the way people expressed their feelings [then]", Mousavi told me when we finally got a chance to speak on Thursday morning.

A post-revolutionary feeling, he added quickly, one of celebration more than uprising. Any suggestion of revolution here, in the wrong context, can and does elicit grim warnings.

Ahmadinejad support

There has been no shortage of emotion and jubilation among the supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, either.

At Tehran's huge Mosala prayer complex this week, and at every one of Ahmadinejad's rallies nationwide, tens of thousands of people, including a large proportion of conservative women, demonstrate a fervour easily equal to that of the reformers.

Iran election 2009

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 Meet the candidates
 A female voter's perspective
 Mass rallies before vote
 Iranian media on elections

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 Voters go to the polls
 Exclusive Mousavi interview Iran's powerful charities
 High-tech campaigning
 Iran season
 Candidates court youth

To counter Mousavi's green motif, the Ahmadinejad supporters have taken ownership of the Iranian flag, and they engage heartily in the battle of rhyming couplets that has characterised this election (the Ahmadinejad supporters' favourite chant mocks Mousavi's tendency to say "chiz", an all-purpose figure of speech, equivalent to "like" in English. The Mousavi supporters sing "Mousavi, take back our flag.")

If Mousavi's campaign has attracted the most attention, it's for the way it has revived a reformist tendency in Iranian politics that many feared had been extinguished.

The last reformist president, Mohamed Khatami, swept into power on a wave of support even greater than what is on display this year, but two terms of unfulfilled promises and bitter battles with the conservatives yielded little meaningful change, Then came the shock election of Ahmadinejad.

It had seemed as if the emotional nosedive from the highs of 1997 had been violent enough to rule out any chance of beating the hardliners. Until now.

"What I've seen on the streets of Tehran is visible in the rest of the country," says Mousavi.

"There's a sense of identity, and a bravery to express a desire for change. What I have done is provide a focal point for people's dissatisfaction."

Mousavi is in many ways an unlikely champion of this crowd. His history as a revolutionary led to his election as the Islamic Republic's first prime minister, and his talk of exporting the revolution to the rest of the Middle East gave no hints of any reformist leanings.

But 20 years out of the political fray, during which time he built a career as an architect and occasional painter, appears to have mellowed the ideologue in him.

"The conditions in this country have changed," he says. "The revolution has changed. There were specific conditions at the beginning of the revolution, particular motives and the motivation." It's time for Iran to understand that its place in the world is as a partner and a power, he says.

Arduous campaign

As we sat down in an extravagantly mirrored room in the Sabah Cultural Centre, Mousavi was exhausted. It has been a bruising campaign in many ways, and he had only arrived back in Tehran at 4am that morning after final rallies in the countryside.

His demeanour is that of a man not particularly given to the image building priorities of seasoned politicians. His candidacy, he says, and his return to the national stage, is based principally in a belief that the country is in grave danger, made even more real by the possibility of a second Ahmadinejad term.

He has accused the incumbent not only of mismanaging the economy but also of incipient dictatorship, an accusation that drew a fierce response from Ahmadinejad, who compared his opponents to Hitler.

Decisions, says Mousavi, are being made by personalities according to vested interests, and in contravention of clear laws in many instances. 

Money is being spent without oversight, determined by political priorities, not economic, he says.

A great deal of the support for Mousavi is among younger voters [AFP]
But if these are Mousavi's main concerns, they are not the issues that have ignited his candidacy and propelled him from outsider to serious contender.

Taking his wife on the campaign trail, using the social networking website Facebook and mobile phones to mitigate his relative lack of access to media exposure, and the support of the country's foremost reformist, Mohamed Khatami, have all helped.

But what really seems to have struck a chord with the young, however vague its premise, is the promise of more freedom.

"I genuinely believe that where culture is concerned, cultural issues cannot have a prescriptive nature, you cannot clamp down on cultural activities ... and police should not clamp down and interfere with the private lives of people," he says.

"The more we can reduce the presence of cultural police, and go back to our cultural values of dialogue, we'll have more success. This is going to be a permanent policy."

For young people in Iran, opportunities to mingle and interact are few. Taking to the streets at night in their cars, or gathering at the few public spaces that exist, keeps them in direct sight of those who would frown upon the exuberance of youth, and compromises their behaviour.

Even cyberspace offers nothing but the illusion of privacy. It's the hope of escaping that kind of scrutiny that has seen the streets swarming with excited youth, and shops selling out of any clothes, fabric or accessories in the colour green.

The international perspective

On the day before the election, an editorial in the Iran Daily darkly accused "foreign satellite media" of giving a distorted vision of Iran. It's a common complaint.

At Ahmadinejad rallies in particular, the most common question addressed to me has been "are you going to tell the truth?" Sometimes they don't even ask, they just assume you're not going to report the facts.

This fractious relationship with the rest of the world could end up being the most important element of this election.

With Barack Obama, the US president, already re-defining the rules of engagement, Iran's next president, whoever it is, will be judged on how he negotiates the ground between Israel's military threat and Obama's offer of, well, something a little less aggressive.

Mousavi's comments on this reveal as much about Ahmadinejad as they do about his own thinking. As far as Mousavi is concerned, a new relationship with the US has already begun, and it is his rival that initiated it. For all of Ahmadinejad's measured talk of US-Iran relations, and continuing forays into the fringe of international diplomatic norms, Mousavi's comments suggest that Ahmadinejad has changed his position.

Ahmadinejad has already tried to forge links between Iran and the US, his rival says [AFP]
"We reached a point where talks have already begun, officially or unofficially," Mousavi says. "There was the letter from our president. Although it wasn't answered it shows that the taboo in this country about talking to America has been broken."

Naturally, even a more accommodating Ahmadinejad looks likely to be a far different proposition to a President Mousavi, but as the challenger told me in calm and deliberate tones, the West need not hold its breath on the nuclear issue.

There will be no freeze and no halt to enrichment whatever inducements the US puts on the table. Enrichment to weapons grade uranium is on the table, he says.

But at the same time he confirms that his position on nuclear arms conforms with that of the supreme leader's - that weapons of mass destruction are "haram" (forbidden).

"Building nuclear weapons is out of the question," Mousavi tells me.

But no quarter will be given in the question of relations with Israel, nor will support be cut for Iran's allies in the region. Backing of Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah is a mater of morality and self interest, he says, but this should not be interpreted as a signal of aggressive intent or a desire or confrontation.

"It's more related to our religious beliefs and the norms of the Arab world, than of spreading our revolution," he says.

His views on the best way forward are close to those of the incumbent president; all the solutions to the question of Palestinian rights will fail until all the residents of the region, regardless of ethnicity or religion, are given the right to an equal vote on any plan.

He sums up foreign policy priorities in a Mousavi presidency: "Right now we believe that a powerful Iran can play a bigger international role by interacting with the rest of the world and building trust with them. This is what we are after."

Maybe the most intriguing question to ask is, whether he wins or not, has Mousavi's campaign actually managed to change perceptions of Iran already, both inside and outside the country?

As we rode the bus around Tehran on Tuesday night, it became increasingly apparent that the crowd was unlikely to allow the candidate to slip away.

As we all began to ponder our options, there was another example of how well-planned Mousavi's campaign has been.

Without warning, the bus skewed across the road, blocking all traffic. Within seconds, Mousavi was out of the bus and had hopped into a car that had drawn alongside.

And with that, the car screeched away into the night.

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