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Iran’s Mousavi Thrust Into Spotlight as Opposition Leader

June 24, 2009 at 6:10 PM EST
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Iran reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, have emerged as the face of the country's political opposition. But who are they? Analysts offer insight.
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GWEN IFILL: Apparently absent from the unrest continuing in the streets of Tehran these last few days was the man whose declared electoral defeat started it all, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

His wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is a prominent academic who campaigned with her husband, an unprecedented step in Iranian politics. Today, she issued a statement calling for the release of those who have been arrested.

Together, they are the face of the opposition. But who are they? For more, we turn to Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2007, she was detained by the Iranian government for three months.

And Hooman Majda journalist and the author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,” he was in Iran for the run-up to the election.

It’s been 12 days since that election, Haleh Esfandiari. Are Mousavi and his wife now the face of the opposition?

Advocate for women

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
She was the first president of a university, of a women university in Tehran. She's been an academic, a scholar, an outspoken advocate for women's rights.

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Yes, they are. I think I would call them the accidental face of the opposition, because when Mousavi started running, he probably never thought that he would galvanize and mobilize such a huge number of people. And, you know, I believe his wife had a lot to do with this prominence of Mousavi, and she is by far more outspoken than he is.

GWEN IFILL: How is that there has been room for her to be so outspoken in a country that's so seen by Westerners as being kind of repressive when it comes to women's rights?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: She made room for herself. She just walked in -- or walked out of Tehran University hand in hand with her husband, and that was a first. She was the first president of a university, of a women university in Tehran. She's been an academic, a scholar, an outspoken advocate for women's rights.

GWEN IFILL: I gather you have actually met?

HOOMAN MAJD, Author-Journalist: Yes, yes. And I saw her about, I guess, 10, 12 days before the election itself.

She's very impressive. She doesn't speak English very well. So for someone interviewing her in English might not get the right impression, but she's a very forceful woman, very strong-willed.

And I was at the first rally that she -- the first rally of the campaign, May 23rd, which former President Khatami attended, and actually Mousavi himself didn't attend, but his wife did. And she spoke, and she gave a rousing speech and got an incredible standing ovation and people screaming for her.

She really did become, as Haleh pointed out, a real -- kind of, in a way, she was the face of the campaign for a while, more so than Mousavi himself.

GWEN IFILL: Was that anyone's intention? Was it an intention in any way for her to seemingly overshadow him? And what does that mean now?

HOOMAN MAJD: I don't think it was the intention. I think it happened, and Mousavi, I think, went along with it quite happily. I don't think he was unhappy about it.

He seems to have been, certainly, you know, encouraged her to be as vocal as she wanted to be. She was very, very vocal when I saw her, saying all kinds of things, like that her Islam doesn't allow for the government to impose its views on the people, things like that, which have never been said by any candidate today ever.

GWEN IFILL: And today she used terms like "martial law" to describe what's going on, on the streets.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes.

An accidental symbol?

Hooman Majd
Author/Journalist
I don't think there was ever the intention on Mir Hossein Mousavi's part to become this symbol, a revolutionary symbol that he has turned into in Iran.

GWEN IFILL: So what does this say about Mousavi? Is he now kind of absent? I want to ask you to follow up on something Haleh said. Do you think he was the accidental face?

HOOMAN MAJD: I think it was -- yes, I do. One person in Tehran told me, after the first huge demonstration, and Mousavi attending that 3 million person demonstration, he said to me, "He's probably sitting at home going (speaking Farsi) which in Farsi means, 'My god, what a mistake I made. Why did I get myself into this?'"

I think that was kind of a half of a joke. It was -- he was being half-serious there. I think there might be a little bit of that. There was a little bit of that. It was like, "Oh, my god, what have I unleashed here?"

Because I don't think there was ever the intention on Mir Hossein Mousavi's part to become this symbol, a revolutionary symbol that he has turned into in Iran. And I don't think he ever intended for there to be a revolution, and I don't think there is a revolution right now, by the way. But I think, you know, some people are ascribing him to that.

GWEN IFILL: He didn't expect this uprising, at least?

HOOMAN MAJD: No, not to the scale that it's been.

GWEN IFILL: Well, how important is it at some point in the next 24, 48 hours is it for the people on the streets to see him at this point? Or is that too dangerous?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think he has to appear, he has to make an appearance. He has to try to come out of his home. And if they stop him, then he has gained momentum and more prestige. And if they don't stop him, then he will give more momentum to the movement. He can't go on staying home and just calling on people to come out in the streets.

GWEN IFILL: Are you saying he personally has to be willing to be a martyr?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I don't think they will kill him; I don't think they will accost him. I don't think anything will happen to him, no.

HOOMAN MAJD: He's actually said -- he's actually said, "I'm willing to be a martyr now." I mean, he is 68 years old, and his career is over, if he gives in right now, whatever career he had, his credibility, everything is over.

I agree with Haleh. He does have to come out at some point. What's happened -- and this has been very smart on the government's part, on the current government's part -- is they have -- they saw in that huge initial wave of demonstrations, they saw a cross-section of Iranian society.

It wasn't just the students; it wasn't just women; it wasn't just one group of people that didn't have the sympathy of the entire nation. They saw the entire nation basically in various cities come out.

And what they've done is peel off the kinds of supporters that they never expected Mousavi to have, the religious families. They've peeled them off. One way to peel them off is by blocking the demonstrations or by violence, by intimidation.

The other way, which has been effective a little bit and can be more effective in the future, is to blame these demonstrations and these uprisings on foreign forces, on the CIA, on the Mujahideen. Every night on television in Tehran, last night, just last night on Channel 2 in Tehran, they showed a recreation of the killing of Neda, the young...

GWEN IFILL: The young woman who...

HOOMAN MAJD: ... the young woman who was shot.

GWEN IFILL: ... bled to death in the street.

HOOMAN MAJD: And then they said that, you know, it was a Mujahideen operation all the way. They said they had evidence that there were tapes of -- video footage of them rehearsing this killing, stuff like that. They weren't saying that she wasn't killed. They were saying that she wasn't innocent. They were saying that it wasn't done by the government; it was done by the Mujahideen.

Women and the unrest

Haleh Esfandiari
Woodrow Wilson International Center
I think women have been outspoken for the last 30 years. Women have been the only force standing up to the Islamic republic. They have fought at every step of the way to gain their right.

GWEN IFILL: But the fact that this iconic face of the opposition, the young woman who died, was a woman, and the fact that Mir Mousavi's wife is such a force, how much is this a woman's revolution, or whatever word you choose to use instead?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think women have been outspoken for the last 30 years. Women have been the only force standing up to the Islamic republic. They have fought at every step of the way to gain their right.

And if you see and watch these footages that you even showed now, you see women throwing stones at the Basijis. It is very important. I think we can't call it a "women's revolution," but it's an equal participation of women in the demonstration against the manipulation of the votes.

GWEN IFILL: I looked at the pictures also just now of the men, exclusively men, sitting in the pro-government rally, saying, "Ahmadinejad is our leader." There seemed to be an absence of women on the other side.

HOOMAN MAJD: Well, I think they had -- I mean, even at Friday prayers, but you don't see it because of Friday prayers. They separate the men and the women, and the TV cameras aren't allowed on the women's section. So there are women in chador. You see women in chador at the supreme leader's speech.

And you will see there are religious women. There are women members of parliament in Iran, and so you can't completely discount them.

And, you know, one thing to remember about all this and when we start talking about revolution, "revolution" is perhaps too strong of a word, because let's not forget that, even if we assume that Mousavi won this election, even if we assume that, by as large a margin as is claimed that Ahmadinejad won, that still puts 35 percent of the people with Ahmadinejad, and that's a large number of people.


Obama's strategy and what's to come

Hooman Majd
Author/Journalist
But still there are a significant number of people who are supporters of the supreme leader and supporters of Ahmadinejad. And they have the guns.

GWEN IFILL: So you agree with President Obama when he said it wouldn't have been that big a difference had he won?

HOOMAN MAJD: No, no, no, that's a very completely different story. I disagree with Obama when he said that it wouldn't have been a difference in terms of who the president was, not at all.

I agree with President Obama in terms of not getting involved in this, because there are a lot of Iranians -- I believe them to be a minority. I'm sure Haleh agrees with me right now that they are the minority. But still there are a significant number of people who are supporters of the supreme leader and supporters of Ahmadinejad. And they have the guns.

GWEN IFILL: Final word: What has to happen next?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think we will see the unrest continue, maybe diminished. But I think the face of Iran has changed. Something has broken in Iran. And I think the regime has to do something less drastic and more conciliatory.

GWEN IFILL: Haleh Esfandiari and Hooman Majd, thank you both very much.

HOOMAN MAJD: Thank you.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Thank you.