April 13, 2009 2:53 pm

FT Interview: Mir-Hossein Moussavi

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Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Iran’s leftist prime minister between 1981 and 1989, is a leading candidate to unseat president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in the presidential election on June 12. The FT’s Tehran correspondent Najmeh Bozorgmehr interviewed him on April 12 in his office at the Art Centre in central Tehran. The 18-minute interview was in Farsi. The edited transcript, translated by Monavar Khalaj, follows:

Financial Times: You recently said you would pursue détente with the west if you were elected. How are you going to have that approach with the US while not compromising on the nuclear programme?

Mir-Hossein Moussavi: I consider détente the principle to build confidence between Iran and other countries. I think the recent discourse, which differentiates between nuclear technology and nuclear weapons is a good one. The more this differentiation is emphasised, the greater the possibility of détente.

FT: Would Iran agree to suspend uranium enrichment if you were president?

Moussavi: No one in Iran would accept suspension.

FT: And you would not accept it, either?

Moussavi: No. The problem is that we had a bad experience with suspension. It was first done [2003-2005] to discuss issues and remove suspicion but it turned into a tool to deprive Iran of having access to nuclear technology. There is a bad memory in this regard.

FT: How would you remove tensions then?

Moussavi: Progress in nuclear technology and its peaceful use is the right of all countries and nations. This is what we have painfully achieved with our own efforts. No one will retreat. But we have to see what solutions or in other words what guarantees can be found to verify the non-diversion of the programme into nuclear weapons.

FT: What kind of solutions?

Moussavi: They can be reached in technical negotiations.

FT: How influential can the president be in nuclear decisions while the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say in this issue?

Moussavi: Decisions on nuclear technology definitely need to be based on a thorough consensus at the national level. Obviously, the role of the supreme leader is very determining.

FT: So far, however, no solution has been found. How would your presidency help?

Moussavi: The issue doesn’t only depend on us. It will also depend on the discourse the Americans use and the issues they pursue. The more realistic they become and recognise Iran in this issue, naturally the better the ground will be prepared to find solutions.

FT: Your relations with Ayatollah Khamenei [Iran’s supreme leader] were tense in the past. Do you think this will continue if you get elected? And could you also tell us about your meeting with him last week?

Moussavi: The tensions when I was in office as prime minister [1981-1989] were because of [power] structure problems which were removed in the revision of the constitution in 1989.

Now, the management of the supreme leader as the valy-e-faqih [supreme jurisprudent] in our country and his relations with other organisations and institutions, including government-owned bodies, are totally clear. Naturally, the prospect for cooperation for the country’s progress is very good.

FT: How was your meeting with him last week?

Moussavi: It was very positive.

FT: Did he have any problems with your candidacy?

Moussavi: He had no problems. He has an impartial position in the upcoming election. He mentioned this in his speech in Mashhad [late March] and repeated it to me. As we have had relatively extensive contacts discussing issues, the recent meeting was also very good and positive.

FT: Did Ayatollah Khamenei have any specific recommendation?

Moussavi: No. We only discussed the country’s problems.

FT: Do you have fundamental differences with him in any specific field?

Moussavi: No.

FT: Were your differences with him in the past the reason why you largely abandoned the political scene in the last 20 years?

Moussavi: No. I believed the Islamic republic was in a stable position and that different politicians can come and go. I had no concerns about who might take office. And I was interested in culture, which is why I shifted to cultural activities.

Of course, during this period I was advisor to the top authorities. I have also been a member of the High Council for Cultural Revolution and the Expediency Council. The positions necessitated that I follow political and executive issues.

But it had nothing to do with the problems [I faced] during the [Iran-Iraq] war [1980-1988]. [Former president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani was a very strong and powerful candidate. Then came Mr [Mohammad] Khatami. But I thought I had better run this time.

FT: Do you consider Mr Ahmadi-Nejad a risk for Iran and the Islamic republic’s political system?

Moussavi: Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is the president and for this reason I respect him. There are criticisms about his opinions and behaviour. This is natural in countries like ours in which there is freedom. I don’t see Mr Ahmadi-Nejad himself as a danger.

FT: Where do you see the risk then?

Moussavi: I think the country can be run better and that more effective financial, economic, cultural and foreign policies can be adopted. In foreign policy, we can have better relations with the world which is surely very significant to help our country’s development.

FT: Many critics of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad believe the country will face a crisis if the president is re-elected. Do you agree?

Moussavi: I don’t want to say this and don’t like to use harsh terms.

FT: Do you think you’ll be also supported by Ayatollah Khamenei if you are elected?

Moussavi: It’s absolutely natural for the supreme leader to support any government that sweeps to power with the backing of people’s votes. This support can increase if the government policies are close to those of the supreme leader.

FT: Will you try to make your policies close to the views of the supreme leader?

Moussavi: Yes. The more the country moves toward consensus in fundamental policies, the better it will be run. But you should also note that one of the most important responsibilities of the leader is to approve and announce macro policies which are first discussed at the Expediency Council and then are sealed by him, then notified to other organisations. The government’s commitment to these general policies can create the best relations between the government and the leader.

FT: Given that you have been out of the political scene for a while and that young people in Iran many not know you, why would they vote for you?

Moussavi: The youth are obviously free to vote for anyone they like. I will elaborate on my policies until election day [on June 12] on issues like culture and address their concerns including housing, employment and marriage. If young people think policies correspond to their needs, they will naturally vote and if not, they won’t.

FT: But do you have any specific approach to convince Iran’s youth that you are their candidate?

Moussavi: I think young people should be trusted. I don’t have the pessimism of some [politicians] toward them. Some minor changes in the appearance of young people should not make us think they have taken anti-national identity. I don’t believe that they have changed their appearance so much that we cannot recognise them any more. I think our young people are very good, creative and really decent human beings who are proud of their past and their rich culture.

FT: How are you going to attract their votes?

Moussavi: I will try to discuss these issues in the remaining one month and think they will receive the signals I am sending them positively.

FT: The business community still remembers that you decided to bulldoze the chamber of commerce building to accommodate war refugees back in the 1980s. And this leaves people concerned about your economic policies.

Moussavi: I don’t remember the building you are referring to. Of course, we didn’t have good relations with the chamber of commerce which was related to the election process in the chamber and war-related policies, but we didn’t destroy their building.

Naturally, with the end of the [Iran-Iraq] war, the grounds for such confrontations were removed.

I do believe in the strong presence of the private sector, in particular in the production field, and also making the best use of Iran’s relative advantages in trade. I think all those who care about the country and the economy including the chamber of commerce will welcome this approach and establish good relations with the government.

FT: So you don’t expect tensions with the business community?

Moussavi: No. We need the private sector to help resolve unemployment. There is no bright prospect to deal with such problems through government investments.

FT: What is your economic programme?

Moussavi: I believe there are various opportunities in the country. The government’s role can be that of guidance to have a robust national economy.

We have gone too far in opening up to imports. This has to be revised. We have to take bigger steps to support our national economy.

FT: Are going to restrict imports?

Moussavi: I don’t think there can be a unified prescription. I have to see which sections should be restricted and over what period of time. We have to gradually make those sections in which we have relative advantages active.

FT: Could you give us one example?

There are many factories which are 50 to 60 years old which are very capable and have done well. But they are unable to compete with foreign goods because these goods get into the country in different ways. They are becoming importers themselves. We have to stop this. You can see this in different sectors.

FT: What are you going to do with subsidies?

Moussavi: Subsidies should be targeted. The principle of giving subsidies is acceptable to a certain extent. But they should be targeted and it should become clear why we are giving these subsidies.

They should serve a strong national economy, help safeguard resources and support the lower classes. Targeting subsidies should be done gradually. Any abrupt halt can exert a shock because of the economic structure and the huge subsidies we give for various commodities.

FT: Over what period of time do you are you thinking of targeting subsidies when you say “gradually”? Ten years for instance?

Moussavi: Probably we can achieve this in two [five-year] plans to completely implement it. The most important one is the energy subsidy and we have to gradually work on it.

FT: How are you going to prioritise your economic policies? Give us your top three ones?

Moussavi: We have to constantly work on inflation, unemployment and the improvement of business.

FT: How are you going to improve the business environment?

Moussavi: By facilitating the issuing of permits for new businesses. Such procedures are currently very slow in our country. We have lots of problems in this sense compared to other countries.

FT: And how are you going to curb inflation?

Moussavi: Through monetary policies, imports, making the private sector active and increasing production. And more important than anything else is having stability in economic decisions.

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