Iran unites behind its hero Qassem Soleimani
I have never witnessed such a huge gathering in my country before. But to my father, it was a reminder of the funeral of Imam Khomeini who died in 1989
On last Monday morning, Tehran witnessed the grand funeral of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Al-Quds Force, the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). I have never witnessed such a huge gathering in my country before. But to my father, it was a reminder of the funeral of Imam Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution who died in 1989.
Soleimani’s career started during the Iran-Iraq war, where he assembled and commanded the 41st Division from his birthplace, the estate of Kerman. After the war, he remained the commander of the Division, fighting with the drug mafia in the eastern estates of Iran. It was in 1998 when he was appointed as the head of the Al-Quds Force. It’s interesting to know his first mission was to collaborate with US forces to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
When the US coined the term “Axis of Evil” to point fingers at Iran, Iraq and North Korea, it marked the end to the collaboration between the US and Al-Quds Force in Afghanistan. Soleimani learnt important political lessons here, apart from honing his military skills, so as not to get deceived in his later international collaborations.
His network of allies, spread from Afghanistan to Lebanon, was based on a complex mixture of old family ties between prominent Shia families in the region and also anti-colonial, anti-imperialist elements in the Islamic world.
The arrival of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) saw the climax of his activities in the region when the Al-Quds Force started actively opposing the so called “new middle east” project of the US. Iran could see clearly the Zionist hand behind the chaos in the region and tried to stabilise the region with a call for democracy and reforms for the benefit of the people of the region. The strategic depth of Iran is a result of Soleimani’s endless efforts in the last decade. The deterrent force of Iran, which despite all the tensions between Iran and Israel, kept Iran safe is a result of the network he created.
It’s ironic that the Al-Quds Force has always been accused by politicians of the so-called “reformist party” in Iran for not putting national interest first, and heightening tensions between Iran, Israel and US. Nevertheless, with the martyrdom of its commander, the whole nation has risen up and united against the unilateral US action.
In the last two presidential elections, Soleimani was persuaded endlessly to run for the presidency. He kept good relationships with all politicians from both sides, especially with Javad Zarif who was his diplomatic counterpart but kept away from politics. In a private conversation, he told his close friend that presidency was “too small” a thing for him.
Last year, when I went to Iraq to attend the pilgrimage of Imam Hussain in Arbaeen, it was in the midst of the anti-corruption protests in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani asked protesters to postpone the protests for the pilgrimage. But I could still feel the tension in the air. As I was talking to Iraqis on the way, I could feel for the first time a decrease in the popularity of Soleimani and the Al-Quds Force. People suspected them as corrupt too.
One of the most interesting stories of Shahnameh, the ancient Iranian epic, is the story of Siyavash. As a young prince, well-versed in the arts of war, he is granted entry into the court by his father, Kay Kavus, the Shah of Iran. However, his stepmother, Sudabeh, the Queen of Iran, develops a burning desire for him. Refusing her advances, Siyavash will have nothing to do with her plans. She fakes a rape and abortion scene and blames the double calamity on Siyavash who is forced to prove his innocence by riding through a colossal mountain of fire. He passes through the fire and proves his innocence. For me, Soleimani’s story is very close to this archetype.
His death saw huge gatherings in both Iraq and Iran. There were national demonstrations in Iraq as well as in Iran.
In Iran, people attending the funeral came from different political viewpoints and social backgrounds. It was like an entire nation standing together, all feeling deeply wounded by this terror attack. They were angry, raising slogans against the US and Israel, and asking for immediate and severe revenge for his death.
Former presidents Syed Ahmad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the family or sent condolence messages. Even Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, the famous Iranian novelist who has always been an opponent of the government, has sent out a message of sympathy and condolence. The most interesting anecdote is from Ardeshir Zahedi, the last minister of foreign affairs and son-in-law of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. He is 90 years old and has been living in Switzerland since the revolution. In an interview with BBC Persian, he has criticised BBC for using the word “killed” instead of “terrored” for Qassem Soleimani. Despite being on exile, he praised Soleimani as a “true national hero” and “son of the nation” and compared him with his childhood heroes like Charles De Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower. He also said that if he were younger, he would have gone back to Iran and fought alongside Soleimani.
It seems that all the tensions that appeared between the government and the people in November 2019 has dissipated. The country has not been united like this for many, many years.
As an immediate reaction, officials announced Tehran’s full exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly referred to as the Iranian Nuclear Deal. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised “severe revenge”. Even the Parliament of Iraq has voted for immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq. Donald Trump has reacted furiously to that and threatened Iraq with sanctions and reparations.
Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Gha’ani, who had been assisting the former for more than three decades, will continue Soleimani’s project from now on. The Islamic Republic of Iran has lost a true nationalist hero. But the consequences of the US action are being felt without Iran firing a single bullet. Soleimani’s project was ending US presence in the region. That has already started.
Published: 09 Jan 2020, 1:02 PM