Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Bizarre Bid for Political Relevance
In early April, the United States designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful branch of the Iranian military, a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While individual IRGC commanders and entities have long been the target of sanctions, this was, as President Trump said in announcing the move, the first time that the United States had “ever named a part of another government as a FTO.”
The Iranians were quick to respond. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemned the move as “trickery, deceit and maliciousness” and President Hassan Rouhani called the United States itself a “leader of world terrorism.” But Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thoughts—at least on Twitter—were somewhere else entirely.
On April 9, the day after Trump’s announcement, Ahmadinejad tweeted his congratulations to the University of Virginia basketball team for their victory in the NCAA Final Four.
“I know the special feeling these young men have and I congratulate them and their families on this achievement.” Ahmadinejad tweeted, referring to US college basketball. He signed off with a hashtag shout-out to UVA sports: “@UVAMensHoops #NationalChampionship #FinalFour #GoHoos.”
This is not the Ahmadinejad most of us remember. During his time in office from 2005 to 2013, the former president missed no opportunity to lambaste the American government for its aggression against Iran. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Guards himself and IRGC support was critical to his rise in national politics. “Dear Mahmoud,” one Twitter user sarcastically replied, “now is not the time for such things! Don’t you want to put on your Guards uniform?”
As tensions between Iran and the United States have risen sharply since Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year, Ahmadinejad’s Twitter feed, his primary means of communicating with his American audience, has hardly touched on the worsening conflict. Instead, he’s mourned the passing of rapper Nipsey Hussle, questioned the NFL’s blacklisting of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, commemorated the birthday of Malcolm X, and offered his photographic contribution to the 10-year challenge (he’s gotten squintier).
Beyond social media, in speeches, interviews, and public pronouncements, Ahmadinejad is working hard to shed his image as a hard-line conservative and to restyle himself, at home and abroad, as an advocate of freedom and democracy in Iran and the world over. He projects the demeanor of an elder statesman: someone who has risen above national politics and whose eyes are fixed on higher things—like Jimmy Carter or Desmond Tutu, if those men had imprisoned dissidents, taunted world leaders, developed nukes, and somehow come out of the experience with a newfound zen.
Even when Iran and the United States seemed on the brink of open war a few weeks ago, Ahmadinejad addressed the conflict in utopian and peaceable tones. In an open letter to Trump, Ahmadinejad called on the president to fulfill his campaign promises and end economic sanctions, and provided a tutorial on the peaceful role of the “great Iranian nation” throughout history. “The two great nations of Iran and the US,” he wrote, “desire friendly relations and ties, based on mutual productive interactions. This desire is a constructive, natural and innate trend, rooted in God’s creation and the gem of human existence.”
In a telephone interview with The Nation, the former president of Iran denied having political aspirations, saying “my goal is making a better world for everyone—and this is absolutely not in the mold of a party or seizing the centers of power.” But experts say that being shunned by the Iranian leadership, watching his confidants being arrested, and having his attempts to run for office again denied, Ahmadinejad is desperate to return to political relevance. Rebranding himself to win the hearts and minds of the American people seems to be a central part of that plan.
Born in 1956 and raised in a poor section of Tehran, Ahmadinejad was one of many religious youths who joined the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ushering in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. During the eight-year war with Iraq that soon followed, Ahmadinejad served, in an unknown capacity, with the IRGC.
Ahmadinejad skillfully leveraged these early connections, first becoming mayor of Tehran in 2003, then winning the 2005 presidential campaign. In a surprise upset, Ahmadinejad defeated former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the original architects of the Islamic Republic, who’d re-styled himself as a reform-minded pragmatist.
Partially, Ahmadinejad owed his victory to his shrewd populist campaign. With his signature baggy suits, faded cardigans, and close-cropped beard, he successfully portrayed himself as a man of the people. It helps that he’s a natural politician, charismatic and engaging; in a telling anecdote, journalist Scott Peterson recounts the exuberance when the short-statured Ahmadinejad came to cast his vote in his lower-class neighborhood in east Tehran, embracing a mob of supporters as he made his way to the ballot box. The contrast with Rafsanjani’s formal, presumptuous attitude could not have been greater. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s victory was sealed by Ayatollah Khamenei’s “suggestion” that Revolutionary Guard commanders and their families vote for him, which they did in droves.
Once in office, Ahmadinejad began consolidating power: implementing a populist program at home, installing supporters in key positions, and ratcheting up the rhetorical confrontation with the West. Ahmadinejad launched a series of economic reforms, including privatizing public companies, doling out cash subsidies to every household, and making it easier for people to access low-interest loans. Ahmadinejad still makes much of this economic legacy: His administration “followed a more comprehensive economic program” than the current administration, he said, “and for that reason the economy was more active and the impact of the sanctions was less.”
Most Iranians do not remember his tenure as a time of prosperity. Despite a windfall of nearly $700 billion in oil revenue during his eight-year tenure, economic mismanagement caused inflation and unemployment to increase and pushed some middle-class Iranians into poverty. Coupled with corruption—which included shepherding the Revolutionary Guards’ takeover of an estimated third of the economy—experts say Ahmadinejad bears much of the responsibility for Iran’s still precarious economic situation.
It was Ahmadinejad’s provocative rhetoric that captured the world’s attention. Throughout his tenure, he was outspoken about his country’s nuclear program, dismissing UN sanctions as “illegal” and “worthless.” In 2007, during an appearance at Columbia University, he denied that there were any gay people in Iran, and in 2010 claimed that the September 11 attacks were an inside job.
Even more shocking was his bald anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, most notably at a 2006 conference that brought former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke to Tehran. “Anti-Semitism has always had a part in Ahmadinejad’s international brand,” Arash Azizi, a scholar of Middle Eastern history at New York University, explained. “It works; that Jews control the world is an unfortunately popular trope.”
This offensive rhetoric had real consequences. “What he hadn’t destroyed by his mismanagement, the sanctions helped destroy. He’s partly responsible for the success of the sanctions regime against Iran,” Abbas Milani, a professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford, explained, referring to the 2010 moves targeting Iran’s nuclear program. “The world began to take seriously that he is the president of a regime that is almost unhinged.”
Ahmadinejad’s provocation remains more about the expediency of shock itself than any particular agenda—a strategy that’s easier to understand today than it was 1o years ago. In a way, Ahmadinejad can be seen as a Trumpian populist before his time. Like Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Ahmadinejad understood, and understands, the value of defying political norms and expectations, the manipulability of truth, and the power of unmediated contact with the people, in person and online.
It’s no wonder that Iranians refer to Trump as “America’s Ahmadinejad,” though the former president himself dismissed the comparison. “My hair is a different color than his and I’m not rich,” he joked. “I’m not a member of the Republican Party, either—I’m not a member of any party.”
Diplomatically disastrous as his tenure might have been, domestically, Iran’s clerical establishment also took issue with something else entirely: Ahmadinejad’s extreme devotion to the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam whom Twelver Shi’ite doctrine holds will usher in the End of Days. The ex-president sees his role, and the main mission of the Islamic Revolution, as hastening the Mahdi’s return. He has even claimed that he has direct communication with the Mahdi and enjoys a kind of divine inspiration: He famously told a senior cleric in 2005 that while delivering a speech at the United Nations, he was surrounded by a halo of light and that the audience of world leaders sat transfixed, literally unblinking.
Such sentiments were often seen as kooky, at best, in the Western media, but, as religious studies scholar Reza Aslan has pointed out, the former president’s messianism posed a basic challenge to Iran’s theocracy: Who needs ayatollahs if a layperson like Ahmadinejad can directly speak to and for the Mahdi? It is no wonder that Supreme Leader Khamenei issued a religious ruling saying that only he represents the Hidden Imam.
The power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader escalated thanks to Ahmadinejad’s loyalty to a close confidante named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mashaei, whom some have called Ahmadinejad’s “intellectual guru,” angered clerics with his outspoken mix of messianism, nationalism, and mysticism. In 2009, Ahmadinejad refused Khamenei’s order to dismiss Mashaei from a senior post. Then, in 2013, Ahmadinejad attempted and failed to install Mashaei as his successor as president.
Ahmadinejad has remained steadfast in his support for his friend, even after Mashaei was arrested on national security and propaganda charges in 2018. And this loyalty—not to mention, stubbornness—have come back to bite him. “Khamenei made it easy for Ahmadinejad to be accepted if he would only cut the controversial people off,” Azizi told me, explaining that, in a conciliatory move, Khamenei had even named the former president to the powerful Expediency Council. “But Ahmadinejad spit in his face.”
That’s not all. Since before his second term ended, Ahmadinejad has accused politicians from across the political spectrum of corruption. Last year, he released two public letters to Khamenei calling for extensive reforms, including a ban on military interference in politics and the economy, aimed directly at the IRGC. Ahmadinejad’s open criticism of the supreme leader and the IRGC, then and now, is all the more surprising because both forcefully intervened on his behalf in the midst of the disputed 2009 election, widely seen as rigged: Khamenei effectively ensured him a second term by declaring that Ahmadinejad had won a decisive victory.
Ahmadinejad himself told me he saw no problem with that “legal and healthy” vote. But later, he astonishingly condemned Iran’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war, led by the IRGC, saying, “No one has the right to intervene in the affairs of others,” and blaming ongoing protests in Iran on the government’s mishandling of the worsening economic situation. His boldness is both a measure of his bravery and his inflated sense of his own importance, and a calculated move to distinguish himself from his former backers in the eyes of the Iranian public and the international community.
Having burned, and been burned by, the Iranian political and religious élite, Ahmadinejad is now setting his sights elsewhere. Part of that strategy involved talking with me.
As a reporter and Persian translator based in Jerusalem, I first approached Ahmadinejad’s spokesperson circuitously, asking to interview the former president for “an English-language newspaper from a country in the region that does not have ties with Iran.” Contact with Israelis is taboo and can be outright dangerous for Iranians, so I did not want to get anyone in trouble by being too explicit. I was told candidly that Israeli media was out of the question, but that an interview for an American publication would be welcome—perhaps The Nation?
After a few rounds of negotiations—a phone interview in Persian via Whatsapp, a list of questions in advance, and the chance to review the translated quotes for accuracy afterward—I found myself with the former president on the other end of the line.
In conversation, Ahmadinejad is as polite as he is exasperating, and not only because of my own sometimes fumbling Persian. He loves to answer a question with a question and masterfully steered our conversation back to universalist platitudes—and away from topics he would rather avoid. It felt from the first moment that he was the one running the interview for his own purposes, and I was only a useful vehicle to convey his messages. That sense of being manipulated is what made it so hard to believe his seemingly naive accolades to humanity and cooperation as well as his coy denial of political aims. It seems far more likely that he thought he could use our conversation to burnish his image.
When I asked if he sees similarities between recent protests in Iran and those during the Islamic Revolution, for example, Ahmadinejad replied, “What difference is there? Wherever people demand their rights, it is correct. What’s important is that the demand for rights be satisfied”—a bold comparison that implicitly equates the supreme leader with the dictatorial shah overthrown in 1979.
“He has criticized Khamenei in ways that no other president or public official in Iran has done,” Abbas Milani said. “Dissidents, yes. But someone who was in a position of power, who was part of the Expediency Council, who was a president? Never.”
In our interview, Ahmadinejad claimed his messages to Americans on Twitter (which, in spite of his limited English, he insists he writes himself) are an effort to make a better and more humane world.“My intention with these tweets is not an internal Iranian issue. It’s an international issue. Everyone must be in contact and start talking with everyone else,” he said. “Today America and the American people play an important role in international affairs. When I talk with the American people, in essence I’m speaking with an important part of the world.”
“A politician’s most important job is to emphasize and expand the points in common,” he added. “At the end of the day, all peoples want friendly relations with each other. They all want peace, security, and brotherhood.”
The former president’s insistence that his motives are solely altruistic, and his refusal to discuss the specifics of his political and social vision beyond platitudes about justice and respect, belie the political skill and media savvy that have characterized his career. “When Ahmadinejad was president, I advised people not to interview him,” David Menashri, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, told me. “He used the Western media to propagate his ideas.”
This squares with Ahmadinejad’s broader strategy. The comic incongruity between the Middle Eastern demagogue we thought we knew and his knowing online persona has been entertaining, to say the least. But, denials aside, experts say that his social media campaign—like his recent speeches, interviews, and public appearances—is aimed at rebranding Ahmadinejad, in Iran and abroad, as part of a bid to maintain political relevance.
An obvious place to start currying favor would be to denounce his previous anti-Semitic comments. But he can’t bring himself to go there. “Look, Trump is opposed to the government of Iran, can we say that he is anti-Muslim?” he asked. The issue, he said, was opposition to Israeli policies, not hatred of Jews. “If you mean Judaism as a religion, as a culture, how can a person oppose a religion, a culture, or an ethnicity? I’m opposed to actions that violate the rights of others; it makes no difference who does them.”
Then came the clichéd—and surely calculated—personal appeal. “You’re Jewish and I’m Muslim, and we’re talking,” he said. “Are we fighting? Are we at war?”
Ahmadinejad added that many Jews in the United States also oppose “the Zionist government,” and they are not accused of anti-Semitism. “The violations of the Zionist regime have been censured by the United Nations,” he continued. “If someone else says these things, does that make him an anti-Semite?”
I answered that, yes, some people would say that.
“Well, that’s because they control the media, and they have money, too!”
The Islamic Republic is in a moment of deep crisis: economically, politically, and socially. And as Ahmadinejad has moved back into the public spotlight, it remains to be seen whether the former president will succeed in using the current situation to stage a comeback.
Ahmadinejad does have the ability to attract support in unlikely corners, although it is unclear how wide that support is or could be beyond his dedicated base. “You would hear people say, I hate the mullahs, and Ahmadinejad is one who can get rid of the mullahs,” Azizi said, but “as long as Khamenei calls the shots, and he does call the shots, he’s not going to let Ahmadinejad near power.” This fact was made abundantly clear in 2016, when Khamenei publicly and exceptionally “recommended” that Ahmadinejad not run for a third term as president (legal under Iran’s constitution). Ahmadinejad registered anyway, and unsurprisingly, he was rejected by the Guardian Council, which vets presidential candidates.
However, Ahmadinejad’s outreach to Americans, experts said, is more than just an attempt to stay relevant until the supreme leader, who is 80, leaves the political stage.
“A lot of different forces outside and inside Iran are trying to position themselves as possible alternatives” to the regime—Ahmadinejad included—Milani said. “To be an alternative they think they need the support of the West and the United States. I think he’s trying to bring down the level of rancor and animosity that existed between him and the United States, in the same way that he’s trying to position himself domestically.”
It could even be, Milani added, that Ahmadinejad is angling to get arrested as a way of proving his oppositional bona fides. “I think part of his calculation is that unless I go to prison, I’m not going to convince people that I’ve really broken the umbilical cord that connects me to Khamenei and the IRGC,” he said. (Ahmadinejad himself dismissed the notion, asking “Why would they arrest me?”) Milani did note that Ahmadinejad would have to be “delusional” to think he could be seen as a true alternative: Iranians well remember the economic calamity and political turmoil they experienced under his watch.
Tel Aviv’s Menashri disagrees. “Ahmadinejad has not said his last word in Iranian politics,” he insisted.
In the time of Trump, there is a certain logic to an unrepentant, tweeting populist’s taking the reins in Tehran. If Ahmadinejad was an outlier during his own term in office, today, more and more leaders are following a playbook that he helped write. Ahmadinejad’s return to power is by no means a welcome scenario, but if this kinder, gentler version is to be believed, a revived Ahmadinejad could help Iran navigate a world in which image projection and media manipulation are just as important as traditional force. Seen in this light, Ahmadinejad’s comeback is no more unlikely than Trump’s own rise to power; in fact, with his proven political skill, it is only more so.