Since mid-August, a mysterious photo of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaning on a rustic walking stick has been widely shared on social media in Turkey – with captions saying he’s spending his retirement herding sheep in his village. It is not true: in fact Ahmadinejad is still in Tehran, still involved in politics, and facing multiple allegations of corruption.
The photograph shows Ahmadinejad in a forested area, in a padded jacket, with a stout stick in his hands. The photo has been published by a Twitter account with 2.2 million followers, an Instagram page with 1.6 million followers, and dozens of Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers between them.
What is false in this story?
First off, Ahmadinejad does not live in a village; he lives in his house in the Narmak neighborhood in eastern Tehran. He is protected 24-7 by a team of government bodyguards.
Second, Ahmadinejad is back at his old job – a professor at the Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran. He has a PhD from the university in civil engineering and transportation planning. A photograph posted on his official Twitter account Aug. 28 shows him at his desk with two laptops in front of him.
Furthermore, while Ahmadinejad has indeed left the presidency, he has not quit political life. He still sits on the Expediency Discernment Council, a high-level committee that advises Supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Where did the photo come from?
The photo shared by Turkish Web users actually dates back to 2017. It was taken during a weekend trip to Kandolus, a village in northern Iran that is a popular tourist destination. Other photos published of the visit show that Ahmadinejad was not alone: one shows him with a local friend, another with his bodyguard and friends around him.
So why did this photo go viral in Turkey?
Gülin Çavuş, editor at Teyit.org, says the fake story of Ahmadinejad’s post-presidential career touched a nerve in Turkey because of recent controversy over the pay and benefits of Turkish lawmakers.
In July, newly elected MP Kenan Sofuoglu of the ruling AKP, a former motorcycling world champion, faced criticism online after he showed up at Parliament in a Lamborghini sports car. In February 2017, Elif Doğan Türkmen of the opposition CHP stepped down from a leadership committee after racking up a 1.2 million lira communications bill in one year.
“This fake news about Ahmadinejad’s modest lifestyle has been massively shared on the various social media platforms. We’ve seen it of course on so-called ‘clickbait’ pages that publish viral stories to get traffic. But we’ve also seen it on left-wing and Islamist Facebook groups that are angry over financial inequality in Turkish society and critical of the luxury lifestyle of many Turkish political figures.
Many Turks complain that members of parliament and ministers take government salaries but do nothing for the people. The salaries of MPs, and their retirement benefits, have become a very sensitive issue. While the minimum wage is about 2,200 lira [285 €] a month, MPs earns about 20,000 [2,600 €]. People are angry over the photos and videos they see online of political figures’ expensive cars and houses – and that makes them receptive to this kind of rumour and fake news.
Finally, does Ahmadinejad live a modest life?
It depends how you define a modest life. Ahmadinejad since the early days of his political career has presented his personal life as modest. For many years he refused to wear a suit, preferring to be seen in a white zipper jacket. He had an old Peugeot 504 as his personal automobile.
He campaigned against corruption while running for the presidency in 2005, and later had a personal website called Mardomyar, or "the People’s Friend." But his second term was dogged by charges of corruption in his administration and some of his closest aides and deputies were convicted up to 15 years of prison for financial corruption. In July 2017, a prosecutor for the Supreme Audit Court said Ahmadinejad himself faced sentencing for 7 counts of misusing public money, including one case relating to misuse of 2 billion dollars during his second term.
The photo that Ahmadinejad tweeted of himself on Aug. 28 shows him with a Macbook Air, a laptop that costs 8 times the monthly salary of an Iranian worker.