Iran's Next President?

The candidate looked as if he wished he could be anywhere but where he was—among his most enthusiastic supporters. About 4,000 mostly young people had gathered in Tehran's Milad Hall for several hours, waiting to see and cheer their man: Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist running in the upcoming Iranian presidential election.

The crowd, overflowing with hope for freedom and a more open society, chanted, "Political prisoners should be released!" Then, "Death to the dictator!" And then, not quite as an afterthought, "Mousavi, we support you!" On a giant, pitiless video monitor above him, his face loomed large and wan. Mousavi hates to be photographed; he's said to be embarrassed by the size of his nose. But his cavernous nostrils looked insignificant compared with the chasm between what his supporters expect from him and what he can actually deliver.

Less than a month before balloting starts, all the polls give a healthy edge to the hardline incumbent. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows what working-class Iranians want, and in the run-up to the vote, he's been handing out heaps of cash saved up during the oil boom of 2007 and 2008. Still, Iranian pollsters and pundits have guessed wrong before. They counted Ahmadinejad out in the 2005 contest—until he won. Mousavi's team is hoping the unexpected will happen again. "The choice is now between democracy and an authoritarian government," said Mohammed Javad Mozafar, a historian in the crowd at Milad Hall. "If Ahmadinejad wins, that means the end of this reformist dream for a while. Many of these young people will be depressed and even leave the country. But if Mousavi wins, that means the citizens have won despite Ahmadinejad's deceitful policies and the support he receives from above." Although Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn't stoop to publicly endorsing a candidate, few Iranians doubt that Ahmadinejad is his man.

But whose man is Mousavi? Even by the baffling standards of Iranian politics, he and his candidacy are a puzzle. His revolutionary zeal made him a leading figure in the Islamic Republic's early years. Trained as a painter and architect, he accomplished a protean feat after the fall of the shah in 1979, building a name for himself as both a committed leftist and a fiercely loyal follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He served as prime minister throughout most of the 1980s until he dropped out of politics in 1989, after Khomeini's death. Most supporters at this year's Milad Hall rally were too young to remember those times; the crowd's average age looked to be about 25. In fact, roughly 75 percent of Iranians are under 30. Mousavi is 68.

In the two decades since he left public life, Mousavi has devoted himself mainly to his first love: abstract painting. At the start of this year's race the reformists' standard bearer was not Mousavi but Ahmadinejad's immediate predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Before the former president declared his candidacy, he spoke repeatedly to Mousavi about joining the race. Calling him "one of the best politicians in Iran," Khatami told newsweek that he'd urged Mousavi to enter the contest. "Every time Khatami asked Mousavi if he wanted to run, the answer was a big 'no'," says a Khatami adviser, asking not to be named talking about the two men's relationship.

So Khatami hit the stump, touring Iran for more than a month. Cheering crowds greeted him as the man to defeat Ahmadinejad and the conservative establishment. An Iranian intelligence official, requesting anonymity because he's not authorized to talk to reporters, cites a confidential December 2008 survey that ranked Khatami's popularity higher than that of any other public figure in Iran. And several people close to Khatami say that he was shocked when Mousavi changed his mind. "When he heard Mousavi's announcement, Khatami became so furious," says a Khatami confidant. "He said, 'I didn't know I would be betrayed like this'."

The decision should have been no surprise to Khatami. He had met with the Supreme Leader a few weeks before announcing his candidacy. "In the meeting Mr. Khamenei told Mr. Khatami as a friend that it would be better if he didn't enter the race," says a Khatami adviser, asking not to be quoted by name on such a sensitive subject. When Khatami went ahead and announced he'd run anyway, the adviser says Khamenei became quite upset and sent a personal message to Khatami asking him to step down. (Khatami denies that the Supreme Leader made any such request.) At the same time, Khatami's team heard rumors that there were plans to assassinate him if his campaign continued. The hardline newspaper Kayhan heightened the paranoia with an editorial purporting to warn Khatami that people in his own camp might want him dead. "The message was obvious," says the Khatami adviser. "Khatami would be gotten rid of one way or another. He had no choice but to withdraw." Khatami insists he stepped down simply to avoid splitting the reformist vote.

Mousavi has had his own bumpy history with the Supreme Leader. The two men were thrown together after terrorists bombed the Islamic Republic Party's offices in August 1981. More than 60 people died in the blast, including the chief justice, the prime minister and the president. In the aftermath, Khamenei became president, and Mousavi was chosen as prime minister.

Khamenei took issue with Mousavi's leftist ideology, and he tried hard to get Parliament to name someone else as prime minister. It was no use; the Islamic Revolution's leader had let it be known that he liked Mousavi. "Imam Khomeini's support was crucial for Mousavi," says the candidate's campaign co-chair, Mohsen Aminzadeh. "I don't think he would have survived if the imam had not supported him." For the next eight years the friction with Khamenei only grew. Their inevitable turf battles were worsened by their conflicting personalities and ideologies and their rivalry for Khomeini's approval. "Imam Khomeini was really clever," says a former minister in the Mousavi government, unwilling to be named saying anything impolitic. "He never allowed one group to have the upper hand in the country. Whenever one group was getting too proud, he would lend his support to the other group."

Mousavi often seemed to have the advantage. He kept the economy directly and firmly under almost Soviet-style government control from the day he took office until the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Essential goods were rationed, industries were nationalized and the government put draconian restraints on imports and exports. But when Khomeini died, Khamenei became Supreme Leader. The Constitution was soon revised to abolish the post of prime minister, and Mousavi quietly returned to his easel, his drafting table and the boards of various art councils. "He was really tired," says Aminzadeh. "He didn't even want to talk politics." Until, that is, he declared for the presidency in March.

Most Iranian political observers believe Khamenei's first preference is a second term for Ahmadinejad. Still, the Supreme Leader likes to hedge his bets; if a challenger should come from behind and take the race, Mousavi may be the best in the field as far as Khamenei is concerned, despite their past disputes. "Mousavi is a real believer in the holiness of the Islamic Republic system," says the historian Mozafar. "You can call it his weakness or strength. But he believes that this system is a sacred phenomenon that should be protected by any means necessary." In early May, Khamenei paid a call at Mousavi's home to see the candidate's aging, infirm father. The visit was widely interpreted as a signal that Khamenei is prepared to live with a Mousavi victory if it comes to that.

Mousavi has relied heavily on such wink-and-nod endorsements. His campaign has paid special attention to winning friends among the leaders of Friday prayer services, says Hossein Sharifzadegan, Mousavi's brother-in-law: "In Iran you can really affect how the population votes through these meetings." Such old-style tactics only confirm the suspicions of people who already doubted Mousavi's reformist credentials. "He is not a modern candidate," says Abbas Abdi, a prominent reformist who supports another contender, Mehdi Karrubi. "A modern candidate actively goes after the popular vote. But Mr. Mousavi is waiting for the presidency on a silver plate."

Two months later, Mousavi's platform largely remains an open question. He calls himself a "reformist principalist"—a phrase that sounds just as vacuous in Farsi as in English. The term "principalist" is Iranian political jargon for the conservatives who support Khamenei and want to preserve the power of the Supreme Leader. They fall into two basic camps. There are hardliners who want to bring back the old revolutionary values; Ahmadinejad claims to be among them. And then there are the "logical principalists," who deplore Ahmadinejad's policies and insist the Islamic regime can survive only by modernizing. Mousavi is out to gain the votes of this second faction while remaining the main candidate of the reformists. It's an almost impossible straddle. But that may be the only way he can win.

Mousavi's backers argue that he can deliver what Iran needs most now: a government that can mend the damage caused by an irrational Ahmadinejad. "For sure I'm going to have some differences with President Mousavi," says Aminzadeh. "But what I'm certain of is that his government is going to be a logical one. Based on three decades of friendship with Mousavi, I know that he—unlike Ahmadinejad, who doesn't respect anyone else's opinion except his own—is going to consult with others before making a decision."

Many of Iran's young reformists want action, not compromise. Ex-president Khatami is begging them to be more realistic. "I'm sure those young people in Milad Hall who were chanting idealistic slogans know in their heart of hearts that those ideals are not realizable at the moment," says Khatami. The rally, billed as "the meeting of supporters of Khatami to support Mousavi," was their first public appearance together since Mousavi declared his candidacy. "We all would have preferred someone younger to be the reformist candidate," Khatami confesses. "But in the absence of that person, Mr. Mousavi is the best candidate. He can prepare an environment in which people like us can act as reformers."

The youngsters in Milad Hall seemed to know exactly what they wanted. "Anyone but Ahmadinejad!" whooped Somayeh Khodabandeh, a 19-year-old university student wearing a black chador that covered all but her giggly face. She was at the rally with her friends Elnaz and Fatima, also in chadors. They elbowed their way to the front of the hall and raised a poster showing Mou-savi in the foreground and Khatami hovering angel-like behind him. "Peace upon Khatami! Long live Mousavi!" the crowd chanted, and the girls joined in. On stage, Mousavi and Khatami raised the hands of another 19-year-old first-time voter. The kids went wild. Khatami looked utterly comfortable in his new role as kingmaker. As for Mousavi, that wan smile kept haunting his face. It was almost as enigmatic as his platform—or, for that matter, his prospects.