Iran's Challenger: Mir-Hossein Mousavi

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Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi campaigns in Tehran, Iran.

Iranians may have had enough of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic missteps, bellicose rhetoric and beige windbreakers. But the man with the best shot at unseating the fiery incumbent in Iran's Presidential elections isn't the youthful or charismatic candidate one might expect. Though he served as Iran's Prime Minister during the 1980s, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the pragmatic reformist who has emerged as Ahmadinejad's most serious challenger, is stepping back into the political spotlight after what the Iranian media has dubbed "20 years of silence." Mousavi's low profile may work to his benefit. Iranians seeking an alternative to Ahmadinejad's truculence have latched onto Mousavi with little concern, it seems, over the fact that in the 1980s, the gray-bearded 67-year-old was at the heart of a regime that executed dissidents, took U.S. hostages and launched a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. New — though notoriously unreliable — polling suggests Mousavi has drawn ahead of Ahmadinejad after a campaign marked by scathing ad hominem attacks and rambunctious rallies. But Western onlookers weary of Ahmadinejad's antagonizing would be wise not to expect a sea change in Iranian policy. Though he has stressed the need to engage with the U.S., Mousavi has indicated he would not budge on Iran's right to pursue nuclear power.

(See TIME's photo essay, "Faces of Iran")

Fast Facts:

• The son of a tea merchant, Mousavi, 67, was born in Khameneh, in northwestern Iran — also the hometown of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to a relative, Mousavi is the grandson of Khamenei's paternal aunt

• Served as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988, guiding the country through its war with Iraq and earning plaudits for his stewardship of the economy

• While in office, he severed ties with Great Britain over the U.K.'s refusal to disavow Salman Rushdie, the British author whose The Satanic Verses spurred Ayatollah Khomeini to declare a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death

• Was placed on the leadership council of Lebanon's Shi'ite militant group Hizballah by Ayatollah Khomeini when the group was founded in 1982. Mousavi does not recognize Israel, though he has condemned the Holocaust

• Defended the seizure of 52 American hostages at the U.S. embassy in 1979. The hostages were held for more than 400 days; the two countries have not had normalized relations since

• Has not served in the government since 1989, the year the prime minister's post was dissolved. Since then he has been a member of Iran's Expediency Discernment Council, which advises the Supreme Leader, and of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, which monitors artistic expression

• An architect and painter, he has served as president of the Iranian Academy of Arts since 1999

• Emerged as the leading challenger to Ahmadinejad after former President Mohammad Khatami, the leading moderate candidate, dropped out of the race in March, explaining that he did not want two reformist candidates to split the opposition vote. (Others have suggested his exit was spurred by fears of assassination if he remained in the race.)

• Has expressed support for women's rights

(See TIME's photo essay, "Who are the Iranians?:)

Quotes from:

"Weaponization and nuclear technology are two separate issues, and we should not let them get mixed up."
—Defending Iran's nuclear pursuits. (The New York Times, April 6, 2009)

"No one in Iran would accept suspension."
—On the West's persistent calls for the nation to stop uranium enrichment. (Financial Times, April 13, 2009)

"Trust can slowly be developed once again. We can contribute to this by moderating our tone ... A policy of detente will be a central issue for me."
—On defusing tensions with the U.S. (Der Spiegel, April 27, 2009)

"We are up against a person who says black is white and four times four equals five."
—Denouncing Ahmadinejad for lying about the state of Iran's economy. (TIME, June 22, 2009 issue)

"It was the beginning of the second stage of our revolution. It was after this that we rediscovered our true Islamic identity."
—Defending the 1979 seizure of U.S. hostages at the American embassy in Tehran. (New York Times, Oct. 9, 1981)

Quotes about:

"He can be our savior."
—Gholamreza Ghanbari, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, on Mousavi. (Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2009)

"Mousavi is Ahmadinejad without the invective or anger."
—Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on the similarities between the Presidential hopefuls. (Salon, March 18, 2009)

"Should he succeed in capturing the imagination of the Iranian public, the world could expect a President Mousavi who fits somewhere between the accommodating reformism of Khatami and the strident nationalism of Ahmadinejad."
(Foreign Policy, May 2009)

With reporting by Alyssa Fetini