Why is the New York Times still taking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously?

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loves writing letters. Over the course of his career, he’s penned missives to a variety of powerful people, including former American presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Once, he wrote an open letter to the “American people” in which he questioned their blind willingness to continue their support for Israel.

I wrote about this trend a few years ago when Ahmadinejad published his last “big” letter to current U.S. president Donald Trump. Published shortly following Trump’s inauguration, the letter was, like most Ahmadinejad content, bombastic, rambling, and disjointed. His thesis, to the extent that he had one, was that Trump had done a great thing by exposing the United States’ inherent corruption during his campaign. He also expressed hope that the new president might take the United States in a different direction than its past leaders.

Besides a flurry of headlines, not much came of the Trump letter. Trump did not respond, and Ahmadinejad’s pleas did nothing to improve Iran-U.S. relations, which have steadily deteriorated during Trump’s term in office. At the same time, Ahmadinejad remains far removed from any power that he once held in Iran. His attempts to rejoin the political fray since his departure from office in 2013 have all been either informally or formally rebuffed by the Supreme Leader or the Guardian Council. As a result, many analysts dismissed Ahmadinejad’s open letter to Trump as nothing more than a publicity stunt from an increasingly marginal ex-politician.

In spite of this, the Gray Lady saw fit to publicize yet another Ahmadinejad letter this past Sunday, this time to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman.

The Times framed the document as a “striking” event considering the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Never mind that Ahmadinejad has written to plenty of Iran’s “enemies” over the years, including the aforementioned American presidents, both of whom imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran during their respective tenures.

In the grand scheme of things, amidst a global pandemic and a worsening economic crisis, an article like this probably isn’t a big deal. No one is particularly eager for international relations news, let alone another installment of Keeping Up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The article received a grand total of only six comments on the NYT website and did not circulate widely on social media. Still, the mere suggestion from a respectable news outlet that the clownish, Holocaust-denying ex-president maintains some relevance in present-day Iranian politics reinforces an overly simplistic image of the country for Western audiences. It also reinvigorates a seemingly evergreen theme that Ahmadinejad is always on the verge of a comeback.

In a country with so many competing political factions and political personalities of varying stripes, to continue focusing on an ex-president who has been out of office for over seven years makes very little sense. If the New York Times is seriously interested in Iranian politics and its relevance to regional conflict and global politics (and they should be), there are plenty of more relevant stories than Ahmadinejad’s latest unrequited correspondence.

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