Iran's Velvet Revolution?

June, 10 2009

By Jeremy Gillick

What will change if Mirhossein Mousavi, a former Iranian Prime Minister, a “moderate,” and the primary challenger to reigning Iranian president and rabble-rouser Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wins this Friday’s much-hyped Iranian election? Will Iran abandon it’s nuclear program or change its position vis-a-vis Israel or the United States? Will the country undergo a “velvet revolution,” as Saeed Laylaz, editor of an Iranian business daily, told Ha’aretz it would? Or might Ahmadinejad’s cult-like supporters, backed by the Basij paramilitary and the Revolutionary Guard, revolt, a possibility considered by Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. In addition to knowing very little about how Iranian politics actually work–even many of the foremost American experts on Iran concede this unfortunate deficiency–Mousavi himself is a mysterious candidate.

Writing in The New Republic, Laura Secor calls him “a wartime prime minister who has kept near total silence about politics since 1988,” who “lacks charisma” and who “calls himself both a reformist and a believer in revolutionary ‘principles.'” During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, “he was seen as a wise manager at a time of crisis,” she adds, and had the singular advantage of being a “particular favorite of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.” In short, she suggests, he appeals first and foremost to “people who might otherwise vote for Ahmadinejad” but also to some liberals who believe that, in Iran, no platform is the best platform.

Dreyfus paints a somewhat more optimistic picture of Mousavi–or at least of his supporters:

Later that night, more than 300 Iranian artists–painters, sculptors and others–convened an extraordinary gathering in support of Mousavi, whose outspoken wife is also an artist and who, in a step unprecedented in Iran, campaigns side by side with him, even holding hands. Hundreds of people gathered at the Gallery Mellat, and in an auditorium they listened to a speech by former President Khatami, the reformist, who is supporting Mousavi. “The government,” said Khatami, “has turned being anti-art into an art form.” Mousavi, who was prime minister from 1981-1989, had garnered across-the-board support from Iran’s intellectual community, including writers, artists, musicians, actors, and others. At the event I spoke to many world famous Iranian artists, each of whom said that each and every work they produce must be cleared by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. And there was enormous buzz about Obama’s opening to Iran. “People hope we can find a new way with Obama,” said Farah Ossouli, who helped to organize the artists’ exhibition. “But if Ahmadinejad stays, we are not sure he wants relations with the United States.”

Whatever happens this Friday, the real implications may not be clear for a long time. But small differences, we should remember, can make for big changes.

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