Major General Qassem Soleimani: Former Commander of the IRGC's Quds Force

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Domestic Significance

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Major General Qassem Soleimani’s presence was most felt outside Iran as a destabilizing force in the Middle East due to his efforts to bolster Iran’s military and diplomatic influence through a hybrid strategy of backing militia warfare and terrorism fused with political influence peddling. For the bulk of his two-decade tenure at the helm of the Quds Force, Soleimani exhibited a predilection for operating behind the scenes, earning him a reputation as the “Shadow Commander” and drawing comparisons by Western military officials and analysts to elusive fictional spymasters such as Keyzer Soze and Karla.

Since spearheading Iran’s intervention in Syria, Soleimani’s public profile grew and he took on additional significance within Iran, as the regime—suffering a crisis of legitimacy due to its repression, corruption, and mismanagement—sought to cultivate a mythology around Soleimani and coopt him as a unifying symbol. Soleimani’s close personal relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei, dating back to the Iran-Iraq War, was the key to the Quds Force commander’s power. Soleimani had a close ideological affinity with Ayatollah Khamenei and other conservatives who comprise the bulk of Iran’s military and clerical elite, as well as the unelected political elite. Khamenei had complete trust in Soleimani, giving him essentially a free hand to pursue their shared foreign policy objectives. In the regime’s propagandistic telling, Soleimani’s career was marked by resounding successes, including rescuing Syria’s Assad regime, vanquishing ISIS, confronting Israel in conjunction with Hezbollah, and establishing Iranian dominion over Iraq and Yemen.

Unlike other leaders in the IRGC, who have enriched themselves through the IRGC’s pervasive role in Iranian industry, Soleimani appeared to be unencumbered by venality. He was nevertheless reportedly “well taken care” of financially by Khamenei. Soleimani’s persona of incorruptibility was one of his strongest assets, on which the regime, bedeviled by its own endemic corruption, sought to capitalize.

As Soleimani’s star power grew to the level of a full-on cult of personality, he managed to seemingly float above the fractious disputes and power struggles among Iran’s clerical, military, and unelected political elite. Soleimani carefully crafted his image as a simple warrior dedicated to upholding Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The majority of his public appearances came at events to commemorate fallen soldiers and militia members, and martyrdom—which he viewed as the highest ideal—was a pervasive theme of his public pronouncements. This fixation on martyrdom dated back to the Iran-Iraq War and the personal impact the heavy casualties suffered by his men took on him. In March 2019, Supreme Leader Khamenei awarded Iran’s highest military order, the Order of Zulfaqar, to Soleimani, making him the first Iranian official to receive the commendation since the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979. In presenting the award, Khamenei expressed his wish that Soleimani would “make his end marked by martyrdom. Of course, not so soon. … The Islamic Republic will be needing his services for many years to come, but I hope that his services will culminate with martyrdom, Allah-willing.”

After years of operating in the shadows, Soleimani suddenly became ubiquitous in Iranian media in 2014. Despite being subject to a U.N.-imposed travel ban, Iran began releasing a steady barrage of photos of Soleimani conducting battlefield operations and posing with proxy militia forces in Iraq and Syria. The images, such as Soleimani touring Aleppo following its reconquest by Iran-backed forces with representatives of the Assad regime, were seemingly curated to show Westerners and Iranians that Iran’s influence in the region was ascendant. Further, they highlighted Soleimani as a military leader who, despite his rank, relished being in the thick of combat zones alongside the troops he commanded. He has also been the subject of documentaries, an animated film about his life, and music videos.

Soleimani’s carefully crafted media image served the regime by appealing to the populace’s nationalistic impulses. While many Iranians have become disaffected with their rulers due to the mismanagement and repression of the Islamic Revolutionary regime, there is still a strong undercurrent of nationalistic pride that made Soleimani as close to a unifying figure as existed in the Iranian system. According to the scant reliable public opinion polling that exists in Iran, Soleimani had the highest favorability ratings among other prominent political figures including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by a wide margin.

For his part, in his few forays into domestic affairs, Soleimani had been willing to do the regime’s bidding, acting to further the objectives of hardliners and stifle dissent and efforts at liberalization. In 1999, he was a signatory to a letter circulated by prominent IRGC commanders imploring reformist President Mohammad Khatami to crack down on burgeoning student protests, warning that they would take matters into their own hands if need be. He similarly stood up for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary system in 2009, accusing the Green Movement that arose in response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s highly irregular reelection of sedition.

In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Soleimani continued to exhibit a Khamenei-like distrust of negotiating with the United States, wary that more pragmatic elements within Iran’s governing hierarchy would use the JCPOA as a means to inhibit Iran’s terror proxy playbook in the region. For example, Soleimani said in March 2019, “[f]rom the very beginning the enemy saw JCPOA as a three-pronged objective, not just one, and the other two were more important than the first.” He described “enemies” of the Islamic Republic, as those who seek to renegotiate the existing JCPOA.

Domestic Significance Conclusion

Soleimani’s navigation of Iran’s domestic politics revealed that his savviness as a strategist extended beyond the battlefield. Through his strong alliance with Supreme Leader Khamenei he was given space to grow his power and popularity unchecked, with the regime sanctioning and facilitating the growth of a cult of personality around him. Unlike other political operators who fell out of favor with the regime when their star shone too bright or they evinced an independent streak, Soleimani achieved longevity by aligning his rise with the best interests of the regime. 

Soleimani’s death at the hands of a U.S. drone strike came just weeks after Iran quelled massive demonstrations against the regime, killing an estimated 1500 citizens in the process. Despite his alignment with the regime, hundreds of thousands of Iranians, if not millions, thronged the streets in cities around the country to honor Soleimani including in underserved regions such as Ahvaz, which faces an Arab separatist movement. While it is difficult to gauge the true sentiment of the populace in a repressive, authoritarian society such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Soleimani did seem to be regarded as a nationalistic defender of Iran’s citizenry by a segment of Iran’s population. The Iranian regime has already sought to use Soleimani’s death to distract from its own shortcomings, and galvanize the public around anti-U.S. sentiment.