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The Three Lives of Moussavi

Iran Iran
Sara Daniel writes of Mir Hossein Moussavi, "Little by little, lifted by the human tide of his supporters who refused to leave the streets after the announcement of the results, he has changed. Now, he says: 'I have grown.'" (Photo: AFP /Behrouz Mehri).

Pillar of the revolution, then a technocrat for the Islamic Republic, he has become the hero of the reform camp. Opposite a regime at bay, the former Iranian prime minister claims he's ready for martyrdom.

He loves the Ayatollah Khomeini and the poetry of Garcia Lorca. Even during these times of extreme tension, each time Mir Hossein Moussavi brings his team members together - those who aren't yet in prison - he always begins by reading a poem. "Stay a true friend to your friends; use no violence towards your enemies ..." one of Moussavi's most fervent admirers, filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, recites from memory. The translation of these somewhat cloying verses doesn't temper the enthusiasm of an artist tortured for five years in the shah's jails and who would like to save his dear revolution: "Oh, if only our future president declaimed verses of poetry rather than diatribes about the Holocaust?" he dreams out loud.

The standard bearer for the "green revolution" is a discreet intellectual. Who searches for the words he finally murmurs. Who has hang-ups about a physique he deems a little unattractive. And who has long been suspected of running for the presidency a little bit accidentally. Wasn't it his wife, the couple's strong personality, who put him up to it? Or maybe even the Supreme Guide himself, judging that his charisma deficit and elocutionary shortcomings would leave him no chance opposite populist tribune Ahmadinejad?

The Gandhi of the "Dirt"

All that already belongs to the past. Mir Hossein Moussavi is no longer that timid and maladroit orator who seemed rather relieved when a defective sound system prevented him from pronouncing an electoral speech. Little by little, lifted by the human tide of his supporters who refused to leave the streets after the announcement of the results, he has changed. Now, he says: "I have grown." And it's true that one hardly recognizes him, so much has he become identified with this massive protest that has surprised the whole world. He is one with the crowd. He promised demonstrators to stay by their sides whatever happens. He now shares their fate. He is instilling them with his determination and also his prudence, even if it means bridling their impatience. And he's feeding on these neophytes' enthusiasm, drunk on a freedom they're ready to snatch at the peril of their lives. He has also taught them how to turn the regime's own breviary against it. They chant: "God is great," and people understand: "Down with the Guide!"

Modest, Moussavi acknowledges the path he has covered: "I'm nothing but a simple militant.... It's you who have made me aware of my responsibilities," admits the former apparatchik, who at the beginning of his campaign preached only timid reforms. How can anyone be surprised that he aroused so little enthusiasm at first? On the eve of the election, when they chanted his name in front of foreign journalists, his supporters were almost apologetic: "He's our own itty-bitty Obama! We didn't really have a choice." And every time, this anxiety came through: what if he gave up? "Where are you, Moussavi? Give us a sign; we're ready to die for you!" pleaded a young girl the day the results were announced. "He must be under his covers, terrified by this movement that's outstripping him," doubted one student who felt quite alone opposite the hordes of armed motorcycle police ready to charge even then. But no, Moussavi refined his discourse, with that concern for precision that character izes him. "Article 27 of the Constitution authorizes peaceful assembly. The duty of the police is to protect the demonstrators, not charge at them ..." he said after the violence that bloodied last Saturday. Today, Moussavi declares himself ready for martyrdom. Have those whom President Ahmadinejad described as "dirt" found their Gandhi?

The first time that Ahmad Salamatian, ex-secretary of state for foreign affairs for Iran and an MP from Ispahan, heard people talk about the "Moussavi couple," it was before the revolution. At the fine arts school where the Moussavis met, the young woman did not wear the veil, but went lightly clad. It was a photo from those years that Ahmadinejad threatened to show during the televised debate against his opponent. Bad idea: Iranians don't appreciate that kind of coarse attack. At the time, influenced by the thought of sociology of religions professor Ali Shariati, a figure in the opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy, the Moussavis belonged to a school of thought that demanded a classless society, the end of Western domination and a revolutionary nationalism close to Third World national liberation movements. At that time, people talked mostly about Moussavi's wife: Mir Hossein was only the husband of the future Iranian revolution's Joan of Arc. Zorah Kazemi, a daughter of the bourgeoisie, the daughter of a colonel, sister to a television anchorwoman, wrote scathing dissenting attacks, like this best-seller that circulated underground: "The Veil: My Weapon." A little book with feminist emphasis, in spite of its title, that professes a Shi'ite Islam political orientation, colored by Marxism. To escape the Shah's police, the spouses chose pseudonyms: Zorah opted for "Ranavard" (the sprinter), and Moussavi for "Rahro" (the long-distance runner). A revealing choice, according to Salamatian: "Moussavi is a marathon runner. It's his endurance that will win points in the test of strength he's begun against the regime."

Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf remembers how, from prison, he passionately followed the couple's ascension and Zorah's provocations: "We expected she'd be locked up too." In fact, only Mir Hossein would spend a year in prison on account of his distant relations with the Palestine Group, an organization more concerned with learning about weapons handling than with supporting the Palestinian cause. Today, Moussavi still does not recognize Israel, but he denounces Ahmadinejad's statements denying the Holocaust.

During the revolution, Moussavi was singled out by Ayatollah Beheshti, a progressive intellectual who entrusted him with the post of editor-in-chief of the Islamic Republic Party's newspaper - the party which the present Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, leads. Within the editorial department, the two men did not get along: it was the beginning of an animosity and struggle for power that still go on. After the revolution, when his sole protector, Ayatollah Beheshti, was assassinated in 1981, Moussavi placed himself under the protection of Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the Guide. When he became president of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei tried to name his protégé, Ali Akbar Velayati, as prime minister, but Parliament imposed Moussavi on him.

So began eight years of difficult cohabitation. The two men agreed on nothing; neither on the economy: Moussavi is an interventionist socialist, a technocrat who busied himself with softening the economic impacts of the war against Iraq on the underprivileged classes; nor, most particularly, on the competencies of the president: which would be reduced little by little to those of a ceremonial figurehead during the revolutionary festivities. "They stole my presidency," Ali Khamenei declared. The Hodjatoleslam maintained such a searing memory of those years that one of his first decisions, when he became Supreme Guide, was to eliminate the post of prime minister in 1988. That decision occasioned a very violent sparring match between the two men. Moussavi accused the Guide of wanting to muzzle Parliament and of dragging the country towards a dictatorship. Already.

Resonating All the Way to Qom

So Moussavi began a stretch in the political wilderness that would last twenty years. The architect returned to his abstract paintings inspired by Mondrian and renovated the family home built by his father, a bazaar merchant. He also became the cultural adviser for the reforming President Khatami, then for Rafsanjani, considered one of his principal godfathers today. A curious pairing. Between the billionaire mullah and the modest architect who didn't even take advantage of his time in power to acquire himself a house, there's not much in common. Apart from the same enemies, which will bring people together. Since the beginning of the revolt, Rafsanjani has made the rounds of the mullahs of Qom, Iran's ideological capital, to rally them to the fight for Moussavi. Thus, he would have been received by the representative of Ali Sistani, the Iraqi ayatollah of Nadjaf, one of the clerics most respected in Iran, who preaches quietism, the separation of religion and political matters.

Is Moussavi really a moderate? Isn't he first of all a nationalist concerned with his country's highest interests? "The West mistrusts Moussavi somewhat because he concluded the secret agreements with father of the Pakistani bomb A.Q. Khan's network to clandestinely acquire uranium enrichment technology. He also declared that his position on the nuclear issue was not so different from Ahmadinejad's," one diplomat observes. "However, Mir Hossein wants to change the country's extremist image. And he's the only politician who has defied the Supreme Guide, challenged today all the way up to and including his religious qualifications." Up until now, Moussavi has satisfied himself with demanding a new, free and transparent election. A demand that resonates all the way to Qom. Since the beginning of the revolt, the forbidden book of Ayatollah Hairi, "Wisdom and Government," has been circulating the seminaries again. This "Kant of Islam," who demands that the Koran be read in the lig ht of reason, deems that even the Prophet himself wouldn't have any right to govern unless that right had been granted to him by the people. And what if, in Iran, Allah had changed sides?

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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