We barely hear a peep these days from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the world's most notorious leaders during his 2005 to 2013 tenure as Iran's President. But might have broken that radio silence with a shiny new Twitter account today. In typically trollish fashion, his first tweets come on Iran's national Nuclear Technology Day.
@DrAhmadinejad has yet to be officially confirmed, but veteran Iran watchers are taking it more seriously than the many parodies of the former president on social media. It's tough to say because official Iranian Twitter accounts are not verified, given that the service is technically banned but widely circumvented in the country. So far, there are no outward indications it's fake. It accurately lists his current credentials and shows a photo of him in his post-presidency office. Three of the four tweets were in Persian: a couple of routine prayers followed by a greeting of happy Nuclear Technology Day.
Here's his fourth tweet ever, and his first in English. Ahmadinejad tended to treat his country's nuclear program as a source of national pride and Iranian greatness, so it would certainly be in character:
Happy #IRNucTechDay!— Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (@DrAhmadinejad) April 9, 2014
Even if the account is not real, the fact that people are surprised by the idea that he might be on social media says a lot about Iranian politics.
While president, Ahmadinejad was famous for being a loudmouth, though his braggadocio about the destruction of Israel was belied by the fact that Iran's president doesn't have a whole lot of power over Iran's foreign policy. By the time he left office, the rhetoric felt hollow. His role in stealing the 2009 election and brutally repressing pro-democracy protestors turned him into a symbol of Iran's not-so-subtle authoritarianism, and the Iranian economy had fallen to pieces.
Post-2013, Ahmadinejad has become anathema in Iran. Current President Hassan Rouhani has, somewhat fairly, blamed Ahmadinejad's fairly free spending policy for the country's serious debt and inflation problems. Iranians are also quite angry about Ahmadinejad's institutional corruption: he's been accused of intentionally appointing corrupt officials to powerful government positions to curry political favor.
There are even attempts to prosecute him, typically by political rivals and enemies he made during his time in office. An insanely broad slate of charges, though weirdly not corruption, have been brought against Ahmadinejad. They include failing to properly manage the nation's oil company to "high mortality rates on the nation's highways" to defamation.
That last one is particularly important. The case is being brought by the brother of the current parliament chairman, Ali Larijani. Larijani's brother is accusing Ahmadinejad of defaming the chairman on the floor of Parliament during the last election. It sure looks like political payback against a weakened opponent. Larijani and Ahmadinejad had been enemies since at least 2007, when the former resigned as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator over differences with the latter.
But don't totally count Ahmadinejad out. On April 1st, Ahmadinejad made a throwback anti-Western speech at an Iranian war memorial, saying, "We will find peace only when the flag of the martyrs will be waving atop of the White House." Classic Ahmadinejad.
Just a day before the speech, he had been spotted in a seat next to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Analysts familiar with Tehran's Byzantine political culture see these recent public appearances as evidence that Ahmadinejad is trying to make a political comeback, potentially even with the blessing of the nation's most powerful leader.
So who knows — maybe this Twitter account is the next sign that Ahmadinejad is trying to step back in Iran's public sphere, and maybe even its political ring. Or maybe he just wants to celebrate Nuclear Technology Day.