Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

Grave of Qasem Soleimani (photo by Mohammad Ali Marizad for Far News Agency)

Watching the internet react to US-Iran relations has been quite the trip. With each new development comes a refreshed sense that we may soon be in another protracted war. President Donald Trump is escalating tensions time and again while directly appealing to his most fortified base — Americans who view him as a strongman defending a nation under siege. Accordingly, his administration and supporters have employed several disinformation tactics to justify US aggression toward Iran.

The recent assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani has bolstered the conviction of most Iranians, who want an end to the US military presence in the region. Imagery circulating on Iranian social media paints a picture of embattled opposition. Having historically garnered little sympathy from the West, many Shia Muslims rally around the words of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who warned that any invading American troops would “arrive vertically and leave horizontally.” His two-handed T-shape gesture appears in artwork, photos, and videos as a symbol of self-defense. Another popular design depicts a man’s shoe with one lace pulled upwards by a missile. The text in this particular tweet states that “This only avenged Soleimani’s shoelace,” referring to Iran’s retaliatory strike on a US military base in Iraq, which by design claimed no casualties.

Confusing resistance with extremism is textbook US foreign policy, a longstanding bipartisan tradition of justifying interventionism. Trump consistently props up a false image of altruistic concern, which he then projects onto US economic endeavors and military actions. After Iran admitted to accidentally downing a Ukrainian passenger jet, Trump tweeted in Farsi to express support for anti-government demonstrations in Tehran and on university campuses. The media gives these protests plenty of coverage, portraying Iran as a country in dire need of reform. While freedom of speech is indeed suppressed in Iran, this is nonetheless an imperialist push to weaken and potentially overthrow its government. US officials have built on this for years, disguising their true agenda behind appeals to nebulous notions of “human rights” — conveniently ignoring their uncritical support of countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Ideological warfare trickles down to American civilians, who rationalize intervention in bad faith. Implying that women were more free before the Islamic Revolution, as right-wing entrepreneur Michael Choudrey did, promotes a false image of Muslim cultures in Iran and enforces Western stereotypes of beauty. In reality, Iranian women were largely illiterate and less politically active before 1979. Concurrently, internet bots and MAGA supporters popularized the #IraniansDetestSoleimani hashtag to discourage Americans and Europeans from sympathizing. Unlike in the past, however, Twitter users have been readily available to shut down the spread of such astroturfing efforts.

In an election year, questioning the governance of a majority-Muslim country feeds into Islamophobia and American exceptionalism. Casual racism from ordinary Americans receives sharp-tongued criticism from Iranian civilians who have lived through decades of Western abuse. While Soleimani’s supporters organized the region’s largest funeral in recent history, Americans cracked jokes about a World War III draft in myriad posts. It’s clearly a laughing matter in the States, while Iranians grieve the loss of a national icon and hundreds of unintended casualties.

Iranian citizens and government officials are proving to be far more adept and quick-witted than the US president and his revolving door of henchmen. Just look at the embarrassingly lo-res American flag that Trump tweeted after the killing of Soleimani. Compare it to Tehran official Saeed Jalili’s image of the Iranian national flag, in high resolution, posted after Iran’s missile retaliation. The original Trump tweet received well-deserved ridicule for its sloppiness and irresponsible jingoism. In the coming weeks, we will surely see more bizarre Twitter theatrics and sniffling speeches aiming to control the narrative and drum up support for military intervention. Trump’s incompetence will continue to play out as tensions wax and wane, while Iranian civilians remain caught in the middle.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an art critic, editor, and journalist in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Gothamist, The Art Newspaper, Observer, Pinko Magazine, and elsewhere.

9 replies on “In the War of Memes, Iran Is Trouncing the United States”

  1. This is rot.
    Please explain how theocratic Iran is bringing peace and goodwill to the neighbourhood?
    Like in Syria for a start

    1. How can anyone until the Americans get their asses out of ME where they do not belong. Their only interest is oil. Even now their presence in Syria is just to protect the oil wells and illegal smuggling tankers and make money.

  2. None of these memes, from anyone, can bring back the innocent people killed on that commercial jet that tried to take off from Tehran airport. So pardon me if my enthusiasm for this story is somewhat subdued. When nations like the U.S. and Iran let their leaders act like a-hole 8th grade boys on the playground, all the wrong people get hurt.

  3. Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that kills and tortures its own citizens. But I love your Leni Riefenstahl-like admiration for their memes! Also, forced hijab is the law in Iran, so if a woman decides not to wear one she can be beaten and arrested, and often is. That has nothing to do with “conceptions of beauty”. So yeah, women are a lot better off being subjugated by male mullahs. Trump is an asshole and the US shouldn’t be in the middle east (of course neither should Iran be in Syria, Lebanon, etc.), but to defend Iran’s murderous “government” is just cowardly.

  4. ‘quite the trip’? Ugh. This is uncritical, self-regarding grandstanding of a cyberwar between two imperialist theocracies, both of which have long histories of geopolitical manipulation and exporting terror. Why does the author take the sources of these slick Iranian memes exhorting state violence as authentic when he well knows their US equivalents are toxic? The comment below that compared the author to a Riefenstahl apologist was spot-on; Billy Anania’s taste for ‘radical chic’ is the naive and irresponsible pose of the film-school undergrad. Grow up, Billy, this crap is designed to kill.

  5. So the author’s standard for a government or regime is if they use hi-res? Really? I’d say freedom of speech and expression are far more important than clever graphics-which are quite good. Interesting article, nonetheless.

Comments are closed.