Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during an interview in Tehran on September 3, 2019. Now, he is seeking a return to the headlines. Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

A contentious interview by the Persian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran and one of the country’s most polarizing public figures, broadcast on September 17 rekindled an almost muted debate on the ambitions and motivations of a leader whom former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had derided as a “bellicose peacock strutting on the world stage” who had “insulted the West at every point.”

Nearly eight years after departing from office as the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad still harbors an unquenchable thirst for being a political celebrity dominating the headlines, entertained by the global media for his deliberately incendiary and eccentric views.

Ahmadinejad was not a leader most Iranians could be proud of. At least in the eyes of middle-class Iranians who saw him as a thorn in their side, his administration resonated with economic distress, curtailed civil liberties and global isolation.

When he went to Columbia University in New York in 2007 to deliver a speech to the elitist academic institution’s students and professors, Lee Bollinger, the president of the university, preluded his address – which turned out to be a massive fiasco – with a most degrading, scathing introduction in which he described him as a “petty and cruel dictator.” 

Ahmadinejad’s sponsorship of Holocaust denial had enraged Iran’s friends and foes alike, casting him as a bigoted anti-Semite. Even his stalwart ally Fidel Castro had blasted him for calling the massacre of Jews in concentration camps during the World War II a “myth.” On several occasions, his anti-Israel, anti-Jewish diatribes had prompted mass walkouts in international forums, including UN-organized events.

His cluelessness about the etiquette of diplomacy and his unfamiliarity with global geopolitics continuously spelled humiliation for his country, while ironically striking a chord with Iran-bashing pundits in conservative media and think-tanks who hailed every opportunity to demonize an increasingly insulated hermit kingdom built in Tehran by this former mayor turned president.

Ahmadinejad’s peculiar reference to the United Kingdom as a “tiny island located west of Africa” in a speech in 2010 was only one of a succession of his indiscretions.

When in 2013, in a message on the death of the former Venezuelan president, he scribbled that Hugo Chavez would be resurrected along with the Shia messianic figure Imam Mahdi and Jesus Christ before the end of times to “assist the human society in establishing complete peace and justice, kindness and perfection,” he proved that his half-witted improprieties were not isolated incidents.

Some of his apocalyptic predictions, like that overstated eulogy of Chavez, and his implicit assertions that he maintained connections with the 12th Shia Imam Mahdi were even decried by the coterie of conservative clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders who had catapulted him to power.

Although global media were eager to interview him frequently and give him a podium to articulate his provocations, they were not restrained in calling him out for who he really was: a newly emerged dictator with a dogmatic and dangerous worldview.

The Christian Science Monitor once labeled him a “crazed dictator” who favored “cheap windbreakers” and “9/11 conspiracy theories.” ABC News crowned him with the title “the most hated man in New York.” The New York Post denigrated him as a “ranting loon.” BBC World branded him a “master of spin” who never held on to his words.

Time described him as “belligerent, naive, at once a fundamentalist” and “one of the most troublesome and noteworthy leaders in the world,” and The Economist austerely termed him a “very dangerous man” who sounded “Kissingerian in his ability to calibrate the use of violence carefully to achieve particular ends.”

I lived through the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Of that harrowing, traumatic slice of the 21st century, I can only remember being embarrassed as an Iranian citizen every time he made a trip overseas, gave an interview to an international broadcaster and talked of serious issues flippantly, poking fun at foreign leaders and reporters – traits that can be associated with US President Donald Trump.

Perhaps it was for that reason, among many others, that when Trump came to power in 2017, some columnists drew an analogy between him and Ahmadinejad, inquiring which of them was more dangerous to world peace.

The rabble-rousing demagogue was fond of talking, delivering lengthy speeches and granting interviews unremittingly.

To him, the presidency was a bully pulpit for disseminating the most hardline standpoints of the conservative base he was representing, blustering about his opaque, spurious ideas around justice, equality and peace – themes that most dictators orate about a lot – and mobilizing a distorted Persian-Islamic nationalism that saddled the Islamic Republic with enervating loneliness, leaving it with no allies but Venezuela and Syria.

Ahmadinejad attended every UN General Assembly between 2005 and 2013, and made a total of nine trips to New York. Every time, he was accompanied by large delegations totaling as many as 140 people, mostly comprising his family members and those of his aides and staff, for whom the opportunity to visit New York City would have been unthinkable without Ahmadinejad being the president.

Western media had published several reports of noticing relatives of Ahmadinejad and his entourage on massive shopping sprees across Manhattan, hunting the city for bargain clothes, shoes and toiletries at Costco, Walgreens and Duane Reade.

Even so, as Ahmadinejad’s retinue of security guards, personal cooks and kin scoured the beating heart of corporate America for luxury items they couldn’t find back home because of Western sanctions, their boss almost never had anything fresh or conciliatory to say in his United Nations speeches appealing to the American audience.

His addresses were unvaryingly imbued with Holocaust-denying fulminations, denunciations of Western “capitalism” and “imperialism,” vexing prophesies about the imminent decline of the United States and reiterations of Iran’s right to develop nuclear power.

Every single speech by Ahmadinejad at the UN vaulted him to the front pages of world newspapers, and international TV and radio correspondents scrambled to bring the most special guests on air to discuss the firebrand leader’s statements.

This visibility on the world stage was the most exciting gift Ahmadinejad could ever receive by making fiery speeches and busting diplomatic norms and protocols. Irrespective of the gravity of his words or the consequences of his grandiloquence, whatever could put the spotlight on him was fine. For a politician who had never traveled abroad before his presidential terms, being the fulcrum of attention in the global media was an unrivaled blessing.

And now, Ahmadinejad is missing those days.

Struggling for a comeback

After stepping down as president in 2013, Ahmadinejad fell off the radar of world media, and even at home was not a subject of heated conversations any more. In 2017, he submitted a bid to regain the presidency, but was disqualified by the vetting Guardian Council upon the instruction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Ahmadinejad started operating a Twitter account in 2017, and in what appeared to be a new precedent for Iranian authorities – other than Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – posted his tweets in English. His tweets were replete with grammatical errors, bogged down by syntactic, semantic and even punctuation inaccuracies. However, it was clear that he was trying to court a global audience and grab the attention of international journalists.

His ploy paid off, and several world newspapers gave coverage to his Twitter campaign and that he was jotting down tweets about American culture, sports and celebrities, his favorite themes of justice, friendship and kindness and a slew of international events.

He is also cropping up in Western media once more for challenging interviews. Whether it is the leverage of his media advisers who secure him interviews in major media outlets or the renewed interest of international correspondents who approach him to gauge his opinions at a time when eliciting authentic voices from Iran is becoming increasingly difficult, Ahmadinejad is experiencing a revival.

Rumors hint that he is prepping for a run in next year’s presidential election, and for this purpose, he is lobbying the Guardian Council while trying to win the consent of the Supreme Leader to allow him to declare candidacy.

Yet what his recent interviews and public proclamations, including the eyebrow-raising interview with the Persian edition of RFERL (Radio Farda), suggest is that Ahmadinejad hasn’t changed much.

He responds to questions with questions, sometimes ridicules the questions he is asked, takes jabs at the journalists talking to him, continues to boast an aura of self-importance and vanity. He told Radio Farda there was no single issue in his presidential tenure he regrets, since all of his decisions were made in a disciplined and methodic manner, and denies evidenced certainties such as his administration’s crackdown on journalists and students.

Responding to a question by RFERL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, who interrogated Ahmadinejad on why he denied her colleagues the chance to cover his visits to the UN headquarters in New York, Ahmadinejad denied any ban on Radio Farda’s coverage of his New York trips, deflecting the responsibility to UN guards who he implied disliked the Prague-based broadcaster.

Ahmadinejad enjoys exceptional access to appear on any TV or radio station or talk to any journalist the Islamic Republic may not get along with under normal circumstances. The very Radio Farda Ahmadinejad granted an interview to is reckoned as “hostile media” in the official jargon of Islamic Republic devotees.

Ahmadinejad is an unethical and unprincipled politico. Nobody has been able to hold him to account over what he does and what he says. His administration was acknowledged as one of corruption and nepotism. He twists facts, hurls insults and enmeshes himself in a web of lies, yet emerges victorious.

The threat of Ahmadinejad rising to power in Iran again, owing to his populist skills, always looms. The best course of action for global media is to refuse to lend credence to his agitprop and boycott his unconventional views.

He doesn’t have anything new to say. He is only struggling to remain relevant.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.