“Sanctions are coming November 5,” US President Donald Trump tweeted Nov. 2, ominously warning Iran on the sanctions Washington would reinstate on the country. Both the typeface and the message were borrowed from “Game of Thrones,” a fantasy drama TV series popular both in the United States and in Iran. The meme shows the US president gazing into space against a steel gray backdrop reminiscent of the series' visuals.
Trump’s tweet immediately drew negative reactions, both for his parallelism between the sanctions and the series’ much-feared “endless winter,” and the implicit casting of himself and his administration in the role of the “White Walkers,” an ancient race of humanoid ice creatures that invade the Kingdoms of Westeros to subdue its residents.
In a reply on Twitter, the Washington-based National Iranian American Council called Trump "a literal White Walker, fear-mongering, war-mongering, and championing division at every opportunity for political gain.”
The reactions of the Iranians, who are finding themselves yet again subject to unfair sanctions despite signing the 2015 nuclear deal, was swift. Hours after Trump's tweet, a meme in which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was portrayed in a matching pose went viral. It carried a similar — albeit grammatically incorrect — slogan: “Sanctions are welcoming, November 5.”
The portraits of men and slogans styled after "Game of Thrones" continued to multiply on Twitter and Instagram. A fan page for the top commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, published a meme that read, “Never threaten Iran you Mr. Trump! Moans of fears of your troops in Tabas and your English friends' in Persian Gulf can still be heard!”
The latter part refers to Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 that aimed to release 52 remaining American hostages. But the mission did not go as planned when an unexpected sandstorm grounded American helicopters and troops in the central desert of Tabas.
Another "Game of Thrones"-inspired image was published on the Instagram page of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force: “I will stand against you.” It came with a note in Farsi that read, “Trump the gambler, I am your opponent."
Supporters of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose own government went under during crippling sanctions in 2011, made their own meme depicting the ex-president with the text, “You must be ready, always.”
The memes kept coming with parodies of Iranian political figures. The Twitter account of Vox Pop showed parliament Speaker Ali Larijani sitting on the Iron Throne, saying “It is the family name that lives on.” This was a thinly-veiled reference to the parliament speaker’s influential family. Larijani is the son-in-law of one of the Islamic Revolution’s ideologues, Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari. His brother Sadegh Larijani is the head of the judiciary; another brother, Mohammad Javad, is a former diplomat and president of Iran’s Human Rights Committee; and the youngest brother, Mohammad Bagher, is deputy minister of health and medical education.
This meme got a lot of attention and reposts because it came amid signals that the Reformists are likely to throw their weight behind Ali Larijani in his 2021 presidential bid.
Vox Pop posted another meme portraying chairman of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, talking to the legendary dragons in the series: “I have read the FTFF TFTA FAFT FATF In Dothraki.” Dothraki is the fictional language of Westeros. The meme poked fun at Jannati’s advanced age and the controversial debate surrounding the ratification of anti-money laundering laws and FATA legislation at the council and the parliament.
"Game of Thrones" memes focused also on everyday woes such as rising prices. Cartoon website Nishkhat predicted, “110,000 rial [$3] per kilo chicken is coming soon.”
Arash Aqebati, a sociology research fellow at Tehran’s Allameh Tabataba’i University, told Al-Monitor, ”When a society is in a state of panic in the wake of a terror attack or a hostile act such as the reimposition of sanctions — after what they perceived as a successful international deal — it casts itself in the role of the victim. As the victim it resorts to defense mechanisms such as denial or humor, trying to forget or ignore the catastrophe by being emotionally indifferent.”
Aqebati said that by creating memes similar to the one Trump posted, society aims to turn their woes into a joke. “The disastrous affair has become less serious,” he said. “Now society can look into it — in this instance the return of sanctions and their consequences — and think about how to tackle it. So society thwarts a perceived terror attack by making a joke out of it.”
Mohsen Hesam Mazaheri, sociologist at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “In our modern history — at least since the Iranian Constitutional Revolution [1905-1911] and throughout political challenges — humor has been a method of resistance.”
Humor has a strong place in the rich Persian literature, ranging from 14th century poet and satirist Ubayd Zakani to 20th century satirists such as Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda and Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh. Internationally known Towfigh Magazine kept up its satirical news for half a century, between 1922 and 1971. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War put a decade of silence on political satire until 1990 when journalist Kyoumars Saberi published the first volume of his weekly Gol-Agha. For two decades, Gol-Agha used cartoons and short articles to make fun of politicians and bureaucrats. It tread a delicate path, however, and never targeted clerics and presidents.
According to Mazaheri, satire provides an opportunity for the layman to exercise power on dominant politicians. “It gives them the chance to mock the world of politics — as they are unable to do anything else,” he said. “Making fun of politicians at the same time tranquilizes the public and allows them to vent their resentment. Besides, Iranians — who have been invaded for a good part of their history — can be very sly and cunning [in their resistance].”
Aqebati agreed with Mazaheri, concluding, “[Satire and underhanded irony] is the only traditional strategy a conservative society such as Iran has to defend itself against terror, fear and aggression and to restrain peace and stability.”