Foreign Policy | ROHOLLAH FAGHIHI: Grief and anger seized Iranians after the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Suleimani last Friday. Enormous numbers of people took to the streets in cities across the country to commemorate him. It was a passionate outcry in favor of a figure whom American media described as “the world’s No. 1 bad guy.”
But while Suleimani was a bogeyman for the United States, within Iran he was seen as both a heroic figure and politically far more neutral than he has sometimes been painted. He walked a careful line between moderates and hard-liners, avoiding domestic political fights and allowing others to project onto him their own visions of Iran’s future.
The Western media helped create the vision of Suleimani as an Iranian hero. To be sure, he was already known to some degree as a successful commander during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. According to two sources, in 1998 he was supposed to be named as the commander of Iran’s police force, but his appointment was obstructed by hard-liners who wanted one of their own in his place. Instead, he became the chief commander of the Quds Force, which oversaw and implemented Iran’s goals and ambitions in the Middle East. But at the time, it wasn’t the powerful force it is today. In fact, monitoring and protecting Iran’s interests in Iraq was in the hands of other brigades, while Tehran’s goals in Syria and Lebanon were advanced by a number of individuals. Suleimani gradually succeeded in widening the Quds Force’s scope of responsibility while gaining the full trust and support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But it was the Western media profiles of Suleimani that made him really famous among ordinary people. They were frequently translated and published in Iran, both online and in the papers, beginning with Dexter Filkins’s New Yorker profile of Suleimani in 2013. With the threat of the Islamic State looming in Syria, Suleimani was seen as a protective figure by the public, which was terrified of the brutally anti-Shiite Islamic State. The Iranian media rapidly picked up on his popularity, as did the government, resulting in more information on him being leaked.
At the same time as Iranians were fearfully consuming graphic Islamic State videos of beheadings, Iranian media reports quoting security officials or Western media about how Suleimani was striving to bring down the empire of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were highly popular. Videos showing Suleimani on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria went viral. A previously largely unknown commander became a symbol of courage and nationalism and a heroic figure who had put his neck on the line to protect the country. His popularity surged drastically, placing him in 2015 and 2016 on a par with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, also extremely popular, who reached a nuclear deal with the West.
Suleimani’s lack of interest in entering domestic political fights was a gift for hard-liners and conservatives, as they could portray him as their supporter. But, despite the conservative figure he was painted as, much of the public believed Suleimani was a moderate. He was a longtime supporter of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-time president and a leader of moderates and reformists who was particularly hated by hard-liners and military conservatives. In the months and years following the 2009 presidential election, Suleimani preserved his personal ties and relationships with Rafsanjani, who was under heavy pressure from hard-liners for siding with Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement, whose protests rocked Iran. To the shock of many, Suleimani was among the few senior figures who paid a visit to Rafsanjani’s family after his death in 2017.
Suleimani also preserved a strong relationship with reformist Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Zarif, who held a joint meeting with the general almost every Tuesday. In 2019, following Zarif’s resignation after being sidelined from a meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, he successfully convinced Zarif to return to the job in personal conversations and even paid a visit to his house. He also reportedly railed against the state TV channel, managed by hard-liners, for airing a series portraying Zarif as a weak person in his relationship with the West.
During the nuclear talks in 2013-2015, when Rouhani and Zarif were under fire from hard-liners and conservatives for negotiating with the P5+1, not a single public position was taken by Suleimani against the approach of the incumbent government.
Suleimani also rejected the hard-liners and conservatives’ calls for his nomination in the presidential election while they were desperate to find a candidate who could beat the relatively moderate Rouhani in 2017.Suleimani also rejected the hard-liners and conservatives’ calls for his nomination in the presidential election while they were desperate to find a candidate who could beat the relatively moderate Rouhani in 2017. Amid all these calls, he called himself a “soldier of the revolution,” rejecting conservative plans to run him as a candidate. He was certainly highly electable. According to a 2019 University of Maryland survey, 82 percent of Iranians held a positive view of Suleimani and 59 percent a highly positive view—far exceeding any other Iranian figure. But that popularity continued, in part, exactly because he avoided entering domestic politics and abusing his reputation.
Thanks to this neutrality and his concentration on, as the public saw it, protecting Iranian borders and interests, Iranians saw him as a patriot guarding the nation, not a political figure. That’s why millions of people have poured onto the streets of Tehran to commemorate him, including many who oppose the Islamic Republic in other circumstances. This was not just limited to the public; notable figures including the 2009 opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrest for a decade; the great Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi; the former political prisoner Abdollah Momeni; the actor Navid Mohammadzadeh; and the prominent London-based journalist Masoud Behnoud expressed their sympathies over the death of Suleimani. Most of them have been seriously critical of the political system over many issues, including the deaths of hundreds of people in recent protests across Iran, but they differentiate between Suleimani and others.
Some Americans have recognized this. In the BBC documentary Shadow Commander: Iran’s Military Mastermind, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the special operations chief during George W. Bush’s presidency, says, “I don’t think we should view him as an evil person. I think we should view him just like I believe in my country. I think Qassem Suleimani believes in his country.”
Suleimani’s heroic image makes his death much more costly for the United States. If a high-ranking military commander whom nobody liked had been killed, things would have been different. Instead, an Iranian government weakened by recent protests has been revived following the assassination of Suleimani. A formerly divided people is now standing firmly behind a government it was fiercely protesting weeks ago.