Make Engineering Great Again: Shifting to ‘Self-Expert’ Platform of Governance in Iran and the US

By Ehsan Nabavi

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has recently been blocked from running again in Iran’s presidential elections, is probably the farthest example of a foreign leader Americans can think of as analogous to Trump. the two share a resemblance, however, in a number of ways. Particularly in how both build their governance platform on creating “shock events,” as well as providing alternative interpretations of what constitutes expertise and knowledge, through which they themselves act as the central expert.

Like Trump, Ahmadinejad’s populist platform has massively criticized Iranian political elites and the experts who worked with them for using their power to monopolize wealth. He was nominated by the Alliance of Builders/Developers of Islamic Iran (Abadgaran) with a promise to redistribute wealth, recreate the original revolutionary spirit of 1979 Revolution, and regain the country’s lost pride, dignity, and esteem, particularly in when confronting the West. Paraphrasing, Ahmadinejad’s platform is to Make Iran Great Again.

Make History Great Again

The Ahmadinejad campaign slogan harked back to the revolutionary past of 1979, to politically practice the forgotten Islamic and to revolutionary principles of ‘justice’, and ‘independence’. The motto of “It’s possible and we can do it” was used to inspire voters and mobilize them to think about an imaginary future of the past. He not only emphasized the justice narrative to attract both low economic classes and religious institutions, but also consciously linked his electoral campaign to a not so distant past model—Mohammad Ali Rajai, Iran’s president in 1980, the second president after the Islamic Revolution.  Ahmadinejad’s campaign thus perfectly encapsulated the nostalgia mixed with disappointment and anger pulsing through low and middle class Iranians.

Interestingly, this referral to Rajai’s presidency coincides with the period when the US stagflation made Ronald Reagan’s campaign to think of creating the slogan of “Let’s make America great again”, which Trump, paralleling Ahmadinejad’s nostalgic political longings, took up again to revive some dormant Reagan-era memories.

It’s also worth to notice that both Trump and Ahmadinejad came to office right after leaders, who were popular among elites and democrats or reformists—Barack Obama and Mohammad Khatami. Although the demography of Obama-Trump voters is not exactly the same as that of Khatami-Ahmadinejad, in both cases voters expressed disappointment with their promise of ‘reform’ and ‘change,’ leading to the election of Trump and Ahmadinejad. Both appealed to some memories of the past as opposed to a fearsome and undesirable future, making people turn their back on reform, and perhaps also on the outside world.

In both cases, neither intellectuals (including experts, academics, and artists) nor their related media-outlets had enough legitimacy in the public to check the unprecedented social inclination towards populism.

When it comes to state institutions, both candidates successfully tapped into popular resentment towards their countries’ elites, labelling them corrupt and unreliable. To send that signal to the public, both of them publicly announced that they will not take any salary, and by taking an anti-corruption stance, Ahmadinejad in particular assured Iranians that he would not be defiled and degraded by the wealth belonging to the nation.

Ahmadinejad scoffed at western sanctions and referred to international agreements as “worthless papers” that can simply be torn up. Trump shared the same attitude towards neglecting diplomatic relationships and ripping-up agreements and deals (such as US free trade agreements and Iran’s nuclear deal).

In an interview which aired four days after the election, Trump said “…but certain areas, a wall is more appropriate. I’m very good at this, it’s called construction”. This quote echoes the ubiquitous engineering discourse of Ahmadinejad: “I can construct U-turns. I am an engineer and I am a master in calculation and tabulation”

Make Engineering Great Again

The list of similarities continues. But what parallels specifically can be drawn in terms of Trump’s and Ahmadinejad’s views on expertise and knowledge?

Let’s begin by reflecting on what the 2016 presidential election meant for U.S. experts. Was Trump’s victory a message to the experts that the public distrusted them, their institutions and the entire system of governance? Or perhaps, more specifically, it was a big sign that ‘classic engineering expertise’ (e.g. Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering) was on the verge of an epic comeback, the expertise that made America great in the first place.

Among many reasons, Americans preferred Trump because his promise of huge investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure was resonating well with their desire to go back, seeing themselves and America great again.

To make America great again, Trump’s platform turns to traditional skills in creating the job market (e.g. auto industry, construction).  Not only does that enable him to depoliticize science and expertise, but more importantly it provides a new political economy perspective for his administration by creating classic forms of jobs for millions of Americans (think through the examples of building the wall at the Mexican border and the revival of the Dakota Access pipelines).

Although Ahmadinejad, for a variety of reasons including international sanctions, internal mismanagement, and unprecedented corruption, could not fulfil his ambitious agenda for jobs, growth, and fairness, Iran reached the highest percentage of graduates of engineering and construction in the world during his administration.

Using this ‘go-back move’ in the political rhetoric and expertise, both Ahmadinejad and Trump create a ‘Self-Expert’ platform of governance in which they themselves are the central expert. In an interview which aired four days after the election, Trump said “…but certain areas, a wall is more appropriate. I’m very good at this, it’s called construction”. This quote echoes the ubiquitous engineering discourse of Ahmadinejad: “I can construct U-turns. I am an engineer and I am a master in calculation and tabulation”.

What can we expect?

Trump’s triumph has left many across the globe in complete disbelief, with no option but to make sense of things differently. Thinking of Ahmadinejad’s governance platform provides a unique framework to understand, and sometimes foresee, the Trump era. As an example, Trump ordered government scientists to hide facts from the public, and immediately suspended all EPA contracts and grants. Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad took similar actions. In his early days in office, Ahmadinejad dissolved 27 Supreme Councils and diminished the power of many Iranian state institutions, whose role was nothing but to ‘monitor’ the country’s progress, by casting doubt on their produced knowledge and sowing the seeds of distrust. With a direct order he for instance dissolved the Management and Planning Organization of Iran, a (relatively independent) state body responsible for preparing the country’s budget, and providing official statistics data on employment, agriculture, manufacturing, trade and economy, etc.

After Ahmadinejad’s four-year presidency, the public’s distrust of statistical data and facts became such that opposition candidate Mousavi, speaking on state television, needed to present viewers with charts and graphs, repeatedly saying Ahmadinejad is a professional liar (Ted Cruz similarly called Trump a ‘pathological liar’). Ahmadinejad rose to power as a self-fashioned great man of justice, yet left office with his vice president in jail and under massive allegations of corruption.

Of course we cannot call Trump an American replica of Ahmadinejad, as they are different in many ways. But, unfortunately, a dire future seems to await American society if scientists and politicians underestimate the very large stake Trump has clutched in his hand.

Ehsan Nabavi is visiting Research Fellow with the Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. His research focuses on politics of resources and sustainability, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia.