February 21, 2017
Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Celebrity Warlord
By Sina Azodi
For his critics, however, Soleimani is a notorious terrorist, who has the blood of American soldiers and many Syrians, Iraqis and Lebanese on his hands.
The purpose of this report is not to judge his actions, but to shed light on some of the reasons that could explain his unusual popularity among Iranians.
Soleimani was born in the province of Kerman to a peasant family with limited financial means, and later worked as a construction worker before joining the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1979. His background played a role in shaping him as a religious man with pragmatic goals.
Soleimani has commanded the Quds Force, the external arm of the IRGC, for more than 20 years. It is widely reported that in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks in the United States, he indirectly cooperated with American intelligence and military forces in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban.
Iran initially also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq but changed course and fought U.S. forces through Iraqi Shi’ite proxies as the U.S. occupation continued.
Soleimani remains the chief strategist of Iran’s external military actions including the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As Iran’s intervention has intensified, he has become a public figure, and a symbol of Iranian power projection in the region.
Soleimani’s pictures began appearing in 2014 on social media, including on numerous Instagram accounts, with some of them reaching more than 190,000 followers. A recent survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) reveals that his popularity in January 2016 stood at 73 percent. By December 2016, this figure rose to 74 percent.
His popularity stems largely from the Iranian mindset and the appreciation for selflessness and modesty.
Iranians have a strong inclination to create national heroes, whether they be mythological as in the epic Shahnameh or soldiers who have paid the ultimate price in battle. In post-revolutionary Iran, billboards are filled with portraits of those who sacrificed their lives in the service of the revolution and country, especially in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Nevertheless, these heroes are long gone, and the new generation needs a living hero. The Iranian government has cunningly presented Soleimani as a national hero, who has earned the respect even of his adversaries.
Using the increasing threat of ISIS and the protection of the tombs of prominent Shi’ite figures as pretexts, the Islamic Republic dispatched Soleimani to Iraq and Syria to shore up the Baghdad government and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Soleimani is the highest ranking Iranian officer who has been active on the frontlines, practicing a “lead from the front” command style. For his supporters, Soleimani is the hero who fights ISIS, protects sacred monuments, and preserves Iran’s interests in the region.
Another possible reason behind Soleimani’s popularity among Iranians is his apparent lack of interest in domestic politics. Unlike his fellow IRGC commanders, who have run for political offices, Soleimani has largely refrained from getting involved in the politics of Iran, avoiding political partisanship. Instead, apart from his “selfies” in Iraq and Syria, he has remained in the shadows at home, with occasional appearances during official celebrations or at funerals.
Dr. Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, and a supporter of the reform movement, has argued that Soleimani is trusted by reformists and conservatives alike, because he has stayed away from domestic politics and remained focused on his duties outside Iran.
In September 2016, rumors began spreading that Soleimani might run for president in May 2017. However, he quickly denied any political ambitions, and stated that he would remain a “humble soldier” of the Velayat (Supreme Jurist or Leader).
It is interesting to note that his supporters sometimes call Soleimani by the name “Haj-Qasem” or even “Sardar-e Delha,” the commander of hearts. He has created an image of himself as a selfless soldier who has sought martyrdom in the “mountains and valleys.” Unlike his fellow IRGC commanders who are dressed in uniform, Soleimani is mostly seen wearing khaki pants and shirts in the battlefield. He also projects a fatherly image. In March 2015, a video of him appeared on the Internet, in which he advised one of his young supporters to be respectful to his parents and to fulfill their wishes. These characteristics support his image as a charismatic, yet modest soldier.
In general, one can argue that his popularity is rooted in the Iranian mindset, and the strong inclination to support charismatic and humble leaders. Both Persian culture and Shi’ism value greatly the characteristics of selflessness and modesty that Soleimani projects.
His influence and ubiquity, like that of Keyser Soze, the fictional character in the movie Usual Suspects, has earned him legendary status in Iran and the Middle East. Unlike Soze, however, Soleimani’s role in shaping the geopolitics of the region is no longer in the shadows. He is now Iran’s celebrity warlord.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran's foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83