‘In Iran They Call Trump the American Ahmadinejad’

On June 2, 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a rally at Tehran's Azadi sports complex during his re-election campaign. (Caren Firouz / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An Iranian American reader is worried about her family and friends in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban on the citizens of Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and, of course, Iran:

My father is a small business owner in the Midwest, managing a manufacturing company of 20 employees. He has operated this business for the past 15 years, providing jobs and benefits to hard-working Americans. My dad himself is a naturalized citizen, Iranian born. He attended university in the U.S. right before revolution broke out in Iran, and for 35 years thereafter he was unable to return to Iran.

His siblings slowly immigrated to Europe and the U.S. over the years with my grandparents visiting us for years at a time. My grandparents very proudly became naturalized citizens a few years ago.

My father spent these last two weeks in Iran attending to his widowed mother, who is hard of hearing, hard of sight, and diabetic. She had missed her sisters and their families and so went back to Iran a few months ago, despite our wish for her to stay.

This weekend, with the confusion over the ban and not understanding to whom it applied, I found myself asking if my father would be allowed back in the country on Sunday because of his dual nationality. Thankfully, he was.

But my grandmother is still in Iran. I am worried about our ability to bring her back to the U.S. before tensions get worse between the two countries, despite her dual citizenship and the dual citizenship of my relatives who would need to escort her back. We are worried about our friends and family, the students who have visas to study in the U.S., who don’t know if or when they can visit home now. We are worried about the families who hoped to send their children to the U.S. for educational opportunities. We are worried about the individuals who fled Iran and sought asylum and freedom from religious persecution.

They call Trump the “American Ahmadinejad” in Iran and no wonder; he is self-serving, uninformed, and shows intolerance to vulnerable populations.

I am hopeful that our senators and governors will hear our calls to stay Trump’s immigration order. We are a nation founded on seeking refuge, and to institute a “Muslim ban” on the premise that providing solace to refugees will harm our nation is an insult to this country.

If your own family is being affected by the travel ban and you’d like to share your story, please send us a note. Regarding the first reader’s Ahmadinejad/Trump comparison, “it has some depth,” according to The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor in a September 2016 piece:

On the face of it, it’s not an immediately obvious comparison. They don’t look that similar and they have rather different backgrounds—one the scion of a wealthy New York businessman, the other the son of a devout, humble barber. Trump has expressed profound antipathy toward Iran, decrying the nuclear deal agreed by world powers with Tehran last year. (His view was ironically shared by hard-liners in Iran.)

Ahmadinejad was for years the bete noir of the West, a fulminating demagogue who raged against Israel and the United States and suggested the Holocaust was a myth. (On that last count, some of Trump’s supporters may sympathize.) His antics deepened Iran’s isolation and his regime’s acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program led to rounds of crippling international sanctions.

But scratch a bit deeper and the parallel has some depth. As Reza Marashi, a Washington-based Iran watcher, wrote earlier this year in the Cairo Review, Ahmadinejad’s rise in 2005 elections in Iran is something of a mirror to Trump’s campaign. Here’s Marashi:

Iranian voters were a largely disenchanted electorate in 2005. The reform movement had been stymied, and a sizeable portion of Iranian society failed to see their economic lot improve despite the country’s soaring oil revenues. Enter Ahmadinejad: His populist platform criticized Iran’s political elites for using their power to monopolize wealth, and promised to create new opportunities for the average Ali—an Iranian version of “Make America Great Again.” Ahmadinejad’s top challenger, former President Akbar Rafsanjani, said he would continue reforms, support a nuclear deal, and stimulate economic growth—all things that most Iranians view favorably, and similar to the status-quo platform of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Populist discontent fueled Ahmadinejad’s rise. “The Iranian electorate was divided in 2005, and voters neither followed their leaders nor were they averse to radical change,” wrote Marashi. “Fast-forward eleven years, and the American electorate may be in a similar place. Like Ahmadinejad, Trump has locked in his base of ultra-conservative voters, tapped into a large pool of economically disillusioned voters, and won over anti-establishment votes.”

We’ll see if that’s enough for the American Ahmadinejad to win the November election.