x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Old hand shows voters a middle way

Mousavi, a former prime minister, is calling for dialogue with the US while attempting to woo young voters by pledging to increase freedoms.

Mir Hossein Mousavi vowed to rein in Iran's so-called morality police.
Mir Hossein Mousavi vowed to rein in Iran's so-called morality police.

To younger Iranians the moderate candidate hoping to oust their hardline president in June's landmark elections is an enigmatic and unfamiliar figure. Mir Hossein Mousavi is a trained architect and accomplished amateur painter who has been out of the political limelight for two decades after serving as prime minister during the ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s. But he has now set out his electoral stall at an assured press conference where he pledged more freedom, a better managed economy and détente with the West, which he insisted would not come at the expense of Iran's cherished nuclear programme. Addressing reporters in person for the first time since declaring his candidacy last month, Mr Mousavi, 68, portrayed himself on Monday as a middle-ground leader determined to liberalise Iran's political and social systems by returning to the original principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He maintained those principles had been "violated and undermined" by the populist incumbent, whose policies he branded as "extremist". Mr Mousavi pressed hard on the economy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Achilles heel, by highlighting Iran's high rate of inflation and unemployment. Mr Mousavi is remembered among older Iranians for astutely managing the economy under terrible war conditions between 1981 and 1989 while he was prime minister, a post long since abolished. Apart from the key issue of the economy, he pledged to boost personal and political freedoms in a clear attempt to woo Iran's youth, which are a vital component of the electorate because of the Islamic republic's demographics: 60 per cent of the population is under 30. Instrumental in rallying the youth vote behind Mr Mousavi and bolstering his profile will be Mohammad Khatami, the charismatic reformist former president who withdrew his candidacy last month. He did not want the reformist vote split and believed Mr Mousavi was better placed to siphon off conservative votes from Mr Ahmadinejad. "To hardliners, Mousavi is a more acceptable version of Khatami. And to reformists, Mousavi is a moderate who won't seek profound changes," a political commentator at the conservative Tehran e-Emrooz newspaper said recently. With an eye on assuring conservative voters, Mr Mousavi, a staunch supporter of Iran's system of government with impeccable revolutionary credentials, made clear that the freedoms and social justice he pledged to deliver were those originally promised by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "We must create the constitutionally mentioned freedoms - freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of print, freedom of media and press - all of course within the framework of our laws," he said. He also vowed to rein in so-called morality police who enforce public modesty, in particular the strict dress code for women. Those police have been increasingly active during Mr Ahmadinejad's tenure, while pro-democracy activists have also fled the country or been jailed, and the media and internet restricted. Mr Mousavi's performance at his press conference was "impressive", but he needed to do a lot more to remove an "air of ambiguity" surrounding his platform, said Afshin Shahi, a researcher at Durham University in England. "For reform he talks about returning to the past, but reform should be about the present and the future. Nor did he address the obstacles Khatami faced for eight years with his reformist agenda," Mr Shahi said in an interview. "Few ordinary Iranians associate the early days of the revolution with social and political progress or with good international relations." Mr Mousavi's words will be as carefully scrutinised in Washington and other western capitals as at home. He offered little of substance on foreign policy, but his conciliatory tone was in stark contrast to Mr Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric, which Mr Mousavi said had "jeopardised" the country's interests. "We need to pursue an active foreign policy to achieve détente. Extremism has cost us a high price. We have to work hard to build international confidence," he said. Asked if he was ready to negotiate with Barack Obama, the US president, Mr Mousavi acknowledged the change in tone from the new US administration, but maintained Tehran's official line that friendlier words from Washington had to be buttressed by real change. While hardliners often maintain that Washington has more to gain than Tehran from improved relations, he said: "We would benefit from having peaceful and cooperative relations with any country, and the more powerful and the bigger that country, the more we would benefit." But, he continued: "This cannot be at the price of our values and principles. We cannot pay unbearable costs for such relations." There would be "no retreat" from Iran's nuclear programme, he vowed. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has made Iran's right to a civilian nuclear programme and home-grown fuel cycle a red line no Iranian candidate can cross. "Mousavi made clear that he will not deviate on the nuclear issue. But with a softer tone from Tehran and Obama in the White House there is some hope trust can be built to defuse this issue," Mr Shahi said. Mr Mousavi argued that he would strive to build international confidence that Tehran's nuclear ambitions were peaceful. Mr Ahmadinejad's domestic critics argue that he recklessly heightened international suspicions about Iran's nuclear programme with his fiery rhetoric against Israel and his denial of the Holocaust. When asked about his views on the Holocaust, Mr Mousavi said: "Islam is against killing of anyone, even one person and considers it genocide. The way the issue was put forward [by Ahmadinejad] was incorrect." But "we do not understand why the Palestinians should pay for it now". mtheodoulou@thenational.ae