TEHRAN AND SEATTLE — Iran's economy stood in shambles and its international status was at a nadir. Disturbed by the leadership of then-President Ali Khamenei, Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi wrote him a letter and threatened to resign from his high-ranking post, according to news accounts at the time.
"The affairs of Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are in your hands," Mousavi's 1988 missive reportedly said. "You know better how disastrous these have been to the country."
Mousavi's threat to resign was ignored, but within a year, he was shuffled aside from Iran's political scene, spending the next two decades painting, reading and lecturing at universities.
Today, Mousavi, 67, finds himself again facing off against Khamenei, now the country's supreme leader, as the figurehead of a surprise reform movement built around his own presidential election campaign and the widespread belief among his supporters and independent experts that the June 12 vote count was rigged in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As he ascends the international stage, Mousavi, however, is still very much a blank slate. In public, he remains soft-spoken, almost aloof, measuring his words carefully when he speaks, often awkwardly.
Such attributes may have helped him galvanize a diverse group that includes religious conservatives, worried about the creeping militarism and strident nationalism of the Ahmadinejad era, and secular liberals who would like to loosen Iran's social and political restrictions and end its international isolation.
Yet Mousavi's character also leaves his allies, opponents and independent analysts guessing about how far he's willing to go, whether he will ultimately prove more loyal to the system that he helped establish and that molded him or to the followers who have gambled their liberty and even their lives to support him.
Under close supervision of authorities and denied access to state television or a newspaper, Mousavi has managed to occasionally get his message out. According to news accounts, he told those attending the rally Saturday that he was willing to sacrifice his own life to pursue his cause, though his supporters later denied that he had made such a statement.
Mousavi has called on his supporters to declare a national strike if he is arrested. But he also has made it clear that he is no opponent of the Islamic Republic.
"We are not against the Islamic system and its laws," he said in a statement that appeared on his website at the end of Saturday's clashes between security forces and protesters, "but against lies and deviations and just want to reform it."
A long history
Mousavi and Khamenei know each other well. Not only did they chafe against each other's authority frequently during the 1980s, they are relatives, with roots in the northwestern city of Khamein. They were both part of the Islamic movement that overthrew and replaced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the monarchy. But they were at odds as leading members of rival factions.
"They had all sorts of problems when Mousavi was prime minister and Khamenei was president," said Ali Reza Nourizadeh, an Iran expert in London. "Almost every day, they were fighting with each other."
As prime minister from 1981 to 1989, Mousavi is generally credited for steering the country well during the years of war with Iraq, but some recall an unpredictable character unable to navigate the system and defeat his adversaries in Iran's hard-knuckle factional politics.
"In his domestic policy he was not able to manage his own Cabinet let alone his foreign policy," said Mohammed Esmaeel Haydari, a journalist. "Every single member of his Cabinet was linked to one faction of power and all of them were taking orders from [then-supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and did not care what the prime minister said. In the war-stricken country he was a puppet whose strings were pulled by the clerical establishment. He was, in fact, a front for them."
After the tumult of the revolution's early years, Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as supreme leader, consolidating his power as he mastered the intricacies of Iran's unique political system, which combines elements of a theocracy with that of a republic. He balanced faction against faction, cleric against cleric, cultivating ties with the military and winning the loyalty of the informal pro-government militias. By most accounts, his outlook also became more conservative.
Meanwhile, out of power, Mousavi reinvented himself, spending his two decades out of the political maelstrom studying and teaching at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, and then in 1998, taking over the presidency of the newly created Academy of Arts.
A painter and an architect, he devoted himself to the arts and later sold some of his works to raise money for his campaign. They are jumbles of abstract geometric shapes and flowers, incorporating elements of architecture and design into works that use light touches of color.