This article is co-written by Ike Bryant and Kaya Hencke.
In early January, United States forces assassinated Iranian military official Qassim Suleimani during a drone airstrike near the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. The airstrike and subsequent retaliation was the manifestation of culminating tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments.
Intervention in Iran escalated in 1953 when the U.S. government removed Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in a coup d’etat. In 1979, a mob of supporters for the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini took over the U.S. embassy in Iran and held 66 Americans hostage for over one year. Khomeini came to power after his supporters overthrew the monarchy and established the Islamic regime.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. provided Iraq with satellite images of the Iranian troop deployments to help the Iraqi forces target their opponents. Along with these efforts, the U.S., along with much of the international community, neglected Iraq’s use of chemical warfare against Iran, inciting frustration throughout Iran.
In July of 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down a commercial Iranian airplane that was carrying 290 people, all of whom perished. The U.S. released a statement that explained the airplane had been mistaken for a fighter jet, but many Iranians felt that the U.S. had been purposeful in their actions.
The history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Iran has resulted in strong anti-American sentiments among many Iranians. Charles Kurzman, a Professor of Sociology specializing in Middle Eastern studies at UNC-Chapel Hill discussed this perspective.
“[The 1979] revolution associates the United States with the Shah and we become a symbol of global oppression and dictatorship for many Iranians,” Kurzman said.
At the end of 2019, after a U.S. contractor was killed in Iraq during an attack from an Iranian-backed militia group, the U.S. bombed some of the militia’s bases. On December 31, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was attacked by protesters and on January 3, 2020, Suleimani was killed.
Suleimani was the leader of the Quds force, a sector of the Revolutionary Guard that focuses on intelligence operations within the Middle East. One of Suleimani’s main goals was to remove the strong U.S. presence in the region, making him a longstanding source of conflict for the Obama and Trump administrations. According to the New Yorker, Suleimani was in charge of numerous operations during the Iraq War that led to the deaths of at least six hundred Americans.
Iran responded to the U.S.’s actions by striking two military bases in Iraq that were hosting U.S. military personnel. Despite the airstrikes, both Iraq and the U.S. reported that there were no casualties resulting from the attacks. To conclude the January exchange between the two countries, Trump announced new sanctions against Iran during a press conference on the eighth.
Following the interaction, social media erupted with memes and trending searches about World War III. CHS Senior Charlotte Ellis described how she saw meme culture impact the Carrboro community.
“[Meme culture] kind of puts out a lot of false information about what’s happening and what it actually means and so I think it’s really easy for issues like this to get amplified,” Ellis said.
Owen Bratten, a Carrboro sophomore, believes that there are benefits to the spread of memes regarding this conflict, but it can also do harm to the event.
“A draft is a pretty serious thing,” says Bratten. “But [the spread of memes] can be both good and bad. Making jokes about it can lighten the mood, but it can also cause people not to take it seriously.”
Bratten thinks that because of the memes’ humorous nature, it should be pretty easy to tell that they are jokes and not serious.
When asked about if the trend has been taken too far, Bratten explained how people’s opinions can vary depending on what memes and jokes they see.
“In my opinion, I don’t think it’s been taken too far because not much has really happened yet. There obviously has been some conflict, but nothing big yet. It really depends on who you ask,” Bratten said.
In such a close community, it’s not hard to comprehend that news spreads fast, which is one of the main reasons the Iran situation was a topic of conversation for so long. Most people eventually dismissed the idea of a war with Iran, but Professor Kurzman highlighted one of the main of the rationale for those who were still concerned.
“In North Carolina, we have many military bases and folks from those bases might be mobilized if there were to be a war, so there are families in North Carolina that could be directly affected if we were to go to war with Iran,” Kurzman said.
Two months after the start of the conflict, tensions with Iran have settled, however, it is impossible to predict how relations between the two countries will unfold in the coming years. Although the memes about WWIII were only rumors, they serve to show the role of internet hysteria in an increasingly globalized world.