//The mural maze

The mural maze

Much of Iran’s most virulently anti-Israeli public art has been produced using technology from the Jewish state. Robert Tait explains
Wednesday February 8, 2006

Things may change when Iran’s biggest-selling newspaper gets round to publishing the results of its planned cartoon contest satirising the Holocaust, but for now the larger-than-life mural lionising Reem Saleh al-Riyashi, a Palestinian female suicide bomber, is as vivid an illustration as any of the Islamic republic’s implacable hostility to Israel.

Two years ago, al-Riyashi entered the realms of Palestinian martyrdom when she blew herself up, killing four Israelis in the process, at the Erez crossing point in Gaza. Today, motorists and passersby gazing down from Motahari Street, in central Tehran, can contemplate her grimly resolute features as she holds her young son in one hand and a gun in the other.

Next to her portrait, set against a backdrop showing the Jerusalem landmark the Dome of the Rock and two booted feet trampling an Israeli flag, is another giant picture celebrating the actions of a further seven Palestinian women suicide bombers.

On the face of it, the banners are the highly predictable artistic reflection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent wave of fervently anti-Zionist rhetoric, in which he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and dismissed the Holocaust as a myth. But there is one twist: they have been created with technology made in Israel.

Experts in Iran’s printing industry say they are typical of images produced by hi-tech digital printers made by Scitiex Vision, based in Tel Aviv. Printing equipment originating in Israel is commonly used in Iran.

"Those two banners are five metres wide, and no printing company other than Scitex produces that kind of technology," said one Tehran printing company owner, who requested anonymity. "The large-format printing industry is Israeli-led. Their equipment is very reliable. The result is that Israeli-made equipment is sold in Iran, and a lot of the anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda you see here is made by this kind of equipment.

"Last year a company run by a friend of mine produced a mural listing a number of goods produced in Israel and saying: ‘By boycotting these products, let’s give a punch in the mouth to Israel.’ But he made it using a Scitex machine. We laughed about it."

Large-scale propaganda murals have been a feature of Tehran and other Iranian cities since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Images portraying various components of the revolution’s ideology adorn walls and billboards throughout the city.

Some anti-Zionist propaganda has been painted by hand rather than printed. One of the most arresting painted images features the well-documented, harrowing scene in which Mohammed al-Durra, a 12-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, was shot dead after being caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen at the beginning of the intifada; another pays tribute to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who was killed by an Israeli missile attack in 2004.

Artwork featuring the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s spiritual leader, and other prominent religious figures is also commonplace, as are images of Iranian heroism during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. One striking mural glorifies the martyrdom of Hossein Fahmideh, who was 13 when, armed with a bomb belt, he crawled underneath an Iraqi tank and blew himself up.

After the revolution, dedicated revolutionary artists painted such portraits by hand, but in recent years increasing numbers have been commissioned from the print industry, which can respond much more quickly than artists to demand.

Iranian intermediary companies import the Israeli-made printing machines into the country, bypassing the Islamic regime’s ban on trade with Israel by buying the equipment in a third country and then rebranding it under another name. Scitex machines are purchased in Holland under the brand Blaze and then exported to Iran; printers made by another Israeli firm, Nur, are bought in Belgium and disguised for the Iranian market under various names, including Salsa.

Iranian trade magazines openly print replica commercials from foreign publications advertising the Israeli-made products, but under their disguised brand name, thereby concealing their true origin.

Printing industry insiders say the Iranian authorities are either unaware of the practice or turn a blind eye. As a result, most of the campaign posters for this year’s presidential election – including those for Mr Ahmadinejad – were churned out using Israeli technology. Experts also believe it was Israeli printers that produced the banner for the recent World Without Zionism conference, at which Mr Ahmadinejad made his first call for the Jewish state to be wiped out.

Iranian print specialists are convinced the Israeli manufacturers know their products are bound for Iran. "The whole thing is to the benefit of the Israeli companies," said the printing company boss. "They sell to a country that is officially banned from trading with them, meaning they have no after-sale service obligation.

"The companies don’t care about politics since this is not something that can be used practically against Israel, unlike the nuclear industry. In any case, Iran had a close relationship with Israel before the revolution, so it’s natural that some links continue."

But the move towards printed propaganda, especially using Israeli technology, has left many revolutionary artists disillusioned. Falling demand has forced Khasrow Karami to pay off several artists at his gallery, in an old disused cinema. Having once specialised in images of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iran-Iraq war – in which he was seriously wounded – Mr Karami, 43, is now painting advertising posters for the Canadian government urging Iranians to emigrate to Canada.

"I would rather be painting martyrs from the war than doing this. It’s a big contradiction," said Mr Karami. "When I heard that this banner-printing equipment was being imported from Israel, it was a heavy blow for me. It leaves us confused about what we should believe. Do we accept the government’s propaganda against Israel or do we admire the Israelis’ brilliant technological innovation?"