Violent Despot Turned Loveable Twitter Rascal

Why do people love tweeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) flashes the sign for victory at the Interior Ministry's election headquarters as candidates begin to sign up for the upcoming presidential elections in Tehran on April 12, 2017.Ahmadinejad had previously said he would not stand after being advised not to by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying he would instead support his former deputy Hamid Baghaie who also registered on Wednesday.
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2017. Atta Kenare/Getty Images

So much happened in 2018 that it might have escaped your notice that this is also the year that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, became an unlikely Twitter sensation—unlikely because, thanks to bans he helped institute, Iranians are largely blocked from accessing social media. Oh, and also because of his long record of human rights abuses. On Tuesday, the same guy who officially denied the Holocaust and oversaw brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters when he was still in office engaged in a Twitter back-and-forth about Chapo Trap House, the popular podcast of the “dirtbag left.” Fans of the show reacted with glee:

How did we get here? Ahmadinejad joined Twitter in 2017, but it took him a while to warm up to the run he’s been on over the past few months. Most of his tweets, as the New Yorker put it, “veer between New Agey aphorisms (‘Let’s all love each other’) and political commentary (‘the Zionists are always causing problems for the #AmericanPeople . . . #ZionistPlot’).” But from early on, the seeds of virality have been there: Hashtag Zionist Plot, while overtly anti-Semitic, also happens to be just the kind of thing that many ironically inclined Twitter users consider hilarious, and proof that in 2018, former despots might not be so different from bumbling dads.

It’s not just his clumsy hashtags that have endeared Ahmadinejad to the Twitter masses (though #NewCoverPhoto was a good one). He also has participated in “Throwback Thursday” and “Flashback Friday,” and everything from his central-casting bio (“Husband, Dad, Grandfather, University Professor, President, Mayor, Governor, Soccer Player, Proud Iranian”) to his videos and pictures paints him as just the kind of clueless boomer that younger or more tech-savvy Twitter users love to mock.

Ahmadinejad managed to cross over from curiosity to phenomenon with his sports tweets. In August, he invoked LeBron James and Michael Jordan in reference to President Trump’s attack on James:

He also called out the French Open for “disrespecting” tennis star Serena Williams by not allowing her to wear what she wanted to during competition—despite hardly being known as an advocate against restrictive dress for women.

And in September, he criticized the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the former player whose protests against racial injustice became a national controversy.

In October, he tweeted well wishes for the University of Michigan’s football team, to the delight of Wolverines everywhere.

According to some, it’s not that Ahmadinejad suddenly cares about sports. (“It sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” ur–sports commentator Mike Francesa told the New Yorker.) Instead, he has an obvious agenda with these tweets, one beyond Twitter fame. Most of them can be read as digs at President Trump or attempts to draw attention to issues dividing America, as a way of criticizing America at large—and deflecting criticism of his own misdeeds. It really is that simple: He hopes that by weighing in on sports and other matters of more innocuous fandom, people will forget that barely a decade ago, his U.S. visit and speech at Columbia University halted the news cycle in outrage.

The weird thing is it has kind of worked (even as some figures, like Jake Tapper, have tried to scuttle the makeover). That’s just where we are now: The same person can be both a vicious former theocrat and a loveable Twitter rascal. But it’s still a little disquieting to see giddy GIF threads form under every Ahmadinejad tweet—even supposedly ironic—with his very recent history as a violent menace reduced to a punchline for the Twitter initiated and above-the-fray podcast fans. Then again, maybe better to be an authoritarian–cum–Twitter novelty than the other way around.