To grasp all the subtleties of the Israeli Embassy in Washington's message to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (enclosed herewith), we should keep in mind a few key threads in the intersecting histories of Israel, Iran and the United States.
Let's start with the most important meme: “Mean Girls” came out 14 years ago, and its tale of a high school clique's arrogance and ultimate dissolution left a permanent mark on U.S. culture.
“At some point, it stopped being simply a film,” as the Atlantic noted on the film's decennial anniversary. “It became an Internet Phenomenon.”
The earliest “Mean Girls” GIFs were simple allegorization of daily life through the movie's quotes — such as clique leader Regina George's attempts to diet.
The meme's influence inevitably bled into U.S. politics, catalyzed in 2013 when then-President Barack Obama famously paraphrased Regina: “Bo, stop trying to make fetch happen.”
More radical mutations of the meme allowed it to be adapted into sophistical political commentary, as when a Tumblr account imagined Obama, as he stood in the Oval Office with former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, wondering: “Was I the new queen bee?”
By 2018, “Mean Girls” was a Broadway musical, and its influence on politics was so profound that MSNBC used the movie to explain U.S. monetary policy.
“Japan tried to keep the yen devalued,” the network's analyst explained. “They tried to make fetch happen. We said stop trying to make fetch happen, and they did what we asked.”
Some might argue that memes have no role in the Iranian theocracy. Certainly, there are no “Mean Girls” references in Ayatollah Khamenei's Twitter feed — no Regina GIFs of any kind.
Khamenei's tweet on Sunday, which provoked @IsraelinUSA's single-URL response, was constructed around an expression with its own evolving significance — one that dates all the way back to the Iranian Revolution, decades before “Mean Girls” existed.
Let's call it the “malignant cancerous tumor” meme.
Granted, there is not much complexity or humor to this one: If you do not like something, you call it a cancerous tumor. That is pretty much it.
Iran's first grand ayatollah may have coined this quasi-meme a few months after seizing power in 1979, when he compared Kurdish rebels with cancer. “We are determined to destroy a few cancerous tumors, namely communists, who want to spread communist corruption in Kurdistan,” Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said in that speech, as translated by the Associated Press.
Just like “fetch,” “cancer” became an infinitely adaptable piece of rhetoric.
The chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard spoke of “the cancerous tumor of liberalism spreading in some corners of our country,” in the 1990s, according to Middle East Quarterly. Two decades later, Khamenei applied it to ISIS.
Most often, Iran's “cancerous tumor” has been Israel, one of its chief rivals in the region. The ayatollahs have been promising to “cure” the planet of the Jewish-led country since at least the 1980s.
The phrase attained a sort of virality in the early 21st century, as when hundreds of students chanted “Down with the USA” and “Israel is a cancerous tumor in the region” at a Tehran rally in 2006.
Khamenei has since taken the phrase to Twitter, where he used it repeatedly before this weekend, when his Israeli tumor finally met Regina George.
The Israeli Embassy's decision to deploy one of the most potent memes in Western culture against one of the oldest rhetorical weapons in Iran was surprising to some analysts.
At least one other embassy, Russia's in Britain, has lately been experimenting with trolling-as-diplomacy — but the closest thing to a pop culture meme in its Twitter feed is this image from “Dr. Strangelove.”
President Trump has on two occasions tweeted GIFs from the White House — but those both had to do with him, not other countries.
“It is hard to say if Israel's comeback changed the opinion of anyone who was convinced,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote Tuesday, as the world tried to process the embassy's clap back at Iran. “But in the muddy arena of online diplomacy, the response was certainly appreciated.”
Maybe. As a piece of statecraft, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” alternately thrilled and horrified the Internet's community of amateur analysts.
But it was, at least, an opportunity to post more “Mean Girls” GIFs.