'You Win Or You Die': Not a Model for a Sanctions Regime

By Megan Reiss
Thursday, November 15, 2018, 7:00 AM

The 100th anniversary of the end of World War I brought together world leaders in a show of unity and remembrance—yet instead of highlighting solidarity, European heads of state expressed fear of conflict and disunity among the allies. It’s doubtful any of those concerns have been allayed in the days after the ceremonies. Since returning, President Trump has expressed anger and delivered personal attacks against French President Emmanuel Macron over Macron’s statements condemning nationalism and supporting the development a European army.

Yet regardless of the shots between leaders, the U.S. has important strategic objectives that need buy-in from European allies to be successful—most immediately, the re-implementation of sanctions against Iran, which went into effect on Nov. 5. In order to gain support, though, the administration needs consistent messaging. And as a meme based on a popular television show demonstrates, this has been a struggle.

“Sanctions are Coming.” On Nov. 2, President Trump tweeted out an image of himself overlaid with the slogan—a motto lifted, font and all, from the popular HBO fantasy television series “Game of Thrones.” In the series, “Winter is Coming” is meant as an ominous warning of future hardship, and Trump’s tweet was a similarly menacing warning to Iran.

The following day, another meme appeared on the Instagram account of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in response to the tweet. Modeled after the original Trump tweet, it positioned Soleimani as a character in what could have been mistaken for a knockoff "Game of Thrones" poster. “I will stand against you,” it read.

Soleimani’s quote is not taken directly from the series, but the quote and image situate him as a heroic defender, a stalwart against the series’ villains Joffrey Baratheon or Viserys Targaryen. Yet he is certainly no Ned Stark, “Game of Thrones” heroic moral center. He has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Nations Security Council and the European Union for everything from supporting terrorism to propping up the Iranian nuclear program.

While the delivery of a national security policy announcement through a pop-culture meme sent social media atwitter, it is not unusual for presidents to draw on imagery from entertainment in order to get their point across. Drawing on known images and narratives can help politicians clarify their points. The real question is whether the imagery in question makes the right point.

Here, the answer is a resounding “no.” The administration’s reference to “Game of Thrones,” a series based on bloody battles for power, is the worst possible metaphor for America’s strategic goals. The central theme of formal U.S. arguments in favor of sanctions against Iran—including Trump’s own formal statement—has been that such measures are a key component of a fight for justice, an effort to combat everything from the Iranian government’s nuclear program to its support for terrorism to its role in fueling conflict. The “Game of Thrones” meme, on the other hand, suggests that the United States’s true objective is simply to gain more power in the region. It plays into Iranian accusations that the U.S. interferes in and destabilizes the Middle East.

Meme aside, the United States has generally approached the reimplementation of sanctions against Iran with seriousness after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). (See Hilary Hurd’s analysis of the sanctions here.) These efforts are grounded in the overall goal of changing Iran’s behavior from bad to good—or at least from bad to neutral.

Officials in the administration have taken great pains to outline the threat posed by Iran and emphasize the efforts the United States is taking to counter such threats. Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary for the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, explained that:

As Iran uses every tool at its disposal to fund the Qods Force, support the Assad regime, assist Hizballah, Hamas, and others, develop its ballistic missile programs, provide weapons to the Huthis in Yemen, violently oppress protesters, and violate human rights, at Treasury we too are using all the tools at our disposal. We are countering the regime’s destabilizing activities, blocking their financing of terror, impeding Iran’s proliferation of missiles and other advanced weapons systems that threaten peace and stability, and ensuring Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon.

In the same June 5, 2018 speech, Mandelker described how many of the entities designated for U.S. sanctions in the past year provide further evidence of Iran’s ill intent. She detailed the process by which Iran established front companies alongside the Central Bank of Iran to surreptitiously fund the Qods forces, and outlined Iranian efforts to use civilian aircrafts to support Qods forces’ actions within Syria. Many of these actions are tied, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued, to Iranian efforts to securing hegemony in the Middle East. And each of them—from financing terrorism to propping up the murderous Assad regime in Syria and developing weapons that could be used to threaten other states—are actions that the reimposed sanctions are intended to hamper.

Administration officials are also trying to convince other countries and the people of Iran that the United States is for, not against, Iranian civilians. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, has argued that the United States is on the side of the Iranian people. Ambassador Nikki Haley declared that the United States is sanctioning Iran in part because it is stealing money from the Iranian people to fund its illegal activities. The administration—though it has received a minor rebuke from the International Court of Justice on the issue—has in place exceptions on trade bans to allow food, medicine and medical devices to flow into Iran.

What’s more, Europeans are resisting sanctions and looking for workarounds, and the U.S. needs to convince its allies more generally as to the necessity of sanctions. And considering that these other countries will also bear the brunt of the economic pain from the sanctions, the United States needs a clear, consistent message about the necessity of the sanctions regime.

U.S. allies are concerned not only about the economic impact of sanctions on their own population but also the human toll on the Iranian people. The “Game of Thrones” imagery fails on both counts. First, it implies that this is a U.S. struggle for power, which would not lead U.S. allies to want to make economic sacrifices for such a cause. Second, it may not be ideal for countering claims that the sanctions are directed solely against the Iranian government and minimize the impact on the Iranian people. In the original book on which the television series is based, the political operative Lord Varys asked the virtuous Ned Stark: “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” Indeed, civilians are swept up in and even massacred during the power struggles in the series. Imagery from “Game of Thrones” invokes not the desire to protect civilians, but for power at any cost—including the lives of innocents. Such images will make it all the more difficult to convince other states to join American efforts to change Iran on the ground.

The administration should keep in mind that the Europeans should actually be more keen to push back against Iran’s bad actions than they have been in the recent past. Recent Iranian attempts to assassinate its government’s enemies in places like Denmark and France have assisted U.S. diplomats in making the case for sanctions. Even before Trump landed in France, Macron noted the need to protect against cyber attacks emanating from Russia and China—and the United States—and later floated the idea that Europe needed its own army. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seconded Macron’s case for a European army, though she did not list the U.S. as a potential adversary. Instead of focusing on assassination attempts on European soil and unity in the face of an aggressive Iranian regime,, Trump quickly shot back with his frequent chide that Europeans need to pay more for NATO. These kerfuffles and messaging failures distract from the bigger U.S. goals.

At one point in the “Game of Thrones” television series, the heroine Daenerys Taragaryen, Mother of Dragons, eloquently describes the power struggle amongst the competitors for the Iron Throne as defeating and destructive. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell... they're all just spokes on a wheel. This one's on top, then that one's on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground." Yet the sanctions regime is not that; the United States has substantive goals in implementing sanctions and obtaining support from other states in doing so. Borrowing from entertainment could help, but only alongside consistent, deliberate, disciplined messaging—not a strong suit of this executive branch—reflecting the seriousness of goals behind the sanctions.