In a statement that went viral shortly after its release February 4, the leader of Iran’s Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called for the drafting of a new constitution and the establishment of an “assembly of founders” to lead a democratic transition away from the Islamic Republic. Noting that Iranians have lost hope in the government reforming itself, Mousavi proposed a referendum on a revised or new constitution and the installation of a government that is rooted in the rule of law and reflects the will of the people. Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for over 12 years, played a critical role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequently developed a reputation as a politician committed to reform within the existing system. The proposal marks another – significant – step in the radical transformation Mousavi’s political messaging has undergone over the course of his nearly decade and a half of confinement.
Mousavi, Iran’s last prime minister, from 1981-89, and a presidential candidate in the disputed 2009 election, argued in his statement that the largest “crisis of the crises is the paradoxical and unsustainable structure of the foundational system in the country. This is the unaccountable and irresponsible power that casts darkness over our lives and blocks the paths to the prosperity of the suffering people.” He also declared that the “unconditional enforcement of the constitution as a motto, which could evoke some hope 13 years ago, is not effective anymore, and a further step should be taken.”
The reaction to Mousavi’s statement has been overwhelmingly – if not uniformly – positive, suggesting that his ideas resonated with an array of activists both inside Iran and in the expatriate community, despite the stark differences that often divide them. Many expressed hope that the statement would unify the various forces fighting for democracy in Iran.
Mousavi continues to enjoy a strong popular base. Many middle-class and young Iranians, who remember the violent suppression of the 2009 Green Movement protests sparked by Mousavi’s claim that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged the ballot, still admire him as a dissident who resisted tyranny and championed their aspirations. More than a decade later, the social media profiles of many Iranian journalists and students still feature pictures of Mousavi and the Green Movement protests.
Mousavi has consistently refused to recant and apologize for opposing the ruling clerics’ favored candidate in the 2009 election and then taking on the entire establishment. And he has paid a considerable price, enduring a house arrest that is entering its second decade.
However, Mousavi hasn’t won praise from opposition figures in the Iranian diaspora, who frequently bring up his previous, high-level government positions, contending that he was a regime insider and is thus implicated in its wrongdoings. This approach at times seems inconsistent, as some expatriate opposition movements have ignored the backgrounds and past regime ties of media personalities and spokespeople who are the key figures of the opposition today berating the Islamic Republic unabatingly. In the eyes of exiled opposition leaders, however, Mousavi doesn’t fit into their plans for Iran, and they calculate his supporters won’t necessarily back the chieftains that the opposition is grooming for leadership.
Once a confidante of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mousavi’s transition into an unapologetic dissident reflects how the Islamic Republic has alienated some of its staunchest advocates and loyalists. But to radical elements among the Iranian opposition abroad, it is not enough that Mousavi has spent the last 12 years with almost no connection to the outside world and has been continuously disparaged by the state-run media as the leader of a “sedition.”
In the climate of disillusionment that has prevailed in the aftermath of the brutal suppression of the countrywide protests that erupted in September 2022, Mousavi’s statement has generated enthusiasm at home and spurred a reckoning among many opposition members abroad. More than 300 political activists, writers, and academics in Iran signed a letter voicing support for Mousavi’s proposal, arguing that its nonviolent off-ramp is the most feasible way to trigger a fundamental shift and institute democracy in Iran. They endorsed the letter despite the risk of government reprisal, as in the past, the government has persecuted signatories of critical open letters addressed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, some signatories are pro-reform figures already serving prison terms for their activism.
A sizable segment of Iranian society has already abandoned any hope for reform and believes that the political establishment is too incorrigible to change its ways. Many leading reformists bemoan this, given the decades they spent working to make the reform movement a catalyst for change. Moreover, reformists are already accused by the opposition of extending the Islamic Republic’s lifespan by pushing for moderation among the ruling elite that would help market what they see as a despicable regime.
Nevertheless, the failure of Iran’s reform project doesn’t preclude a former reformist, such as Mousavi, from emerging as a more radicalized figure, capable of galvanizing disillusioned Iranians of all stripes to come together and fight for a common cause. While Mousavi remains in captivity and doesn’t have a penetrating media presence, he retains influence and popular support. However much Mousavi’s legacy as a reformist has weakened his social capital, he has a base of supporters that can play a critical role in forging a new political reality.