On 5 January 2020, a few days after the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport, a massive billboard dedicated to his memory appeared in a central Tehran intersection. Like many depictions of the widely popular general that emerged following his sudden death, the billboard captured the stature and poise for which he was known: a serious man in solemn contemplation, preoccupied over the challenges of the Iranian nation that presumably weighed on his conscience. His face appeared alone against an all-red backdrop, above the slogan “Your blood challenges any adversary.” Despite the immense respect Soleimani garnered, the mythology that surrounded his reputation, and the insistence by the regime that his death would be avenged, the billboard barely lasted a week. It was soon replaced with another one, this time in memory of the 240 victims of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 that had mistakenly been shot down by the Iranian government several days prior.
The billboard commemorating Qassem Soleimani appeared several days after his death. Source: Mizan Online
In memory of the Ukrainian Airlines victims. Source: Tasnim News
The sudden switch from a mural seeking vengeance for an iconic figure of the regime to empathy over an unspeakable tragedy for which the regime bore responsibility is not as surprising as it may first appear. The murals hanging from a building at the Vali Asr intersection—one of Tehran’s busiest—were designed to be fluid and mutable, able to roll-out a new image or message at a moment’s notice, whether in response to an unforeseen international event, in commemoration of an important national affair, or in support of national unity. The billboard is well-disposed to switch its “murals” frequently: technically speaking, they are posters that can be hung overnight, rather than murals painted on the side of a building, a more time-consuming and labor-intensive effort. Its dynamic potential was on display a few weeks later when the renewed attempt to use Soleimani’s death to call for national unity was replaced by a mural preaching yet again amidst the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
The Vali Asr billboard is part of Tehran’s expansive mural landscape, built-up in the early days of the Islamic Republic to propagate the triumph of the revolution and promote its Islamic character. In discussing the general matrix of post-Revolutionary murals, often overlooked is how and why new murals and styles have slowly emerged over time and what this may say about the state’s messaging prerogatives.
Soft Propaganda: Experimentation with Motifs and Messages
More than just a rotating platform publicizing different types of regime messaging, the value of the Vali Asr billboard lies in its capability to (re)present some of the more rigid aspects of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and encode it in inventive ways. The billboard can serve as a flexible and communicative supplement to other representations, visual or otherwise, of the Islamic Republic’s ideology.
Many of the murals depicting the Islamic Republic’s ideological messages, such as the country’s Islamic character, martyrdom, or anti-Americanism, face difficult constraints. Core ideological themes are often depicted in murals through the dogmatic, pretentious, and heavy-handed style of “hard propaganda.” Despite their sometimes laughable doctrinarism to some, these murals remain necessary for the state’s self-presentation to the Iranian populace and the world. Murals cast in this style have gained widespread notoriety: skulls and bombs replace the stars and stripes of the American flag; news article after news article depict a woman in chador walking past the paintings covering the walls of the former US embassy in Tehran.
One of Tehran’s “hard propaganda” murals. Source: Radio Zamaneh
Such notoriety can also act as a constraint. These murals serve as a barometer for the state's capability to project ideological consistency and power at home and abroad. Their perseverance, and the continued creation of similar images in their mold, is thus paramount. As expressed in murals, the state’s core messages appear difficult to change, their substance only adapting slowly over time.
The Vali Asr billboard changing overnight. Source: Jamaran News
The billboard-cum-mural at Vali Asr square, by contrast, reveals a different side of state power. It is under significantly less constraint. It is designed to change its image with frequency. This flexibility allows the billboard to diversify its messaging. It often employs a sleeker and subtler style of “soft propaganda” to do so. This does not mean the Vali Asr billboard shies away from displaying the major themes found on some of Iran’s most well-known murals. There are numerous examples of the Vali Asr billboard engaging in the hard propaganda of the regime, from promoting the ongoing importance of Husyan’s martyrdom at Karbala in Islamic Republic ideology to representing the United States as Iran’s mortal enemy. But the billboard is not beholden to such ideological expectations and representations.
In the context of post-revolutionary visual politics, Christiane Gruber has noted how the thematic focus of murals has shifted over time to better correspond to the dominant political events or trends of the day. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), for example, witnessed murals with an overwhelming focus on martyrdom whereas the tenure of reformist president Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005) saw a surge in murals more inclined to the liberal theme of “beautification” (ziba-sazi). Likewise, Ulrich Marzolph has discussed how the image of the martyr’s body has “faded” in more recent murals, having shifted from realistic, sometimes violent, depictions to ones more abstract and surreal. He posits this is largely due to the fact that younger generations, who are too young to have contributed to the revolution and war effort or recall the early phase of the Islamic Republic at all, are turned-off by the more traditional and visceral depictions of martyrs.
Such slow changes, juxtaposed with the rapid change in Iran’s age structure during the previous decades, indicate how the myth of the martyr is becoming increasingly difficult to convey. At the same time, it is a myth that requires preservation precisely because it is one on which the Islamic Republic is largely founded. At the time of the Revolution, narratives of the Battle of Karbala were reinterpreted as a call to active struggle, while during the Iran-Iraq War, a new repertoire of martyrs was created on whose memory the regime’s ideology came to be based. The dynamic handling of Qassem Soleimani’s death on the Vali Asr billboard shows how the theme of martyrdom can be reinterpreted and communicated in a new way. It demonstrates the ability of the mural to offer a flexible commentary on state ideology in a manner that traditional or surrealist depictions of martyrs may not.
Communicating Martyrdom: General Soleimani Revisited
Exactly one month after his sudden death, a second mural dedicated to Soleimani appeared on the Vali Asr billboard. The image depicts Soleimani, who had by then already been widely celebrated as a martyr, in the center of the frame offering a military salute. Standing behind him are men, women, and children representing different strata of Iranian society. Most are young, reflecting the age structure of the population and perhaps hinting at the mural’s sought-after audience. They imitate the general, adopting his military salute.
Saluting the martyr Suleimani. Source: International Quran News Agency
A closer look at this second depiction of Soleimani demonstrates how the billboard can deploy the myth of the martyr anew. Flanked by members of society and amidst symbolic gestures meant to make his sacrifice one of imitable heroism, the billboard encodes the image of the martyr in subtle and inventive ways, taking a “soft propaganda” approach meant to elicit greater national unity.
At first glance, the mural represents a typical example of some of the more theoretical aspects of martyrdom. Martyrs, like Soleimani here, are often portrayed as the epitome of integrity, decency, and morality and meant to symbolize the highest standards of their community. To the living, they serve as reminders of the values for which they died and thus have a disciplining effect on all members of society, urging them (at least ideally) to honor the deceased through self-restraint and fulfilling their obligations to society. All citizens must respond to this call and “step forward together, with one voice” to protect “our beloved eternal Iran,” the writing on the billboard stipulates. The billboard suggests that members of Iranian society are ready to participate in this indispensable mobilization. Just as the idealized martyr Suleimani died in defending his belief system while defying the belief system of his enemy—an act all martyrs are seen to fulfill—members of Iranian society, now standing at attention beside him, are asked to do the same.
While still referencing some of the foundational elements of martyrdom, the billboard also situates Soleimani in a softer pastiche of commemoration and remembrance. Unlike other depictions of martyrs that are more heavily wedded to Islamic Republic ideology and encoded in the “harder” aspects of regime propaganda, such as that of Ayatollah Beheshti’s iconic mural in Haft-e Tir Square, Soleimani is situated in the context of national unity and everyday life, separated from more obvious tropes of state ideology.
Despite being killed in a bomb blast attributed to the Mojahedin-e Khalq, Ayatollah Beheshti’s iconic mural directs its rage at the United States. “May America be angry with us and die from this anger.” Source: Tehran Bureau
Remarkably, the congregation of people standing behind Soleimani includes women with and without the chador—a notable transgression from a strict and conservative Islamic point of view. Nor is there any spatial segregation among women and men, a circumstance that applies to some of the Vali Asr billboard's other murals but that is extremely atypical in hard propaganda representations of the Islamic Republic’s ideology, where gender segregation and the supposedly appropriate Islamic dress of women is usually emphasized. Different murals on the Vali Asr billboard have been criticized for upholding stereotypical depictions of women and their societal roles, an unsurprising development since what constitutes the appropriate moral order in Iran, as defined in terms of the clothing regulations for women and gender segregation, has been constantly contested and renegotiated since the founding of the Islamic Republic. But in this case, rather than conceal such differences, the billboard embraces them, demonstrating how Soleimani’s martyrdom affords an opportunity to address society as a whole and unite its heterogeneous members.
What is more, despite the variety of individuals represented in the background, there is no cleric depicted. Their absence may be explained with reference to Shiʿi theology: either one seeks the way of martyrdom on behalf of the community, or one tries by means of religious education to making this world as godly as possible. From this point of view, clerics need not be addressed by the example of the martyr, but could stand, as it were, outside (but not excluded from) the frame. While this interpretation is plausible, the more likely reason for the lack of a clerical presence is to visually divorce the billboard’s message of national unity from the state itself. The two most utilized images associated with the state, often appearing in murals of martyrs, are of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. And yet, they too are absent. Instead a panoply of Iranian flags appear, waving in the background. There is no prominent reference to the Islamic character of the nation. Nonetheless, the state’s ideological message is already communicated by the image of the martyr himself: That Soleimani is venerated as a martyr sufficiently establishes the Islamic Republic as a reference point, while hiding behind a seemingly non-ideological call for national unity. Those standing behind Soleimani, like those seeing the billboard, are not necessarily asked to step forward together for the Islamic Republic, but rather for Iran.
The inclusion of a small boy in the right corner of the frame further conveys a depiction of Soleimani as a heroic martyr among the people (regardless of their professed ideological views), rather than one openly associated with the state. The boy is the only person in the frame not offering a salute, instead making a “T” sign with his hand. The signal gained popularity after Soleimani was assassinated. It suggests that while American soldiers may arrive vertically (i.e., standing upright), they will be sent home horizontally (i.e., dead). The boy is wearing a red headband that reads “ya muntaqim,” which, by evoking one of Allah’s names (al-Muntaqim, “The Avenger”), hints at a desire for revenge. The headband harkens back to the mobilization of volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the nation during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Gesturing at once to martyrs of an earlier struggle and the willing martyrs of a current one, the boy symbolizes the future martyrs of Iran’s past. An idealized and innocent martyr who connects previous national struggles to contemporary ones, he is a fixture in contemporary Iranian history, a constant “face in the crowd” in society. A “living” martyr standing beside Soleimani, he further cements the billboard’s overall message. The boy frames the general’s martyrdom in terms of ongoing national unity, struggle, and sacrifice.
The Vali Asr billboard thus flexibly encodes the state’s core ideological message in a more inventive and subtle fashion, foregoing much of the symbolism found in “hard propaganda” murals elsewhere. It has the capacity to transform a topic like martyrdom—typically understood as an overt political display of hard propaganda—to a sleeker display of soft propaganda. The core ideology remains but is redeployed anew.
The value of the Vali Asr billboard to the Iranian state - like that of any other billboard utilized for propaganda purposes - is its ability “to summarize and strategically condense in short phrases and slogans otherwise lengthy policy positions and narratives articulated via mainstream media outlets." In this way, the Vali Asr billboard is not necessarily different from the numerous murals that populate Tehran’s urban landscape: Both afford the Iranian regime the visual means to present its message directly to the populace without first being filtered through the news media and shaped by journalists across the political spectrum. But the capabilities of the Vali Asr billboard differ from the murals in two important regards.
First, the Vali Asr billboard has a significantly greater capacity to respond to rapidly unfolding events. Whereas the first mural dedicated to the martyrdom of Soleimani did not appear until nearly a month after his death in the city of Qum, the Vali Asr billboard raised a mural in his commemoration in a matter of days. Attempting to capitalize on a news cycle dominated by Soleimani’s death, the billboard even featured Persian and English hashtags in the hopes of an increased social media presence conveying the state’s message. The Vali Asr billboard very much lives in the moment.
Second, because the Vali Asr billboard changes so frequently, it is able to diversify the type of regime messaging imparted on the viewing public in a way a painted mural cannot. The Vali Asr billboard can go one day from displaying examples of overt political propaganda, such as a gruesome re-imagining of an iconic American photograph, to displaying an innocent holiday greeting for the winter solstice (shab-e yalda) the next. With the capacity to toggle between such divergent types of messaging, the Vali Asr mural mixes thematically controversial - and to many, distasteful - images with more mundane ones. While a singular focus on, say, anti-Americanism or martyrdom can lead some viewers to dismiss the Vali Asr billboard as yet another tired example of the regime’s hard propaganda, placing such depictions alongside more commonplace themes, such as holiday greetings, normalizes viscerally charged and controversial messaging.
Reimagining Iwo Jima. Source: Tasnim News
Season’s Greetings for the Winter Solstice. Source: Mizan Online
But any attempt to normalize the regime’s political propaganda goes beyond simply presenting it amidst less controversial or ideologically-driven images. Individual images have a role to play as well by redeploying long-standing ideological tropes in an inventive and subtle fashion. The depiction of Soleimani’s martyrdom was encoded in such a way as to downplay his association with the regime, promote Iranian national unity, and present him as a hero of and for the people. In this way, his exceptional stature as a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is minimized: He is a hero among the living accessible to all. He may appear distant due to his martyred status. But his heroism is depicted as imitable and achievable by everyday, ordinary citizens. The image rebrands the myth of the martyr, further blurring the line between hard and soft propaganda and between state ideology and everyday nationalism. It is but one of many examples among the Vali Asr murals where this is the case.
The question remains as to whether these attempts at national unity have been successful. A conclusive answer is hardly possible. But what can be determined with more certainty are the public reactions to newly appearing murals: lively discussions are being held on social media about the depiction of women and the noticeable absence of clerics in the Soleimani mural and in another image connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. These ongoing debates show that the billboard’s form of soft propaganda does not merely tell a story of top-down indoctrination, but of ideology articulated, newly arranged, and renegotiated in a process that includes public participation.
 The mural in commemoration of the Ukrainian Airlines victims reads “Alas, that sorrow which is made anew by another sorrow.” The previous sorrow refers to Soleimani’s death.
 On the manner and uses of “hard propaganda” as well that of “soft propaganda” discussed further below, see Haifeng Huang, “Propaganda as Signaling,” Comparative Politics 47 no. 4 (2015): 419-437.
 For a brief overview of murals in Iran see H.E. Chehabi and Fontini Christia, “The Art of State Persuasion: Iran’s Post-Revolutionary Murals,” Persica 22 (2008): 1-13.
 Christiane Gruber, “The Message is on the Wall: Mural Arts in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” Persica 22 (2008): 15-46.
 Ulrich Marzolph, “The Martyr’s Fading Body: Propaganda vs. Beautification in the Tehran Cityscape” in Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image, ed. Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle, (Indiana UP, 2013) 165-185. For the gradual replacement of wartime iconography as part of a beautification project in Mashhad see Rustin Zarkar, “A Mural Erased: Urban Art, Local Politics and the Contestation of Public Space in Mashhad,” Urbanisation 1, no. 2 (2016): 166–179.
 Haggay Ram, Myth and Mobilization in Revolutionary Iran: The Use of the Friday Congregational Sermon (American University Press, 1994) 61-92. For the visualization of martyrdom in the public sphere see Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York University Press, 1999).
 Cf. Olmo Gölz, “Martyrdom and Masculinity in Warring Iran: The Karbala Paradigm, the Heroic, and the Personal Dimensions of War,” Behemoth 12, no. 1 (2019): 35–51.
 Curiously, this slogan comes from the popular revolutionary song “To the Tulip Asleep in Blood” (beh laleh dar khun khofteh), which predates the formation of the Islamic Republic. In promoting a revolutionary song absent any reference to the regime, like “Islamic Iran” or the “Islamic Republic,” the mural has chosen to propagate a more inclusive form of unity reaching beyond a purely religious interpretation of Iran's core.
 Criticism of the depiction and representation of women in certain murals has elicited a defensive response from the Islamic Revolution’s House of Designers [Khaneh-ye Tarahan-e Inqelab-e Islami], which was responsible for creating them. For example, see “Are the Vali Asr Billboard Designers Inattentive to the Position of Women? [in Persian],” Asr-i Iran, 25 February 2019. asriran.com/002kYu.
 For more on how the state seeks to minimize or hide its presence in its own media productions see Narges Bajoghli, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic (Stanford University Press, 2019).
 Antonio Terrone, “Propaganda in the Public Square: Communicating State Directives on Religion and Ethnicity to Uyghurs and Tibetans in Western China,” in Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, ed. Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle (Columbia University Press, 2020) 42.