By Robert F. Worth
TEHRAN - His followers have begun calling him "the Gandhi of Iran." His image is carried aloft in the vast opposition demonstrations that have shaken Iran in recent days, his name chanted in rhyming verses that invoke Islam's most sacred martyrs.
Mir Hussein Moussavi has become the public face of the movement, the man the protesters consider the true winner of the disputed presidential election.
But he is in some ways an accidental leader, a moderate figure anointed at the last minute to represent a popular upwelling against the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is far from being a liberal in the Western sense, and it is not yet clear how far he will be willing to go in defending the broad democratic hopes he has come to embody.
Mr. Moussavi, 67, is an insider who has moved toward opposition, and his motives for doing so remain murky. He was close to the founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution but is at odds with the current supreme leader. Some prominent figures have rallied to his cause, including a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. So it is not clear how much this battle reflects a popular resistance to Mr. Ahmadinejad's hard-line policies, and how much is about a struggle for power.
Mr. Moussavi and his wife, who played a prominent role in his campaign, have been under enormous pressure to accept the election results, said a close relative who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The relative did not specify what kind of pressure.
"They are both being very courageous and are expecting the pressure to increase," said the relative. "Mr. Moussavi says he has taken a path that has no return and he is ready to make sacrifices."
Mr. Moussavi began his political career as a hard-liner and a favorite of the revolution's architect, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although he has long had an adversarial relationship with Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his insider status makes him loath to mount a real challenge to the core institutions of the Islamic republic. He was an early supporter of Iran's nuclear program, and as prime minister in the 1980s he approved Iran's purchase of centrifuges on the nuclear black market, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Yet like many founding figures of the revolution, he has come to believe that the incendiary radicalism of the revolution's early days must be tempered in an era of peace and state-building, those who know him say. Some have seen a symbolic meaning in his decision to make Monday's vast demonstration in Tehran a march from Enghelab (revolution) Square to Azadi (freedom) Square.
"He is a hybrid child of the revolution," said Shahram Kholdi, a lecturer at the University of Manchester who has written about Mr. Moussavi's political evolution. "He is committed to Islamic principles but has liberal aspirations."
In recent days, Mr. Moussavi has been pushed inexorably toward a confrontation that carries terrible risks for both sides. If the authorities use force on a major scale to quell the protests, it could crush the movement. It could also generate martyrs and deeper public anger, swelling the demonstrations into a broader threat to the system Mr. Moussavi hopes to preserve.
The steadiness he has shown since the election results were announced Saturday has helped solidify his role as a leader and has heartened his followers.
"The demands of the people are the most important goal of the Islamic republic," Mr. Moussavi said as the polls closed on Friday night, in what was widely seen as a shot across the bow of Iran's clerical leadership, and a warning that he would take his case public in the event of voter fraud.
Mr. Moussavi is in some ways an unlikely figurehead. Calm and deliberate, he has a soporific speaking manner, and even his most ardent defenders grant that he has little charisma. He was out of public life for two decades, a soft-spoken architect who loves to watch movies at home and was overshadowed for years by his distinguished wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a professor and artist.
Yet many also describe him as a resolute figure whose hard experience as Iran's prime minister during the 1980s taught him not to fear risky decisions.
"He was an artist, a university professor with no experience, but he managed under harsh conditions to run a country of 35 million people through trial and error," said Muhammad Atrianfar, who served as deputy interior minister under Mr. Moussavi, and later became a journalist. "The biggest result for him was the self-confidence he gained from that."
As prime minister, he often clashed with Ayatollah Khamenei, who was president at the time. The fights were mostly over economic issues; Mr. Moussavi favored greater state control over the wartime economy, and Ayatollah Khamenei argued for less regulation. The president was more moderate on some issues, and unlike Mr. Moussavi, sometimes drew rebukes from Ayatollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader. In that sense they have switched positions, but the animus between them remains.
After stepping down in 1989, Mr. Moussavi kept a hand in politics, serving on Iran's Expediency Council. But most of his time was devoted to architecture and painting. His chief influences include the Italian architect Renzo Piano, said a close relative.
"He takes some elements of modern Japanese architecture, and American postmodern, and then puts them in the context of Iranian architecture," the relative said.
Although he is deeply religious, Mr. Moussavi (the name is also often rendered in English as Mir Hossein Mousavi) appears to hold relatively liberal social views. His wife is a well-known professor of political science who has campaigned alongside him, often giving speeches and news conferences independently. When they were younger, he was sometimes introduced as "the husband of Zahra Rahnavard." His wife promised that if he was elected, he would advance women's rights and appoint "at least two or three women" to the cabinet.
His oldest daughter is a nuclear physicist. The youngest prefers not to wear the Islamic chador, and her parents do not mind, the relative said. "There has never been any compulsion in the family," the relative added.
In recent years, Mr. Moussavi was deeply dismayed by the excesses of the morality police and by the government's decisions to shut down newspapers, his relative said.
He decided to run for president earlier this year to save Iran from what he said were Mr. Ahmadinejad's "destructive" policies. But it was not until a few weeks ago that a popular movement began to build behind him. As the campaign drew to a close, Mr. Moussavi began answering the president's rhetorical broadsides with some strong language of his own.
"When the president lies, nobody confronts him," Mr. Moussavi said during his final debate appearance. "I'm a revolutionary and I'm speaking out against the situation he has created. He has filled the country with lies and hypocrisy. I'm not frightened to speak out. Remember that."
For a long time, he was compared unfavorably to Mohammad Khatami, the charismatic reformist cleric who was president from 1997 to 2005. But many now say that during the recent protests, Mr. Moussavi held firm against the government in ways Mr. Khatami never would have.
"He's not as open-minded as Khatami," said Nasser Hadian, a political analyst. "But he's more of a man of action."