The billboards depict two men sitting, facing one another, with Iranian and American flags in the background indicating that one of the men is American and the other one Iranian. The image is an overt reference to direct talks between Tehran and Washington, which has become the talk of the town.
In one of the nine images, the US negotiator is shown armed with a gun and wearing fatigues and military boots. In another image, the American is shown with a vicious attack dog at his side.
An interesting point in the images is that the Iranian negotiator has been depicted to be growing goatee, a clear reference to Iranian foreign minister Mohamad Javad Zarif.
Even to less-informed observers, it is clear that these billboards have been designed and installed across the capital city for one purpose: to call into question the sincerity of the Americans as signs of a thaw in the two countries’ thirty-year standoff begin to appear.Direct talks between Tehran and Washington resumed in September, when Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry met in New York and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama had their historic phone call.
Now, there is growing hope for a rapprochement between the two countries, with nuclear talks between Iran and world powers also recently being resumed.
But the question of who installed these billboards remains.
Large numbers of them have been installed in busy streets and major squares and along arterial roads across the capital.
Each billboard is estimated to cost between IRR 400 and 500 million (USD 16,000–20,000) per month. There are 500 billboards installed in the city, and so keeping them up for just one month would cost at least 200 billion rials (USD 8 million).
Even more, billboards erected in the streets of Tehran require authorization from numerous government bodies, including Tehran Municipality and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
What is clear is that whoever is responsible for these images being displayed across the city is challenging the new administration’s foreign policy—and they must have both political and economic power.
But it may not be as difficult to identify those responsible for the billboards as one might think. The Tasnim news agency, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has reported that the images were created by a group known as the House of Designers of the Islamic Revolution, in collaboration with the Mowj Media Center.
The official website of this group does not provide any information about their affiliation. Instead, on its website the group describes itself in rather vague terms: “The House of Designers of the Islamic Revolution is a cultural entity bringing together designers who are interested in practicing visual arts.”
The irony is that the billboard images have been republished on the House of Designers’ website, accompanied by a quote from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “You intend to point arms at the Iranian nation and say, ‘You have either to negotiate or I shoot!’”
The website also gives a brief explanation of the motivations of those responsible for the images: “This collection was ready several months before heated debate about negotiations. But the willingness of both sides for relations based on honesty and sincerity—notwithstanding the US politicians’ history of breaking promises—prompted us to put the project on hold, as the US was facing a moment of truth. This honesty was trampled upon by tougher sanctions and the repetition of threatening language by Mr. Obama in his first meeting with Netanyahu,” a reference to Obama’s promise to the Israeli prime minister that the military option will remain on the table until concessions from Iran are secured.More search to find the origins of this group will not end inconclusively. Tasnim news agency reports that these images have been designed with the sponsorship of Mowj Media Center and the House of Designers of the Islamic Revolution.
The Iran Network website, which is affiliated with the Iran newspaper operated by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, has also been reporting that the Mowj Media Center was involved in the production of the billboards. In a commentary piece on the Iran Network, one writer said: “The organ that has ordered these billboards and banners is known as Mowj,” before sharply criticizing the move.
Mowj started its activities in 2011 under the management of Ehsan Mohammad Hosseini. It has defined its objectives as “the identification, education and orientation of talented revolutionary forces in different arts and media sectors, as well as preparing for the production and distribution of products in harmony with [the principles of] the Islamic Revolution.”
However, public reactions to the billboards on social networking websites have not been positive. One resident of Tehran told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The [billboards’] objective is to sway people, who according to opinion polls are 80 to 90 percent in favor of relations with US. But it is shameful to let authorities down when the administration elected by the nation is engaging in difficult and intensive talks.”
This citizen was referring to an opinion poll ordered by the Iranian president following his September trip to the UN General Assembly on his government’s actions in New York and the resumption of ties with the US more generally.
Newspapers close to the government have reported that the primary results of those surveys indicate that the majority of respondents favored change in the nature of Iran–US ties.
Parsia, another resident of Tehran, summed up the majority attitude on her Facebook page: “Iran’s radicals and Benjamin Netanyahu are currently playing on the same court. They always fish in muddy waters and benefit from wars. They never want friendship between Iran and the US.”
Proponents and opponents of normalization of ties between Iran and the US are locked in an ongoing battle, and these billboards are only the latest attack in this war of attrition. All that remains is to see how proponents of improved ties with the US will respond.