The political ascendancy of Donald Trump -- and the widespread bemusement that's trailed the Republican presidential nominee's bluster and proposals -- have led to some interesting comparisons. Journalists and unimpressed political figures overseas have likened Trump to a host of demagogues, both past and present.
He could be another Vladimir Putin or an even more bronzed Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Perhaps he's most like Silvio Berlusconi, the loud-mouth, controversial Italian media mogul turned leader. Or why not go further back in time: To some, Trump's nativism and rhetoric of strength carries echoes of fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. And a lot of people have, in various ways, invoked Adolf Hitler. A lot.
Whatever the merits of these analogies, the fact that they're being deployed amid an American election campaign speaks volumes of the uniqueness of the moment and of Trump's candidacy. So why not consider another one.
In a recent column about the future of U.S. and Iran relations after the election, British academic and Iran expert Michael Axworthy brought in a somewhat less discussed parallel.
"Trump is plainly populist and unpredictable – an American version of Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," Axworthy wrote.
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. Iran's Ahmadinejad, though, has had his political wings clipped.
Rumors of a potential run in the next Iranian presidential election were cut short this week after the country's supreme leader publicly stated that Ahmadinejad's candidacy would be too divisive. In Iran's theocracy, there's no comeback from that sort of censure.
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