Ahmadinejad’s Online Campaign: Paving the Way for a Political Comeback?

Raz Zimmt analyzes the social media campaign of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad as a possible precursor to an upcoming run for office.

Poster in favor of Ahmadinejad circulated on Telegram.
Poster in favor of Ahmadinejad circulated on Telegram.

In early April 2016, a journalist asked former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the possibility that he would run in the next presidential elections scheduled for the summer of 2017. Ahmadinejad avoided an explicit answer, replying only that, “God willing we all see each other in 96 [the Iranian calendar year 1396 corresponds to 2017].”[1] On another occasion, the former president said that the Guardian Council would have no reason to reject his candidacy were he to run. At a meeting with some of his supporters, Ahmadinejad recently said that not only reformists and supporters of the government, but also some conservatives fear the possibility that would run in the next election. Despite the vague statements, Ahmadinejad appears to have started an extensive campaign towards a possible return to political life, using social networking sites (SNS) as his main distribution platform.

In 2013, Ahmadinejad completed two four-year terms of office. In accordance with the Constitution of Iran he is allowed to run again for the presidency elections in 2017. If he does, it can be expected that he would be running against President Rouhani who will, most likely, seek a second term. Ahmadinejad surprised many in 2005 when he won a landslide victory over former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. However, he ended his second term politically isolated and bruised after two years of an unprecedented power struggle with the top leadership. The confrontation between Khamenei loyalists and supporters of Ahmadinejad revolves not only around political power, but also a sharp ideological struggle over the identity of the Islamic Republic. The messianic ideas of the president and his associates, who challenged the status of the clergy and highlighted the national-cultural component of Iranian identity over Islam, were considered to be a major threat by the conservative establishment, led by Ayatollah Khamenei.[2] As a result, the establishment directed most of the resources it had previously aimed at the reformist camp, against the president and his supporters.

In recent weeks, Iranian media has dealt extensively Ahmadinejad’s return to political life. The website Nameh News reported that he had already started preparations for the elections and quoted a former senior advisor, Abdul-Reza Davari, who said Ahmadinejad is the only one who can defeat incumbent President Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming elections.[3] Prof. Sadeq Zibakalam, a senior political analyst at Tehran University, also estimated that Ahmadinejad is waiting for an opportunity to return to politics. In an interview with the website Fararu, Zibakalam said that if President Rouhani cannot show improvement in the economic situation in the coming year, Ahmadinejad may use this to run for re-election.[4] Referring to the possibility that the Guardian Council might prevent Ahmadinejad from standing for election, Zibakalam said that if the Council can be convinced that Ahmadinejad can beat the incumbent, it will likely approve his candidacy in order to save the conservatives from defeat. [5]

For his part, Ahmadinejad has increased his public appearances and trips around the country in recent months. During the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) in March, he took a high-profile tour of battle sites in the Iran-Iraq War in the southwest of the country, where he met with citizens and criticized President Rouhani’s policies.[6] At the same time, extensive propaganda activity by the former president and his supporters has been evident online in recent months. Ahmadinejad launched an impressive and very active official website that provides regular updates on his activities and statements, publishes photographs of him, and provides statistics designed to highlight his achievements as president, especially in the economic field. It is also used as a means to recruit and contact supporters.[7] In addition to the site, the former president and his supporters manage accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.[8]

However, most of the propaganda campaign of Ahmadinejad and his supporters is conducted through Telegram, an instant text messaging application with more than 20 million users in Iran. Apart from Ahmadinejad’s official Telegram channel, which had more than 8,200 users[9] as of mid-April, the main Telegram channel used by his supporters “Government of Spring” (dolat-e bahar) has 12,000 members[10] and there are several dozen additional Telegram channels and groups of Ahmadinejad’s supporters. Most channels and groups have several hundred members and operate through a geographical and national cross-section in different regions of Iran. The activity on Telegram includes expressions of support for Ahmadinejad, and the distribution of revolutionary, ideological and religious-Islamic content. Included in the latter are messages memorializing Revolutionary Guards killed in Syria, condemnations of President Rouhani, particularly regarding the nuclear agreement and economic issues, incitement against the opposition leaders, and Shi’ite messianic ideas, among other topics.

The choice of SNS as a tool for managing major propaganda campaign on behalf of the former president is not accidental. Fierce confrontation erupted between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader and the religious establishment, which leaves him with almost no significant backing from official parties or organizations working in the political arena, including in the conservative camp. Most official media is also antagonistic towards him. Under these circumstances, SNS have become a main arena where the former president can directly mobilize public support. Ahmadinejad’s online activity reflects a growing trend on SNS in recent years. The online arena has become a central component of election campaigns in Iran, particularly for candidates who need to compensate for limited or hostile coverage in the traditional media.[11]

It is too early to assess whether Ahmadinejad will ultimately decide to enter Iran’s next presidential elections, and if his candidacy will be approved by the Guardian Council. His success in the elections, if approved, depends on his ability to mobilize public support, including through SNS. We can therefore assume that his supporters’ use of SNS will expand over the next year in an effort to lay the groundwork for a proper public relations campaign if Ahmadinejad does decides to run again. The increasing use of SNS by candidates and their supporters in Iranian elections indicates the networks’ role as a platform for disseminating alternative media campaigns by those who cannot afford to do so through traditional media.



[1] “Ahmadinejad: ‘We all see each other in 96,’ Fararu, April 3, 2016.

[2] Raz Zimmt, “An Enemy from Within: the Iranian Regime and the New Political Challenge”, FPRI, June 2011. Available at http://www.fpri.org/article/2011/06/an-enemy-from-within-the-iranian-re in return for the islands.gime-and-the-new-political-challenge/.

[3]“ Ahmadinejad’s Mobilization in Spring 95 [2016] for Running against Rouhani in Spring 96 [2017],” Nameh News, April 4, 2016.

[4] “Possibility that Ahmadinejad will Return and Chances the Candidacy will be Approved,” Fararu, April 5, 2016.

[5] “Ahmadinejad: The Guardian Council has no reason to reject my candidacy,” Asr-e Iran, April 6, 2016.

[6] “God willing we all see each other in 96,” Shargh, April 4, 2016.

[11] Raz Zimmt, “Virtual Election Campaigns: SNS in the Iranian Electoral Process,Beehive, vol. 4, no. 3, March 31, 2016.