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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Bizarre Bid for Political Relevance

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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.”

Go Hoos?

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.”

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