As demonstrations continue in Iran despite a harsher government crackdown, the future of the opposition movement remains very much in question. And central to this question is the movement's de facto figurehead, presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi. With the Guardian Council refusing to annul the disputed June 12 election, and with increasing threats of violence or arrest against opposition provocateurs from government officials, the stakes are higher now than ever. Mousavi's enduring appeal as an uprising leader could be a crucial factor in the protests' continuation. But it remains unclear how much the movement depends on Mousavi, despite his active and emboldened leadership of its ranks.
Mousavi, having risen phoenix-like from history's dustbin, now finds himself leading the charge against the very system that he helped create. His face (and now the face of the slain woman, Neda Agha-Soltan) adorns protest posters throughout Iran as the central figure of what is known as the "Green Wave", derived from the color of his presidential campaign (it also happens to be a sacred color in Islam). However, Mousavi has been described by many as an accidental hero--a convenient vehicle for a larger reform movement long in the making.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brooking Institution's Saban Center, describes him as an "unlikely hero" whose "longstanding association with the current system seemed to suggest that he would be a poor candidate to lead an uprising against it."
And indeed, as many have pointed out, Mousavi's newfound role is rather ironic when one considers the darker side of his political diptych. Serving as Prime Minster from 1981 to 1989, Mousavi may have had a hand in some state actions that would give many of his contemporary supporters pause, especially in the West. By Robert Baer's account, writing in Time, much evidence exists to censure Mousavi for at least some involvement in the 1983 truck-bombings in Lebanon against the US embassy and US marine barracks.
And previously, in 1981, following the Iran hostage crisis that many believe may have sunk President Jimmy Carter's re-election, Mousavi gave an interview wherein he touted his revolutionary, hard-line credentials, saying "It was the beginning of the second stage of our revolution. It was after this that we discovered our true Islamic identity. After this we felt the sense that we could look western policy in the eye and analyze it the way they had been evaluating us for many years."
Mousavi's tenure in Islamic Revolutionary officialdom ended in 1989 when the constitution was amended to abolish the prime minister post. His premiership was characterized by clashes with then-President Ali Khamenei, who became Supreme Leader that year, as well as with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is now one of his allies. Following his soft ousting from politics, Mousavi spent the next two decades as an artist and a teacher, during which time he apparently transformed into a moderate reformer.
The vast pro-Mousavi coalition that is now in open defiance of the government ban on protests has a diverse composition ranging from liberal students, and youth and women activists to more traditional, conservative veterans of the 1979 revolution, such as Rafsanjani.
However, this begs the question: who is running the show? Is Mousavi really guiding the movement on the streets, or is the street guiding Mousavi? According to Ali Akbar Mahdi, an Ohio Wesleyan University sociologist and expert on Iran, it is the latter. "Mousavi is being transformed. Events have affected him and it is hard to assume that he would give up easily," Mahdi tells the Huffington Post, "However, I do not think that Mousavi has the guts to carry on too far, especially if this movement is drawn out and its objectives go beyond cancellation of the election."
The extent to which Mousavi is calling the shots for this coalition could prove vital to the movement's trajectory, especially if the popular will extends beyond the election re-do he is willing to fight for (such as the cries of "death to the dictator" would indicate). If he is indeed defining the course and strategy of the uprising, the possibility that his personal intentions will fall short of the more radical calls from many of his supporters becomes problematic (for him).
Though Mousavi is willing to challenge the Islamic Republic's leaders, he has never shown any inclination to topple or replace the system itself. Sensing this, Maloney implies that the current coalition could unravel if the natural divisions of its aggregate parts reemerge, noting that "any concession by Mousavi could undercut the commitment of the protestors."
And for his part, Mahdi is not alone in thinking that Mousavi may be more or less winging it, not completely sure yet how far he is even willing to go. Speaking at the ninth National Iranian American Council (NIAC) conference in Washington, DC last week, Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd pointed out Mousavi's lack of charisma to highlight the peculiarity of the architect-cum-candidate's newfound role. However, Majd does give Mousavi more credit than Mahdi insofar as an operational overseeing of the streets is concerned.
For example, Mousavi has consistently issued statements through his website, Facebook, and more tacit means that then spread through the social networking matrix in Iran. His openly defiant calls for further protests are regarded as rather uncharacteristic, suggesting he is emboldened by the perception of his own vast support.
However, Mousavi's statements sometimes adopt the movement's causes, rather than decide them. For example, his Facebook message Tuesday calling for Thursday protests to commemorate the uprising's martyrs--such as Neda--came after a synonymous announcement from his reformist ally Mehdi Karroubi.
Earlier this week, Mousavi--again with Karroubi--reacted to the regime's recent threats with a strategy shift towards civil disobedience, by calling for a national strike. Mahdi sees potential in a strike if it is effective enough to reach key state economic levers, namely the oil sector. However he also foresees the eventual need for a new leader with no connection to the ruling religious elite if the uprising continues beyond a certain point. The degree to which Mousavi matters operationally, as opposed to symbolically, could become more apparent from the success or failure of the strike, but it remains unclear which initiatives are really his, as opposed to more organic causes he simply catches wind of and adopts along the way.
How far Mousavi is willing to either lead or ride the Green Wave remains a salient question. When rumors circulated that he had declared his willingness to be martyred for the cause, his office quickly and awkwardly refuted the claim. If he does reach his limits, or if the regime succeeds in squelching him, can the reform movement survive without its original raison d'être? The increased role of other reformers suggests that it perhaps can. And yet, Mousavi remains the candidate of choice for the opposition, and surely would enjoy mass support if ever there were another election.
To that end, most experts agree that pressure must be exerted on the regime from the top as well as from the streets, namely in the form of Rafsanjani, who openly loathes Ahmadinejad and warned of election fraud in an open letter to Khamenei three days prior to voting. According to Majd, Rafsanjani is the second-most powerful figure in Iran. He heads the Assembly of Experts which elects and, technically, has the power to remove the Supreme Leader.
"In the short run, my hope for stabilization relies on [Rafsanjani]. If the bloodshed continues, he may convince enough clerics to put pressure on Khamenei to back off," says Mahdi.
And indeed, such a culling of clerical support in Iran's upper echelons may have already begun. Maloney reports that Rafsanjani is quietly looking for other Ahmadinejad foes who will join his cause to, "persuade Khamenei that a public discrediting of Iran's representative institutions poses a more serious risk to the survival of the system than does reversing course on the election."
Given the course of events in Iran since the election, Mousavi is perhaps becoming increasingly irrelevant. He and the movement itself may still be mutually reliant on one another. But as the outrage continues, especially in the face of harsher state action, uniting elements like Neda may supplant Mousavi as the Green Wave's central symbol. And many will look instead to the movement's allies in high places to pull the needed levers inside the regime.
Only time will tell, but it's possible the leader who started the movement may not be all that necessary to see it through to its end--whatever that end may be.
Read more on the situation in Iran from Stuart Whatley: