The Trump administration was engaged that year in a pressure campaign against Iran, whose president Hassan Rouhani warned in July that “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” This was relatively mild for a theocratic regime whose founding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dubbed the United States “The Great Satan,” but Trump took particular offense.
“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” he wrote on Twitter in all capitals.
A few days later, Soleimani stepped in to defend Rouhani. “It is not in our president’s dignity to respond to you,” he told Trump via Iran’s Tasnim news agency. “If you begin the war, we will end the war. You know that this war will destroy all that you possess.”
For a high-level commander in a regime that bans most major social media platforms for its citizens, Soleimani was unusually Internet savvy. That same month, he shared with his nearly 70,000 Instagram followers an image of the White House exploding, which was later archived by the Middle East Media Research Institute. The poster appeared to have been taken from the 2013 film “Olympus Has Fallen,” and doctored so that Soleimani stands in front of the inferno with a walkie-talkie in his hand.
This back and forth took shape after Trump withdrew from a three-year-old nuclear deal with Iran, and as he threatened new economic penalties on the country. In his own Hollywood riff in November 2018, Trump tweeted a poster of himself posing heroically against a “Game of Thrones”-style background and play on the show’s “Winter is coming” tagline: “SANCTIONS ARE COMING."
Trump didn’t address Soleimani specifically, and it’s unclear whether he was intentionally mimicking the general’s meme, but Soleimani responded in kind a day later:
Soleimani didn’t fare as well. Instagram suspended his account in April, after Trump followed through on his sanctions threat. Justifying the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said, “Gen. Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."
Iran has promised to retaliate, and thousands of U.S. troops have been ordered to the region amid fears of a new war.