As President Obama gets inaugurated on Monday, Iran is sending yet another reminder that the foreign policy challenges facing the White House will not get any easier in Obama's second term.
Propaganda billboards are everywhere in Tehran, but it’s rare to find one that features anything but ayatollahs and honored “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq War, says Slate. That’s why it’s so unusual to see President Obama prominently displayed in a huge new mural on a busy Tehran street.
The ad shows President Obama alongside a villain in Shi'a Islam – Shemr, with a “BBC-style” caption underneath attributed to both men: “Be with us, be safe.”
As the Guardian reports in a fascinating analysis of the billboard, this latest incarnation of Iranian propaganda is meant to derail rumors circulating amongst Western-friendly Iranians that Obama is secretly a Muslim – something that unlike in the United States, is often considered a positive. Some in the theocratic republic have noted that Hussein is the name of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, while others have made much of his surname, which sounds like the Farsi phrase Oo ba ma’st (“he’s with us”).
Shemr is involved with the martyrdom of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 – actually the incident which triggered the split between the Sunni and Shi'a Islamic traditions. The Shi'a, or “Party of Ali” claimed hereditary leadership of all Islam as Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law; after the death of the Caliph Ali and his successor Hassan, his younger son Hussein clashed against the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, who dispatched Shemr to destroy Hussein’s army. Hussein’s followers refused to surrender to Shemr, who offered them safety to abandon him.
In the mural, Obama is associated with Shemr’s traitorous offer; both he and the president say Ba ma bash (“be with us”) in a pun on Obama’s name. The message is clear: sympathy for the West, following both crippling sanctions and the imminent threat of Israeli attack, is nothing more than vile betrayal of both state and religion.
Quite an interesting inversion of our expectations – and a signal that the Iranian state is not backing down.
More photos below: