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.