Mousavi's entrance to the presidential race could be a serious challenge to the reelection of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The sixty-eight year old politician held the premiership during the chaotic years of the Iran- Iraq war in the 1980s and was considered a close figure to the late Ayatollah Khomeini. By the end of his term in 1989 he entered into a long period of political dormancy avoiding any public presence until the beginning of this year when he made his first public appearance among university students in Tehran.
Mir Hussein Mousavi is widely remembered for his pro-poor and pro-worker policies in the 1980s and many admire him for his economic management during the war. Such characteristics single out Mousavi as the only reformist whose revolutionary credentials and fame as a prominent supporter of the lower strata and workers' rights can effectively deprive Ahmadinejad from part of his constituency. President Ahmadinejad, who took the reins in 2005, drew many voters because of his slogans of social justice and pledges to solve Iranian economic problems.
But, in spite of high oil prices, his bold promises to bring prosperity and improve the living standards of Iranian people did not materialize.
Economic concerns continue to be top issues for Iranian voters, thus Ahamdinejad's failure to bring about economic prosperity and social justice has turned out to be his main achilles heel in the forthcoming election. For those Iranians who voted for president Ahmadinejad in the last election and who are now disillusioned by his economic rhetoric, Mousavi could be an option to bring about the changes and prosperity that Ahmadinejad could not make.
Since his return to the political scene, Mousavi has made the economy the centerpiece of his electoral agenda by putting emphasis on reviving the Islamic Revolution's discourse regarding workers' rights and closing the gap between the haves and have nots. Meanwhile, he has not hesitated to draw a clear distinction between his notion of justice and Ahmadinejad's approach to social equality by directing sharp criticism towards the president's economic and political plans.
In his first campaign speech delivered in a lower class neighborhood of Southern Tehran, the pro-reform presidential candidate blamed Ahmadinejad for wasting the national revenue by implementing superficial plans like alms distribution among the poor rather than pursuing long term strategies to reduce poverty.
The president's supporters have reacted to this criticism by accusing Mousavi of hypocrisy and imitation of Ahmadinejad's slogans. These early reactions are indicative of a latent apprehension among the president's men of his being disarmed of his semi-socialist discourse by a reformist candidate.
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Beyond parts of his constituency shifting away, further challenges to Ahmadinejad may arise from the realignment of both reformist and conservative camps as a consequence of former president Khatami's withdrawl from the race.
Immediately after the announcement of Mousavi's candidacy, Mohammad Khatami withdrew from the election campaign pledging his support to Mousavi. With Khatami out of the presidential competition, the conservative groups have less motivation to cast their support behind Ahmadinejad to create a unified front against the reformists. The reason for this lack of motivation is the fact that Mousavi is not considered, by many conservatives, as radical and challenging as Khatami.
In their eyes it is not likely that people surrounding Mousavi would challenge vested conservative political interests as people affiliated to Khatami did. Therefore, it is expected that a number of conservative politicians and the ex-supporters of Ahmadinejad join the election contest to challenge him in the June presidential election. In the context of this internal factionalism, the relation between the president and the supreme leader, especially in major issues like foreign policy, is noteworthy.
As far as the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic is concerned, Mousavi is closer to those factions which support the current unwavering nuclear policy. It is said that he believes the handling of nuclear negotiations and halting of uranium enrichment during Khatami's government didn't bring about any tangible achievement for the country. Based on his recent speeches, Mousavi's vision for major foreign policy issues like the nuclear program and Iranian regional role is closer to those of the supreme leader of Islamic Republic.
Given the backdrop of frictions between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei over issues such as the balance of power inside the Islamic Republic, the failure of Ahmadinejad's government to abide by the long term plans of the country, Mousavi's position vis-à-vis Ayatollah Khamenei is important. Despite noticeable achievements in advancing the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has sometimes brought unnecessary condemnation of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy. Meanwhile, internally, his policies have antagonized important elements among the conservatives and the clerical establishment.
The relation between the presidency and the major ulamas in Qom has been in its nadir since Ahmadinejad took the reins four years ago such that many ulamas have decided to boycott him and refrain from meeting the president. The supreme leader, who usually plays a balancing role between different and contradictory interests inside the Islamic Republic, has been facing difficulties in dealing with the challenging stance of Ahmadinejad to the prominent clergy and conservative bazar.
Ayatollah Khamenei took pains to publicly defend Ahmadinejad and his government in the face of the conservatives and clergymen who had lambasted the president's economic and cultural policies. It does not seem that Ayatollah Khamenei is heartily convinced about Ahmadinejad's policies himself, as on many occasions he warned and reprimanded officials who were negligent to the law and did not heed the experts' points of view on policymaking. Given such divergences of approach, Ayatollah Khamenei may well prefer Mousavi over the current president as Mousavi shares similar foreign policy views while being less controversial internally. As much as the former prime minister is expected to agitate the conservative electoral block, he has the potential to create consensus among the different pro-reform groups which have been divided between his supporters and those of Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karoubi, the secretary general of Ettemad-e-Meli party.
By leaving the presidential race, Khatami put an end to the increasing dichotomy inside the reformist block between himself and the other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karoubi. Now many reformists are asking Karoubi to follow Khatami's path and step down in favor of Mousavi so that the reformists can forge a unified block for the June election. Mehdi Karoubi, who was the first politician to announce his candidacy from the reformist block, has welcomed Mousavi's entrance to the presidential race which may be indicative of the possibility of unifying the majority of pro-reform groups, including Karoubi's party behind Mousavi.
This could even lead to creation of a bipolar election between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad in the 10th presidential election of the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile Mousavi, as an intimate friend of the popular former president, Mohammad Khatami, enjoys the backing of a significant number of the reformist and opposition figures. Ezatollah Sahabi and Habibbollah Peyman, two opposition leaders have welcomed Mousavi's entrance to the presidential race and lauded him for his intrinsically democratic character. The former prime minister is the most serious challenge yet to the reelection of Ahmadinejad, and the pro-reform factions have much to hope for in the results of the forthcoming presidential elections.
However, much depends on Khatami's efforts to unify the pro-reform groups and Karoubi's willingness to step out of the race in favor of Mousavi.
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