by Shervin Malekzadeh
Twelve years ago, what now seems like a lifetime ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York City to deliver his first address to the United Nations General Assembly. Ahmadinejad’s decisive and surprising election a month earlier had signaled a bad turn for already deteriorating US-Iran relations. His time in New York showed that they were about to get worse. The new president presented a litany of complaints directly to his American audience, dispensing in eight defiant minutes eight years of goodwill pursued by his predecessor and bringing to an end all hope of rapprochement between the two countries.
Three weeks ago, Donald Trump climbed the same marbled dais at the UN to make his first speech to the General Assembly. Trump had in his short time in office made it clear that he considered Iran to be a malign actor and that his administration intended to reverse Obama-era agreements between the two countries, in particular the nuclear deal signed in 2015. The relationship between the United States and Iran was already bad; his address to the UN assembly confirmed that it would only get worse. “The Iran deal,” Trump proclaimed, “was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States had ever entered into.” Having declared the JCPOA to be “an embarrassment to the United States,” the president ominously warned that the world had not “heard the last of it, believe me.”
And yet, in spite of their obvious differences, there were moments when it was unclear where Trump’s speech began and Ahmadinejad’s ended. The two folded into each other across the years in a way that produced similar if unlikely conclusions. “Strong sovereign nations,” Trump observed, “let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect,” a passage that could have easily come from an Iranian official. Trump spoke on behalf of the Iranian people and against foreign adventurism, reaffirming a long-standing and standard refrain of Iranian leaders. Leaning on the principle of self-determination, he defended every country’s right to self-defense, to taking action against aggressors, up to and including the total destruction of its enemies. Trump’s startling promise that, if forced to, the United States would be “ready, willing, and able” to “totally destroy North Korea,” echoed Ahmadinejad’s rancorous prediction that Israel would someday “vanish from the page of time,” misremembered by many as a promise to “wipe Israel off the map.”
That their rhetoric converged despite the very different circumstances in which they were delivered was no coincidence. Similar factors shaped the rise of Trump and Ahmadinejad, and were now the source of their shared idiom. Both men had come into office as populists who had defied the odds, having run against and defeated bedrock establishment figures that included Hassan Rafsanjani and Hillary Clinton. At stake in both of their campaigns was the promise, the illusion, of ending “politics as usual.”
Trump and Ahmadinejad won as cagey disruptors, their victories over their respective establishments a release from the dead weight of the past. Norm-breaking would serve as their preferred mechanism for reform, under the theory that any disruption was “good” because the system was presumed to be “bad.” They governed as they had run, as entertainers, the manner of their victories not just a means to an ends but the thing itself. Ahmadinejad and Trump performed grievance, and a segment of the crowd chomped at the bread thrown their way.
Ahmadinejad for his part violated taboos with gusto, eschewing the baroque civility and manners traditionally expected of an Iranian leader. Unmoored from custom and insulated by the profession of faith, he defended without restraint his administration and its policies before parliament and on television, typically with a rudeness that left his opponents stunned and speechless.
That same verve propelled Ahmadinejad to pursue unexpected grand gestures, like writing directly to his American counterpart, the first Iranian president to do so, at the time a major red line, or insisting that local authorities allow women to attend soccer matches in the country’s stadiums.
Most consequently, Ahmadinejad deliberately, at times diligently, defied his own boss, Ali Khamanei. Contrary to popular belief, Iran’s Supreme Leader does not usually govern by fiat but rather through consultation with others. Elite relationships in Iran revolve around the pole of consensus politics as a way for the nezam or system to function and survive. If Ahmadinejad’s bouts of disobedience failed to weaken the office of the ayatollah—Ahmadinejad once refused to come to work for 11 days because Khamanei had reinstated one of his ministers—they certainly had the effect of humiliating its current occupant.
For Better, Not for Worse?
Eighteen months ago, what feels like a lifetime ago, I entertained on this site the possibility that Trump might play a salutary role in American politics, most notably as a much-needed corrective to the country’s muscular foreign policy following the 9/11 attacks. Trump the candidate presented a singular enthusiasm for challenging GOP orthodoxy on the virtuous intent of American foreign policy (“You think our country’s so innocent?”) as well as on its effectiveness in defending the country from its enemies (“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that?”).
As an upstart within the party ranks who nonetheless subscribed to hardline attitudes on torture and the “Islamic threat,” Trump raised the possibility of a leader who would have the leverage and the legitimacy to move the Republican party onto a non-interventionist path. Trump would play the role of Nixon-in-China, now updated for the current stable of international enemies and rogues: Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuela. Any damage caused by his time in office would, switching metaphors, be like the action of a pathogen in a vaccination, on balance acceptable as an unavoidable but necessary risk.
Seven months into the current term, it’s become obvious that such hopes were wildly misplaced. Trump’s transgressions are likely to produce the same policy outcomes as they did under Ahmadinejad, which is to say, not much. The same spontaneous and undisciplined behavior that had made both men such appealing figures on the campaign trail and on television fueled the mismanagement and corruption of their respective governments.
Ill-mannered by disposition and constantly drawn to the din of unnecessary conflict, Ahmadinejad presided over an administration marked by constant turnover and the absence of ability among the rank and file. His erratic and tempestuous style proved to be corrosive to the ties that bound the president’s ruling coalition together. Iran’s already fractious conservative wing has yet to recover from Ahmadinejad’s time in office, and remains unglued to this day.
Whereas Ahmadinejad’s supporters sought improvement in their daily lives, they found in their leaders incompetence and insouciance instead. Disappointment and outrage would have a galvanizing effect on the population, the Ahmadinejad administration an unwitting catalyst for the mobilization and rapid expansion of what had been a quiet if not entirely quiescent democratic opposition, long in retreat. Ahmadinejad won in 2005 because millions of Iranians stayed home. It was a mistake that the public would not repeat, resulting in turnout rates of 85%, 72%, and 73%, for the 2009, 2013, and 2017 presidential elections, respectively.
Like Ahmadinejad, Like Trump
Ahmadinejad left office in disgrace, and remains a toxic figure within Iran, shunned by his peers and much of society. All indications are that the current US administration will come to a similar, ruinous end. The president’s ceaseless pursuit of affirmation, combined with a seemingly limitless capacity for self-undermining behavior, has revealed Trump to be less Nixon-in-China than a bull in a china shop. Whatever hope there was that a more isolationist American administration would be an agent for peace and non-intervention evaporated in the heat of the president’s arbitrary and baseless travel ban on North Korea and six predominantly Muslim countries, a policy that disproportionately affects Iranians. The ban instantly erased Trump’s expressions of solidarity and empathy for ordinary Iranians made at the UN and received with some skepticism in Iran.
Like Ahmadinejad, Trump has manufactured enemies at home when none were available abroad. Lacking legislative accomplishments of any note, the president has turned to an accelerating performance of symbolic outrage within a narrowing trap of identity politics, each new and fresh outburst promoted by the latest policy failure. Ongoing spats with members of his own party over the size of his secretary of state’s IQ and the height of the senior senator from Tennessee suggest an administration in free fall, each hostile tweet bringing the GOP closer to the breakdown of cooperation and unity within its caucus, if not the breakup of the Republican Party itself.
Finally, as with Ahmadinejad, Trump has managed to mobilize ever-larger segments of the population into the ranks of the opposition, including many Americans who until this year had little use for politics. Although the 2018 and 2020 elections remain far away, recent losses in special elections do not bode well for the Republican Party’s prospects.
For all of their shared qualities, one crucial difference sets Trump apart from Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s noxious bellowing remained for the most part aspirational, penned in by his country’s relative weakness and corralled by the authority of the more cautious and temperate Khamanei. It was Khamanei who acted as the guardrail, and it was Khamanei, not Ahmadinejad’s letters, that approved backchannel communications with the Americans via Oman which led to the current nuclear treaty. Safeguards and restraints meant that there were always breaks on Ahmadinejad’s bad behavior, so that his sound and fury largely went nowhere.
No such boundaries exist for Trump, despite the best efforts of his aides. There is no Supreme Leader, no version of the current Congress competent or brave enough to stand up to the administration as it continues on its unconstitutional, perhaps treasonous path. Such guardrails as do exist come from within the White House itself and include ad hoc solutions such as the president’s top aides tackling him should he reach for the nuclear codes. There will be no international force or treaty capable of preventing Trump from starting another war in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula.. Ahmadinejad regularly sent his critics into fits with his artful dodges and thinly veiled threats against the United States and Israel. There is none of that with Trump, who barrels straight into his threats without embellishments.
The truth is that America had its own Ahmadinejad from the start. Trump is a projection of our base desires, an amplification of the worst parts of ourselves. It doesn’t take a Freud to realize that the demons we conjure up from overseas depths are our own, raised from their slumber by the ceaseless pounding of the drums of war. For years Ahmadinejad played the part of the madcap tyrant on TV, faithfully performing his clownish act for American audiences, performed against a rotating stable of straight men and women that included Charlie Rose, Christian Amanpour, and Anderson Cooper, all eager for the ratings of an interview with the Iranian “dictator.”
He turned out to be a simulacrum of the real thing. What we imagine tyranny to be was already there, glimmers on our computer and telephone screens, flickering in the early light of the morning and the scroll of a twitter feed, in the frantic search for news of the latest catastrophe.