Recent weeks have seen tensions between the U.S. and Iran reach fever pitch. While the Trump administration has warned Iran not to commit any acts of provocation, or attack American interests in the region, Iranian officials have vowed to defeat America in any future war. With tensions quickly escalating, the U.S. has decided to withdraw all non-essential personnel from neighboring Iraq while also deploying new forces in the Persian Gulf including a carrier group and B-52 long-range bombers. While U.S.-Iranian relations have deteriorated over the past two years following President Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), some wonder why the two nations have reached an impasse at this specific point in time? Why have the winds of war begun to blow in May of 2019?
One answer might be that the Trump administration feels that it has “made its case” against Iran, and has thus legitimized the use of force to topple the current Iranian regime. Unlike the prelude to the Iraq war, in which Collin Powell presented America’s case against Iraq to the U.N., the Trump State Department has sought to indict Iran in the court of Instagram public opinion. Indeed, over the past few months the State Department has been investing considerable digital resources in framing the character of the Iranian regime. This framing, which consists of three main themes, is analyzed in this blog post. In addition, the images used to create this frame are also analyzed given that on Instagram, the image is the message.
Theme #1: Iran’s Global Reach
The first theme comprising America’s framing of the Iranian regime focuses on its reach. According to the U.S. State Department, the regime does not settle for oppressing its citizens and denying their freedoms. Rather, Iran is a global actor whose interests and activities extend far beyond its borders. In one Instagram Post, the State Department visualized Iran’s global network of financial institutions used to sell oil to the reprehensible Assad government in Syria and finance Hezbollah terrorist activity in Lebanon. Another Post focused on Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen while still another accused Iran of de-stabilizing Iraq and supporting Palestinian terrorism.
These Posts, combined, depict the Iranian regime as a direct threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and as a threat to the stability of the whole region. Moreover, they transform Iran from a rogue state to a global state whose malicious activities easily transcend borders. In this way, the threat that Iran poses to the world is made evident while America’s activities are framed as a commitment to global peace and security. The Posts comprising this theme may be seen below.
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There are 5 days until the #Iran sanctions deadline, so here’s a reminder for the regime about the 5th requirement to behave like a normal state: The Iranian regime must end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.
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October 30th marks 6 days to go before the sanctions deadline, this is the 6th requirement for #Iran’s regime to behave like a normal state: The Iranian regime must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.
The last Post published in the theme of Iran’s Global Reach warrants attention because of its visual resonance. The image consist of a clock watch running backwards and a red banner outlining U.S. demands of Iran. The visual resonance that this image elicits is that of a time bomb ticking back to detonation as is demonstrated below. This visual resonance signals that the Iranian regime is running on borrowed time.
Theme #2: Iran is ISIS and ISIS is Iran
The second theme comprising America’s framing of Iran focused on a moral dimension. According to the State Department, the Iranian regime prohibits freedom of speech and freedom of the press; suppresses all forms of political and social dissent; abuses its citizens who may be flogged, detained and killed; accepts corruption on a national scale and indoctrinates children who become child soldiers. The Iranian regime is thus depicted as the anti-thesis to the U.S. who has historically framed itself as a champion of human rights, freedom of speech and democracy.
Yet this framing of Iran also resonates with the Western framing of ISIS. Indeed, news stories dealing with ISIS focus on its corrupt leaders, its indoctrination of children and its suppression of dissent by violent means. In this way, the State Department creates an association between a radical organization and a radical state while the struggle aganist Iran becomes one more component in the struggle against radical terrorism. And if the world must be steadfast in its fight against ISIS, then surly America must be steadfast in its fight against Iran.
Images comprising this theme can be seen below. The final image, of indoctrinated children, is compared to pictures used by Western media when reporting on ISIS.
Theme #3: Iran’s Leaders
The final theme comprising America’s framing of Iran focuses on Iranian leaders. In a long series of Instagram Posts these are depicted as corrupt kleptocrtas who further abuse the Iranian people. One of these is the Sultan of Sugar who made billions flooding the market with expensive products. Another is a billionaire who made his fortune through corrupt construction contracts. Notably, in these pictures the images of Iranian kleptocrats are in black and white while a red banner presents their name. These images seem to resonate with U.S. “Wanted” posters published by the F.B.I. These images are shown below.
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Unfortunately, this #AntiCorruptionDay is a reminder for Iranians that their government is full of corrupt hypocrites. Meet Grand Ayatollah Makaram Shirazi—The Sultan of Sugar. He made millions flooding the market with expensive imported sugar, putting Iranian people out of work.
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This #AntiCorruptionDay Iranians have much to despair about. Their government is full of corrupt hypocrites. Meet Sadegh Mahsouli—The Billionaire General. Somehow he had a knack for winning lucrative construction and oil contracts from IRGC businesses. He is now worth billions.
Finally, the State Department framed the most appropriate solution to the struggle against Iran’s regime- internal and external resistance to this corrupt, morally reprehensible and powerful regime who endangers the security of all. Even the solution to the Iranian threat seems to resonate visually with other images of resistance, such as the one depicting U.S. Olympic medalist raising their fists in protest of inequality and racism in America. The opposition to Iran is thus one more step in America’s long stride towards justice.
This blog has suggested that the U.S. State Department has been using Instagram to indict the Iranian regime. Rather than send the American Secretary of State to the U.N., the U.S. now presents its case against a foreign regime directly to an online demos. America’s case against Iran rests on three accusations. First, that Iran is a major threat to the security of the Middle East and the world. Iran is not some lone wolf; it is at the center of a global nexus of terrorism. Second, Iran is ISIS and ISIS is Iran. In other words, the Iranian regime is yet another radical caliphate that abuses its citizens, suppresses their rights and indoctrinates its children. The fight against Iran is thus another stage in the fight against ISIS. The third accusation states that Iranian leaders are corrupt kleptocrats who profit from the misery of their people. And so the regime emerges as a caliphate that must be toppled either through diplomatic pressure or military force.
Images play a central role in the American indictment of Iran on Instagram. This is not surprising as Instagram is an inherently visual medium. As part of its framing of Iran, the State Department employs images that resonate visually with pictures that are familiar to target audiences. Some are iconic pictures, such as the U.S. athletes raising their fists in the air, others are pictures that have been used time and time again by the media. This visual resonance is used to convey the framing of Iran. Iran’s leaders are “wanted” for crimes against the Iranian people. The regime, which indoctrinates its children, is running on borrowed time. The response to its crime is internal and external protest.
And so, the image is the medium for Instagram based diplomacy.