Iranians Are Mocking Tehran’s Mayor for Installing Anti-American Billboards

After Tehran's mayor installed billboards mocking American human rights violations, Iranians mocked him right back.

A young Iranian girl wearing chador passing the murals at the former US embassy in Tehran, now referred as US Den of Espionage. The murals are affirming the evil of the "Great Satan" (the USA). (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
A young Iranian girl wearing chador passing the murals at the former US embassy in Tehran, now referred as US Den of Espionage. The murals are affirming the evil of the "Great Satan" (the USA). (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

In Tehran, buildings and overpasses have long served as a canvas for hard-line government officials to voice their hatred of the United States. One famous example? The massive mural of an American flag running the vertical length of a concrete high-rise, its stripes replaced by falling bombs and its stars by human skulls.

This week, the Tehran municipal government was at it again, installing billboards intended to shame the United States.

“For every 110 U.S. citizens, there is one in jail,” says one of the signs, which spans the entirety of a highway overpass.

“In America, two out of every five newborns are born out of wedlock,” says another. In one corner, a cartoon baby’s umbilical cord snakes its way into a question mark.

“Every 9 seconds an American woman is beaten,” says a third.

The banners bore the official seal of the Tehran municipal office, along with a satirical title: “American Human Rights.” Foreign Policy verified all of the claims on the billboards as true, although the last one may be outdated: It last appeared on a 1999 Georgia Department of Human Resources studies.

On social media, Iranians speculated that Tehran’s conservative mayor and perennial presidential candidate, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, was behind the posters, which came ahead of the release of an annual report on U.S. civil rights abuses. Iranian officials announced on Wednesday that they had finished writing this year’s 130-page report.

On the social media app Telegram, Iranians expressed dismay that the capital city invested its resources in highlighting America’s problems rather than tackling Iran’s own pressing domestic ones.

So they mocked the data points by coming up with their own. One referenced a well-known corruption case in Iran, when, In 2011, the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid out $87 million for an oil rig that mysteriously never arrived.

One of the memes criticized the Iranian government for failing to properly investigate corruption by asking rhetorical questions about the rule of law in the United States.

“Do you know that in America an oil rig has not been lost?? No really, did you know it??” a user wrote on a digitally altered message that imitates one of the real billboards.

Another meme asks its readers if they realize that in the United States, people tend to face severe repercussions when they embezzle money from their company or the state.

The anti-American soundbites come on the heels of resounding defeats for hard-line politicians in Tehran, and may represent an attempt by them to reassert their control over the city’s advertising spaces.

In Iran’s parliamentary elections last February, allies of President Hassan Rouhani swept the entire 30-seat delegation representing Tehran. And in the concurrent elections for the assembly of experts — a body of clerics charged with supervising and selecting Iran’s supreme leader — Rouhani’s allies ousted all but one of the hard-line candidates from the 16-member Tehran delegation.

Tehran’s mayor is thought to have previously used billboards to indirectly attack President Rouhani’s diplomacy toward Washington. In late 2013, billboards portraying the United States as duplicitous in its talks with Iran suddenly appeared. One of them depicted a U.S. diplomat facing an Iranian one, but below the negotiating table, the American is showing his true colors: combat fatigues. And in some versions, he’s even pointing a pump-action shotgun at his Iranian negotiating partner.

But the public works decorating Tehran’s congested roads aren’t all gloomy meditations on the evils of American foreign policy. A non-governmental municipal body, the Tehran Bureau of Beautification, has commissioned more than 800 murals that have been installed across the city. Many of them depict beautiful surrealist scenes of urban life and open skies, adding splashes of color to Tehran’s otherwise drab skyline. And in a previous project in 2015 to drive visitors to local art museums, the municipality covered hundreds of billboards with art by masters such as Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, and Henri Matisse.

Photo credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon