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US and Iran trade barbs, memes on social media over deadly coronavirus pandemic

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This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In an image shared on Twitter recently by the U.S. State Department, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is seen sitting next to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while between them is a small table with a large pile of cash on it.

There is also a pile of cash on Assad’s lap as well as an Iranian banknote in his pocket.

The altered image was tweeted on April 20 by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus to highlight Tehran’s support for its main regional ally, Syria, as Zarif visited Damascus for talks with Assad.

“Since 2012, the Iranian regime has provided more than $10 billion of the Iranian people’s money to Assad. Wonder how much plundered cash the regime’s chief apologist [Zarif] is delivering to Damascus today?” Ortagus wrote in the latest example of the social-media battle raging between Washington and Tehran aimed at swaying public opinion and supporting a narrative.

The two sides, which officially don’t talk to each other, have in past weeks been trading barbs and memes amid a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has hit both countries severely.

Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says the “pointless and utterly juvenile” exchanges are illustrative of “the sad state of relations” between the two countries, which came close to a military conflict earlier this year following the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) regional operations. The killing in Baghdad led to a retaliatory missile attack by Tehran on U.S. forces in Iraq.

“The ideologues within the U.S. administration believe that the Islamic republic is on the verge [of falling] as a result of the combined effects of the [COVID-19] crisis and sanctions, and thus sees media warfare as a catalyst of regime collapse,” he said.

“The Iranians, for their part, see the humanitarian crisis in Iran as an opportunity to shift the blame to the U.S. and delegitimize the sanctions in the court of international public opinion,” Vaez added.

Fighting Sanctions

Much of the recent exchanges have focused on crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed on Iran after U.S. President Donald Trump exited the historic 2015 nuclear deal, which he said was not strong enough to contain Tehran’s nuclear activities and its regional ambitions.

Washington says humanitarian goods, including medicines, are exempt from sanctions. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that sanctions have “drastically” constrained Iran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports, including medical equipment.

The White House has refused to ease the sanctions despite calls by the United Nations, the European Union, more than 30 members of Congress, and others while offering Tehran humanitarian aid that has been dismissed by Iranian officials.

Tehran, which has applied for an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight the coronavirus outbreak, has intensified its calls for the removal of “illegal” sanctions, while saying they hamper its ability to contain the pandemic that has killed more than 5,200 Iranians and infected some 85,000, according to official figures as of April 21. Actual figures are believed by many international groups and people inside the country to be significantly higher.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Iran of “incompetent and deadly governance,” while saying that the establishment’s calls for the lifting of sanctions is “about cash for the regime’s leaders.”

Tweets and images shared by the State Department have suggested that the clerical establishment has enough funds to deal with the crisis, including replacing the letter “o” in “billions” with a photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who according to a 2013 Reuters investigation controls an economic empire with an estimated worth of about $95 billion.

The image was shared by Ortagus after Zarif accused the U.S. of “economic terrorism” amid the COVID-19 outbreak in his country, by far the worst in the Middle East.

Another image, posted by Iran’s Foreign Ministry, included a photo of Pompeo photoshopped under the coronavirus symbol that stood as the letter “o” in the word “sanctions.”

Zarif has directly addressed Trump in some of his tweets, including on April 19, when he reacted to an offer by the U.S. president to send aid to Iran, including ventilators, “if they ask for it.”

“Iran will be exporting VENTILATORS in a few months @realdonaldtrump,” Zarif tweeted on April 19.

“All you need to do is stop interfering in the affairs of other nations; mine especially. And believe me, we do not take advice from ANY American politician,” Zarif added on Twitter, which is blocked in the Islamic republic and inaccessible to most Iranians.

Earlier in the year, Trump and Khamenei traded accusations on Twitter amid heightened tensions between the two countries following the U.S. drone attack that killed Soleimani.

“The so-called ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!” Trump tweeted on January 17, in what appeared to be a reaction to a Khamenei speech where he blasted the United States for killing Soleimani.

Shortly after Trump’s tweet, Khamenei’s official English-language Twitter account accused the U.S. president of lying when he said that his country stood with the Iranian people.

Where Will It End?

The social-media battle and tensions between the two sides are likely to persist in the coming months, analysts say. Vaez says talks between the two countries are unlikely prior to the November presidential election in the United States.

“The irony is that the weaker Iran becomes as a result of the pandemic’s devastation, the more loath it would be to negotiate with the U.S. out of fear that its weakness could invite more, not less, pressure from the U.S.,” Vaez says.

Arianne Tabatabai, an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University, recently suggested that Tehran could seek to bolster its positions ahead of potential negotiations by raising the cost for Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

“Examples of actions Iran could take to strengthen its hand might well include items from the playbook the regime introduced in spring 2019 and carried on until the killing of Soleimani, such as attacks on oil facilities, shipping hubs, and other regional targets,” Tabatabai wrote in an April 14 analysis published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.