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04/27/2009 12:00 AM

Iranian Elections

The Answer To Ahmadinejad

In a SPIEGEL Interview, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's challenger in the Iranian election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, discusses his chances of beating the president in June and the West's illusions regarding Tehran's nuclear policy.

Once again, it seems as if there were two worlds and two perceptions: those of Tehran and those of the West.

While American and European politicians, as well as the media, sharply criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, for his provocative, anti-Israel remarks at the United Nations Conference on Racism in Geneva, he was applauded upon his return to Iran last Tuesday. "Thank you, thank you, to our heroic president," members of the Iranian parliament chanted. "Because of me," the Iranian president responded defiantly, "some countries boycotted the conference. I hereby declare that I will attend all international conferences from now on." He accused the European Union delegates who left the room during his speech in Geneva of "intolerance."

An Iranian holds up a poster of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi at a mosque in Ghorghan, Iran.
AFP

An Iranian holds up a poster of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi at a mosque in Ghorghan, Iran.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, commented cautiously on the events, biding his time and weighing his words carefully, as he has done so many times before. In his only comment on the matter, the former prime minister said: "Anyone who insults the Iranian president is insulting the Iranian people." Mousavi is the leading candidate of Iran's so-called "reformers" and "pragmatists," as the moderate conservatives call themselves. He is seen as the only opponent of the "principlists" -- the term used to describe the hardliners expected to throw their support behind current President Ahmadinejad in Iran's June 12 election -- who stands a chance of winning.

But Mousavi faces a difficult campaign. Although there is discontent in Iranian cities, primarily because of Ahmadinejad's disastrous economic policies, the down-to-earth and charismatic president remains popular in rural areas. Besides, Ahmadinejad can take advantage of all the trappings of a sitting president during his campaign appearances. Mousavi's only chance lies in his ability to convince younger voters and the middle class to go to polls on June 12. But this is precisely his biggest problem. Mousavi is not a known entity -- not yet, at least -- to many Iranians under the age of 30, who constitute two-thirds of the country's population.

Born near the city of Tabriz in northwestern Iran, Mousavi studied architecture and was a member of the underground resistance movement during the regime of former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Mousavi became the foreign minister and, a few months later, the prime minister of the new theocracy. During Iran's eight-year war against Iraq, he proved himself a competent organizer of the wartime economy. But Mousavi did not distinguish himself as a domestic political reformer. In fact, his term in office was marked by a sharp rise in the number of arrests.

A sophisticated intellectual, Mousavi has not held any important state office since 1989, but he is a member of the so-called Expediency Discernment Council, which was set up to resolve conflicts between the parliament and the influential Council of Guardians. Despite past power struggles, his relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has apparently recently returned to normal.

US-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi: a political bargaining chip?
AFP

US-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi: a political bargaining chip?

The case of Roxana Saberi has now been added to the list of major pending decisions in Iranian politicians, such as the nuclear issue and the possibility of Tehran's resumption of relations with Washington. In mid-April, a revolutionary court -- in a questionable, closed-door proceeding in Tehran -- sentenced the Iranian-American reporter, who worked for various media organizations, including the BBC, to eight years in prison. Has Saberi, an ambitious former student of political science, become a bargaining chip in the hands of the Iranian leadership?

Saberi's defense team, which includes Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, has since filed an appeal against the ruling. Ahmadinejad himself, in a startling letter to Iran's judicial authorities, called for "fair treatment" of the journalist, a move some interpreted as a sign of a thaw in the country's relations with the United States, and of a speedy pardon. Ahmadinejad's sharpest political adversary was unwilling to comment on the case.

Mousavi met with SPIEGEL at the Iranian Academy of Arts in Tehran, which he co-founded 11 years ago, and of which he is president. The interview comes at the heels of SPIEGEL's conversation with President Ahmadinejad in mid-April, which attracted a great deal of attention in Iran and was quoted at length in most of Iran's daily newspapers. The influential paper Iran News even printed the interview verbatim. Mousavi's remarks can also be interpreted as his response to Ahmadinejad.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Mousavi, why are you returning to the center of politics after a 20-year hiatus?

Mousavi: Because many things are not going well in this country, especially economic policy. And because I believe that I can improve things. I will attempt to stamp out corruption.

SPIEGEL: You don't mention foreign policy. Are you, like President Ahmadinejad, hesitant to take US President Barack Obama up on his offer of direct talks?

Mousavi: The language Mr. Obama uses is refreshingly different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. But actions must now follow. We will pay careful attention to what happens next. If his actions are in keeping with his words, why shouldn't we negotiate?

Candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi: "I too will not suspend uranium enrichment."
AFP

Candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi: "I too will not suspend uranium enrichment."

SPIEGEL: You sound like Ahmadinejad. But the issue also revolves around which concrete steps you will take to bring about an easing of tensions, and how you can approach Obama.

Mousavi: The more realistic US policy becomes, the better. Washington included us in an "Axis of Evil," and now we want to see concrete steps. When that happens, trust can slowly be developed once again. We can contribute to this by moderating our tone. I support good relations with other countries. A policy of détente will be a central issue for me.

SPIEGEL: Do you also support concrete cooperation with the West on such matters as stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mousavi: We have significant problems in the region. We should begin to conduct a dialogue on these issues. None of this will happen quickly, but you should allow us to approach good relations step by step.

SPIEGEL: You could make an important contribution by accommodating the wishes of the international community on the nuclear issue. How can the world believe you when you say that you are not building a bomb if you are not even willing to suspend uranium enrichment?

Mousavi: Our nuclear policy is transparent, and we have opened our facilities to United Nations inspectors. However, we will not abandon the great achievements of Iranian scientists. I too will not suspend uranium enrichment. However, I will attempt to avoid unnecessary tensions. We have a right to enrich uranium.

SPIEGEL: As a compromise, would you at least consider the outsourcing of uranium enrichment -- to Russia, for example?

Mousavi: No.

SPIEGEL: You also do not differ from your president in that respect. Where are the differences?

Mousavi: Must there always be fundamental differences between two candidates on vital national issues? I see that the West is beginning to separate the question of nuclear armament from the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We have made important technical advances. Why shouldn't we implement them to produce energy? After our German friends, for example, have refused for so long to help us with the completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant ...

SPIEGEL: ... the construction of which began back in the times of the Shah, with the involvement of Siemens, and was then abruptly halted after the 1979 revolution.

Mousavi: In addition, we had bad experiences with a moratorium. When we suspended enrichment from 2003 to 2005, we received nothing in return. On the contrary, the suspension was used to obstruct further development in Iran.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to improve relations with Europe?

Mousavi: We have always had a good relationship with Europe. The Middle East is Europe's neighbor, and we are a strong player in this region.

'The Abolition of the Religious Police Is Possible'

SPIEGEL: Your president has repeatedly denied that the Holocaust happened, and that the Germans killed 6 million Jews. Do you, too?

Mousavi: It is not a question of the number of people killed. Nor is it a question of who committed the crimes. No matter who was responsible, we condemn them for it. But the issue is this: Why should the Palestinians have to pay for what happened back then in Europe?

SPIEGEL: President Ahmadinejad does not believe that there is historic evidence of the mass murder of the Jews. Do you also feel that more clarification is needed?

Mousavi: We have a cemetery in Tehran where Polish immigrants are buried. They fled to Iran to escape the injustices at the time. Something must have happened.

SPIEGEL: Do you recognize Israel?

Mousavi: No, I do not recognize it. For the past 20 years, we have called for a solution to the problem by taking a poll of all Palestinians. This referendum should also include Jewish and Christian Palestinians living in the region. They should decide whether they wish to live in one state or two states.

SPIEGEL: Many Iranians criticize your president for paying more attention to the Palestinians than his own people. What will be your emphasis?

Mousavi: With the change in government, there will also be a change of political policy. I will advocate, in particular, an improvement of our economic situation. I will fight inflation, create jobs and improve the business climate. We also need the private sector to achieve this.

SPIEGEL: Is the hope for political liberalization associated with your candidacy?

Mousavi: I am the co-founder of a cultural foundation. An unfettered atmosphere for artists and intellectuals prevails in our gallery. I also believe that the abolition of the religious police is possible.

SPIEGEL: How do you see your chances of winning the election?

Mousavi: We try to look at things optimistically. We must wait and see how the mood will develop in the coming weeks. It changes quickly in Iran. I will try to address the people directly and will give it my all during my campaign trips throughout the country.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that you can succeed in the face of the president's enormous propaganda machine? After all, even religious leader Ali Khamenei is believed to support the president.

Mousavi: I recently had an extensive personal conversation with our religious leader. As he said before during an appearance in Mashhad in March, he reassured me that he is neutral and will support any elected government. The more united we are on the central questions of policy, the better it will be for the future of our country.

Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Erich Follath. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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