How Iran's Quds Day propaganda pictures backfired

How Iran's Quds Day propaganda pictures backfired
Iran's Quds Day propaganda has backfired, with Tehran's role in the Syria war brought to task.
6 min read
26 May, 2020
Khamenei's images have attracted ridicule on Arab social media. [Getty]
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has released a series of illustrations to mark Friday's Quds Day, an annual event staged by Tehran to show its support for the Palestinian cause and appeal to Muslims across the world.

Launched by Iran's first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it is marked on the last Friday of Ramadan by crowds of protesters in Iran and in other countries. 

It has become highly controversial in Europe and North America due to the event's links to the Iranian regime and the presence of Hezbollah paraphernalia during marches.

It has also failed to gain traction in most of the Arab world due to its association with Tehran's pan-Islamist ideology, rather than the secular and Arab nationalism more commonly associated with the cause in the region.

Online protest

This year's Quds Day event was the first since the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander, viewed as a charismatic and evocative representation of Tehran's overseas presence.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a series of illustrations to mark Friday's Quds Day, an annual event staged by Tehran to show its support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel
Soleimani's portrait was widely shared by Iran's supreme leader and his supporters in the days building-up to Quds Day last week, which took the form of a virtual protest due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Khamenei's televised speech on Friday saw him describe Israel as a "cancerous tumour in the region" and called for its removal. According to some observers Khamenei also made the first public acknowledgement of Iran's support for armed Palestinian movements.

The visual propaganda has been rife with iconography of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Iran's influence is demonstrated through the portraits of Soleimani and former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and banners of Tehran's proxy militias, carried by the crowds.

One image shared early in the week showed Palestinians celebrating after a fictional election entitled "Palestine will be free" with the problematic sub-title, "The final solution: Resistance until referendum".

Another illustration produced by Khamenei's press office last week to mark Quds Day also attracted considerable negative attention on social media.

Similar to the other images, it is set in Jerusalem and showed recognisable figures forming orderly lines outside Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Above the worshippers a cloud forms the shape of Soleimani's profile.

The front row appears to feature Bahraini cleric Isa Qassim, alongside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh. Behind them is Quds' Force leader Esmail Qaani, imprisoned Nigerian Shia-Muslim cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, and Yemen Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi.

Tucked away on the third row, barely visible, is Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.


Portraits such as these are usually carefully choreographed and the ranking of the profiles not accidental.

Many considered Assad's place in the third row of the congregation to suggest his lowly and peripheral status in the eyes of Khamenei.

Ali Bakeer, an Ankara based political scientist, believes that if Iran's supreme leader really wanted to voice his disapproval of Assad then his portrait would not have been included in the first place.

"Regardless of the positions of the figures in the picture, with the exception of Haniyeh... they are all known for their sectarian tendencies and affiliation to the Iranian regime, in one way or another," said Bakeer.

"Such propaganda is largely counter-productive in the Arab and Islamic world because it reflects Iran's desire for domination by [its] proxies, even in a poster which is meant to win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims."

Iran's role in the region has been widely criticised following its brutal intervention in the Syria war on the side of Bashar Al-Assad.

Tehran's desire to prop up its regional allies, regardless of the cost (in Syria's case, 500,000 lives), rather than work towards justice in the Middle East, has seen Iran's reputation severely damaged over the past decade.

The propaganda this year appears aimed at associating Iran with the Palestinian resistance and hark back to a time when Tehran's regional image was strong, after Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006.

Bakeer believes that many Arabs view Khamenei's use of the Palestinian cause in propaganda as a hypocritical given its negative role in Iraq and Syria since the war.
Iran's role in the region has been widely criticised following its brutal intervention in the Syria war on the side of Bashar Al-Assad
"It is part of typical propaganda by Iran. Khamenei wants to whitewash the crimes of its regime by utilising a just cause with Palestine and with Al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy place for Muslims all around the world," Bakeer said. 

"Judging from the reactions of social media it has backfired, as more people see the contradictions between Iran's statements and its actions, particularly after the Syrian revolution in 2011."

It also appears to be a statement to Iran's adversaries about Tehran's reach in the region and the mainly Shia Islamist allies it can rely on - particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon - in the event of conflict.

"It is meant to say that we are expanding in the region, and we have followers in these countries," Bakeer said.

Syria scars

The Al-Quds portrait shows Tehran's clients from Nigeria to Iraq, and Yemen to Syria, while in another the crowds wave flags of Iranian proxies and allies - including the numerous regional branches of Hezbollah.

Soleimani's presence in the images could signal to the US that despite the easing of tensions Tehran has still not forgotten about the killing of the former commander. It is also building on Soleimani's now quasi-mythical status among some Iranian government supporters.

The Quds Day commemoration also comes as Israel prepares to announce the annexation of the illegally occupied West Bank, said Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications and a fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center, an event likely to have seismic consequences for the region.

"The emphasis on the Iranian network as one in the fight against Israel is remarkable. Having the flags of various groups allies to Tehran - or under their direct command - in one picture signals the type of conflict, if it occurs. Iran is showcasing its capabilities to strike from different directions if, and when, provoked," said Hage Ali.

"The past four decades of the Islamic Republic has taught us that they often talk the talk but do not walk the walk. The poster is most probably propaganda, or perhaps a colourful message to pre-empt any plan to attack Iran."

If Israel does annex the West Bank it will provide a boon for Iran among its supporters across the world, as it has done through events such as Quds Day.

In the Arab world it will not erase the memories of its brutal intervention in Syria over the past decade and role in counter-revolutionary movements in the region, including the regime's brutal suppression of protests in Iran last year.

"Regardless of what Iran's propaganda machine produces, the Syrian conflict has redefined Tehran's influence on the Palestinian cause. Hamas operatives who were active against Assad continue to suffer in his jails as Tehran failed to restore old ties," said Hage Ali.

"Post-Syria conflict, Iran is less capable of influencing Palestinian affairs, and also to a larger extent, less popular among Palestinians and sympathetic Arab youth."

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab and author of Syria Weekly

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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