Alex Massie

The Cynical Case Arguing that Mousavi Doesn’t Matter At All

Text settings

Beneath the headline Iran's Brave Revolutionaries Can Change Nothing But the Faces Con Coughlin sighs, lights a cigar, pours himself another brandy and explains to those folk foolish enough to believe that anything can change for the better in Iran just why they're not much more than a bunch of naive, though charmingly well-intentioned, fools:

For the past 30 years, Mr Mousavi and his supporters have demonstrated their unswerving dedication to the cause of revolutionary Islam. Under his premiership in the late 1980s, Iran came close to all-out war with the US and its allies during the death throes of the Iran-Iraq war. The greatest advances in the country's nuclear programme, including the regime's attempts to build an atom bomb, were undertaken during the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami.

Their primary aim in opposing Mr Ahmadinejad's election victory, therefore, is to reclaim some of the power and influence they once enjoyed, rather than to effect a radical change in the way Iran is run.

It is for this reason that the democratic hopes of all those brave Iranians who have taken to the streets will ultimately be in vain. Even if Mr Khatami were to sacrifice Mr Ahmadinejad in the interests of preserving the regime, the president would simply be replaced by another Iranian leader whose first priority would be to protect the ideological foundations of Khomeini's Islamic revolution.

There is, doubtless, something to this. I suspect that there are plenty of Mousavi's own supporters who hold no illusions about his past, nor, at least until now, about what a Mousavi Presidency might look like. And, for sure, I don't think anone is claiming that Mousavi would be the kind of liberal some folk dream of seeing come to power in Tehran. Iran is, in any case, going to want to be a regional power and, most probably, a nuclear-armed one regardless of who is President or, for that matter, Supreme Leader.

At the New Yorker, Laura Secor adds some more detail:

Who knows what sort of president Mousavi would have been, or could yet be? He is an entirely different kind of animal from reformist politicians of the past; he is identified not with students and intellectuals but with the hardscrabble war years and the defense of the poor. But as one analyst explained to me, the problem he faces is that he is perhaps the only person on the Iranian political scene whose public stature is equal to Khamenei’s. He was a favorite son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the nineteen-eighties. Many Khomeinists in the power structure respect and support him; within the Revolutionary Guards, as well as within the upper clergy, he has a constituency. Traditional, religious people are among his supporters, too. On the morning of June 12th, he may have been the uncharismatic compromise candidate for the anyone-but-Ahmadinejad crowd. But to other voters he was then, and he has increasingly become, something else: the vehicle both for the memory of the utopia that never came, and for the hopes of a younger generation that imagines he shares its vision of the future.

And this, surely is the key point: the Mir Hossein Mousavi who ran for election a week ago is not necessarily the same man we see this week. A lot has happened in just a few days. If - and, granted, it's a major if - the election were a) reheld and b) won by Mousavi, it seems likely that he would be compelled to move a little faster and a little further on reform than he might be comfortable with or have even thought desirable just a few weeks ago. Momentum matters.

Clearly we ought not to suppose that domestic reform would necessarily mean foreign policy reform. Iran is likely to remain a pretty nationalistic place. But that doesn't mean there cannot be progress nor that the Iranian people can't lead better, freer, more prosperous lives.

And people change. Few people thought David Trimble would be the man to lead Ulster Unionism to a peace agreement. Or, to take another example, Alexander Dubcek was pushed further and faster in the direction of reform than he had anticipated or necessarily found entirely comfortable. The same might be said of Mikhail Gorbachev. There are plenty of other examples, some encouraging and some less so.

Will Mousavi ever get the chance to prove any of this? Maybe not, though with the way matters are moving in Iran it seems reckless to offer any opinion with any real certainty. It's still too soon to say what's been happening, only that something has been happening. Still, the nature of the protests is such that the reform movement is, in some ways, surely now very much stronger than it would have been were Iran preparing for a Mousavi vs Ahmadinejad run-off in the second round of Presidential voting.

As we wait and see what happens next, however, it is the regime that, right now, seems to be on the back foot, not the reformers. This too, of course, may change.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyiran