Iran has embraced an unlikely medium in its psychological battle against the "Islamic State": the cartoon. However, despite its newest enemy, the archvillains of the Islamic Republic remain unchanged - Israel and the US.
Blood is dripping from the werewolf’s pointed teeth. Thanks to his black turban and long beard, he is easily recognizable as a jihadist. The leash holding him is embellished with an Israeli and an American flag: IS portrayed as a bloodhound driven by the two traditional arch-enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The picture is part of a cartoon exhibition at the Arasbaran Cultural Center in Tehran, showing a total of 270 drawings that focus on IS. They provide the viewers with the Iranian interpretation of the crimes committed in Syria and Iraq in the name of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State." The exhibition follows Iran's announcement of an international cartoon talent competition, offering a reward for the best cartoon featuring the "Daesh" - the name for "IS" in Iran, as well as most Arab countries.
Organizer Masoud Shodjaei rallied the masses at the exhibition opening, stating that it is not only the job of the politicians to confront "IS," but also Muslim artists.
However, Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani opted not to participate in the contest. Now living in Paris, he felt compelled to leave his homeland behind following the disputed presidential election of 2009. Since then, he has been observing developments in Iran from the perspective of an exile.
He has viewed the drawings currently presented in Tehran on the Internet and agrees it is right to make fun of IS by means of caricatures. Neyestani, who was awarded by "Cartoonists Rights Network International" in 2010, however, believes the exhibition clearly aims to reinforce the Iranian government's traditional propaganda polemic: "I assume the objective is to bring Israel and the United States in connection with IS terrorism," he offers.
What is perhaps most striking about the artworks featured in the exhibition is that, in many of the cartoons, the Star of David or the American Stars and Stripes are conspicuously placed alongside "IS" symbols, or the inscription "Daesh." In this way, the exhibition follows the tradition of the anti-Semitic "Holocaust Cartoons Competition" which the country first ran in 2006, and which was sharply condemned by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Reporters Without Borders and the Anti-Defamation League. Masoud Shodjaei was also responsible for that competition.
Merkel and Obama as villains
Interestingly, some cartoonists in this year's competition have managed to do away with the "IS" altogether. Among them is an artist carrying the mysterious pseudonym of Ridha h Ridha, who claims to hail from Germany. Instead of directly poking fun at IS, he has compiled a who's who of Iranian "adversaries," including Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande or Barack Obama alongside Saudi King Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz. They all feature long, Pinocchio-like noses.
The majority of the illustrators participating in the exhibition are Iranians, with some coming from Indonesia and Turkey. None of the entrants are particularly well known artists - neither in Iran, nor abroad.
The exhibition organizers emphasize that, in the cartoons, the jihadists have been represented as locusts ravaging the Islamic world. Or as black sheep in the midst of a herd of white sheep, symbolizing the peaceful majority of Muslims. A student who visited the exhibition told the German news agency dpa that "these brutal killers" were responsible for the fact that every Muslim in the entire world has come under general suspicion. The official message is clear: The "IS" has nothing to do with true Islam.
The era of dialogue
"The era of violence and radical reactions is over, we have now entered the era of dialogue and logic," President Hassan Ruhani said. Iran was trying to present Islam as a peaceful ideology in the world, he said, but these efforts were hampered by IS, besmirching the global image of Islam.
The fact that Iran is ridiculing the "IS" is hardly surprising. The Sunni "Islamic State" has long been the archenemy of the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran. In Syria and Iraq, the "IS" does not only threaten World Heritage sites such as Palmyra, but also Shiite shrines. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long been Iran's ally, whom the government in Tehran has given support. This includes, in addition to military support, beating the drum of propaganda against IS.
Curator Masoud Shodjaei, speaking in Tehran, said that he would try to bring the anti-"IS" cartoon exhibition to Arab and European countries next. The Iranian Foreign Ministry, however, has advised him against such plans due to the risk of terrorist attacks.
Presumably, that is not the only reason behind the official reluctance. The ultimatum for reaching a final agreement on the Iranian nuclear program with the United States will be running out by the end of June. And the cartoons on shown at the exhibition in Tehran prove anything but a diplomatic gesture.