Major General Qassem Suleimani (on the right) poses with an Iraqi militia leader. Photo published on social media.
Suleimani has served since 1999 as head of the Quds Force, an elite branch of branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. As such, he is Iran’s leading operative in its fights abroad, notably in Syria – a role which has earned him sanctions from the US Treasury - and in Iraq. However, little about him had filtered into the media until very recently, when Iranian news outlets started publishing photos and videos of him celebrating the liberation of Amerli, a city in eastern Iraq that his men helped recapture from the Islamist State group (IS) in September after several months of siege.
Since then, praise for Suleimani has spread both in Iranian media and on social media networks. His exploits have even been celebrated in widely-shared videos, some created by Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon.
He’s even been the subject of wild rumours according to which he supposedly managed to have a letter deposited straight inside the Pentagon, bypassing its rigorous security measures, in a gesture meant to intimidate the United States.
Meanwhile, some experts are skeptical about Suleimani's sudden surge in popularity, believing it is not solely due to his accomplishments but to well-calculated propaganda from Iran’s conservatives.
Morteza Kazemian is an Iranian journalist working in Europe who has closely followed Suleimani’s rise. He says:
Two years ago, even people in Iran didn’t know Suleimani’s name. But since the images of him in Iraq were published, he’s turned into this mythical hero.
What’s interesting to note is that his popularity isn’t limited to Iran’s conservative camp. Even reformist media praise him as a hero for fighting IS terrorists. I think it helps that while he’s clearly a hardliner, he’s not a religious fanatic. Today, no one seems to remember that he was once one of the Revolutionary Guard commanders who, back in 1999, wrote a very menacing open letter to then-president Mohamadi Khatami, a reformist whose policies they saw as too liberal. In this letter, they wrote that if Khatami continued his policies, they would be forced to take “revolutionary actions”!
To me, and many others, it seems clear that Suleimani is purposefully being shaped by conservatives into an untouchable figure, a bit like General Al Sissi in Egypt – a person who is so incredibly popular that in a critical situation, he could transition from being a military figure to a political one. To what end remains to be seen, and ideas about that differ. But just imagine that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies. Who will succeed him? Not Suleimani of course – he’s not an ayatollah – but his popularity and influence could prove valuable in choosing a successor.