Billboard Diplomacy in Iran

A new billboard just went up in ValiAsr Square in Tehran, and it’s pretty aggressive. The billboard celebrates the one-year anniversary of the detention of American sailors off the coast of Iran with a dramatic depiction of that event. In it, several American sailors are shown on their knees with hands placed submissively on their heads. The American flag hangs limply toward the side of the frame, while the Iranian flag billows triumphantly from a high-speed boat in the distance. The image is accompanied by a caption in Persian which bluntly says, “Superior power.”

This new billboard arrives at an interesting moment. Domestically, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future path of Iranian politics following the death of moderate champion Hashemi Rafsanjani a few days ago. Abroad, tensions with the United States continue to rise following disputes about the terms of the nuclear deal. Iranians are understandably concerned that the incoming Trump administration will take a harder line on Iran than its predecessor did. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to read too deeply into the posting of this billboard beyond the normal, everyday workings of Iranian politics.

After all, anti-American propaganda in Iran is nothing new. There are a couple of well-known examples that show up frequently accompanying media reports about Iran, including what I like to call the “Skull of Liberty” painted on a wall outside the former American embassy in Tehran, now an IRGC base, as well as the “Bombs, Skulls, and Stripes” (they have a real thing for skulls) mural painted on the side of a large building. The latter is a popular spot for journalists shooting standup reports looking to inject a bit of drama into their coverage. They are aided in this effort by the text plastered on top of the flag, conveniently written in English, which reads, “DOWN WITH THE U.S.A” in large, TV-legible font. The Persian writing below even tosses in the more traditional Revolutionary slogan, “Death to America,” for good measure.

The ValiAsr Square billboard, in particular, is a popular location for political messaging. This is due at least in part to its status as one of Tehran’s busiest intersections. In 2015, the same space depicted a parody of the famous image of American soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima, only this time on top of a pile of dead bodies symbolizing the victims of American militarism across the world. But negative advertising isn’t guaranteed here. When I passed through the square last year during a trip to Iran, I was greeted with a giant drawing of a bunch of smiling Iranians taking a selfie.

The prevalence of these images in media about Iran gives the impression that the country is awash in anti-American propaganda billboards, although that isn’t really the case. Those that do exist get extensive coverage in foreign press, especially when a new one goes up, but the overall volume is quite low. I didn’t encounter a single one during my travels outside of Tehran, nor did I see much anti-American amateur graffiti painted on the walls. I realize that this falls under the less robust category of anecdotal evidence, but I’m not aware of any extensive cataloguing of public displays of Iranian anti-American propaganda (please write me if you know of any).

The most frequent political billboards actually reference a different conflict. The Iran-Iraq War began following a surprise invasion in 1980 by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein shortly after the founding of the Islamic Republic. It lasted for eight years and cost approximately one million Iranian lives. Posters throughout the country feature the faces of martyrs from this conflict. These displays are near ubiquitous in some cities and serve as a constant reminder of the bloody toll the nation paid to ensure its survival from foreign aggression.

Occasionally, billboards in Iran have been used as a tool for cultural initiatives. In mid-2015 the Tehran municipality replaced billboards across the city with works by famous artists such as Picasso and Matisse as part of an effort to encourage Iranians to visit museums. A year later, billboards throughout Tehran promoted the 29th Tehran International Book Fair, one of the largest such events in the Middle East.

Mostly, though, it should come as no surprise that billboards in Iran serve the same prosaic purpose they do everywhere else in the world: advertising consumer goods and services to the masses. As the saying goes, it’s money — not anti-Americanism — that makes the world go ’round.

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