For years the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force worked from the shadows, conducting the nation’s battles from Afghanistan to Lebanon.
But today Qassem Soleimani is Iran’s celebrity general, a man elevated to hero status by a social media machine that has at least 10 Instagram accounts and spreads photographs and selfies of him at the front lines in Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic Republic long ago turned hero worship into an art form, with its devotion to Shiite religious figures and war martyrs. But the growing personality cult that halos Maj. Gen. Soleimani is different: The gray-haired servant of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is very much alive, and his ascent to stardom coincides with a growing nationalist trend in Iran.
“Propaganda in Iran is changing, and every nation needs a live hero,” says a conservative analyst in Qom, who asked not to be named.
“The dead heroes now are not useful; we need a live hero now. Iranian people like great commanders, military heroes in history,” he says, ticking off a string of names. “I think Qassem Soleimani is the right person for our new propaganda policy – the right person at the right time.”
Soleimani’s face surged into public view after the self-described Islamic State (IS) swept from Syria into Iraq in June 2014. Frontline photographs of the general mingling with Iranian fighters went viral.
Iranians cite many reasons for his rise, from “saving” Baghdad from IS jihadists and reactivating Shiite militias in Iraq to preserving the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during nearly six years of war.
Never mind that some analysts suggest that earlier failures to prevent internal upheaval in Iraq and Syria – for years those countries were part of Soleimani’s responsibility – are the reason for Iran’s deep involvement today.
For his part, Soleimani attributes the “collapse of American power in the region” to Iran’s “spiritual influence” in bolstering resistance against the United States, Israel, and their allies.
“It is very extraordinary. Who else can come close?” says a veteran observer in Tehran, Iran, who asked not to be named. “I don’t know how intentional this is; you see people in all walks of life respect him. It shows we can have a very popular hero who is not a cleric.”
“There is no stain on his image,” says the observer.
Indeed, Soleimani has become a source of pride and a symbol for Iranians of all stripes of their nation’s power abroad. At a pro-regime rally, even young Westernized women in makeup pledge to be “soldiers” of Soleimani. At a bodybuilding championship held in his honor, bare-chested men flaunted their muscles beside a huge portrait of him.
Among the Islamic Revolution’s true believers, Soleimani’s exploits are sung by religious storytellers and posted online. His writings about the Iran-Iraq War are steeped in religious language.
In a video from the Syrian front line broadcast on state TV last month, he addressed fighters, saying, of an Iranian volunteer who was killed, “God loves the person who makes holy war his path.”
When erroneous reports of Soleimani’s death recently emerged (Iran has lost dozens of senior IRGC commanders in Syria and Iraq and hundreds of “advisers”), he laughed and said, “This [martyrdom] is something that I have climbed mountains and crossed plains to find.”
Some say the hero worship has gone too far; months ago the IRGC ordered Iranian media not to publish frontline selfies. When a young director wanted to make a film inspired by his hero, the general said he was against it and was embarrassed.
Yet Soleimani appears to have relented for Ebrahim Hatamikia, a renowned director of war films.
“Bodyguard” is now premièring at a festival in Tehran. “I made this film for the love of Haj Qassem Soleimani,” the director told an Iranian website, adding that he is “the earth beneath Soleimani’s feet.”