The frenetic pace of the daily news cycle has already pushed the death of Qassem Soleimani – and the Iranian response – from the front pages, but the U..S. killing of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s top military official remains one of the most significant and impactful recent events in the Middle East, with repercussions to be felt for years to come.
The death of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Commander, who oversaw Iran’s special overseas operations branch known as the Qods (Qods (Quds)) Force, is likely to shape the coming decade in Iran, in the Middle East and globally. Soleimani was significant as a cultural persona because he represented the Islamic Republic’s quest for domestic and regional legitimacy buttressed by its cultural identity. Some commentators speculated the killing will rally Iranians around the flag, and internationally, cause backlash in the region and weaken America’s position. But there are limits to both heroism and regional cultural commonalities.
With the threatening rise of the Islamic State (IS) Soleimani assumed public prominence and was promoted as the embodiment of Iran’s brand of identity – a fierce and pious spiritual warrior who sought to emancipate the region from foreign dominance, embraced martyrdom and was a source of emulation. Official propaganda, fabricated by the IRGC and promoted by domestic and social media platforms, promoted him as the mastermind of Iran’s regional strategic “success”, whose networks and military genius expanded Iran’s reach into the Middle East that facilitated the defeat of IS while bridging the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. To Iranians, he was projected as the commander in charge of national security and territorial integrity – in short, a saviouur and national hero who embodied spiritual and moral virtues, the “commander of hearts”.
There is a popular backlash to official ideas of identity, however, and - as my fieldwork suggests - Iran’s cultural heritage, its repertoire of national heroes, and the very meaning of the nation are contested by Iranians themselves.
Far from a unifying national symbol as some supposed, Soleimani has become a deeply divisive figure within the Middle East region. Fractures over the late Commander also reveal deep-seated divisions within Iran and the failure of the Islamic Republic’s brand of culture and identity politics. Like Iran’s official identity, the country’s regional role and Soleimani’s image have left Iranians disunited. Internal unrest, decades of mismanagement and regional adventurism are revealing the limits of Islamic Republic’s Shiite-based rhetoric and its failure of combining that with a viable notion of nationhood. It is apparent that both the Islamic Republic, and Soleimani as its exemplary hero, have a checkered record domestically and regionally.
The Islamic Republic has increasingly lost ground at home, as evidenced in the nation-wide political unrest since November 2019. The latest expressions of discontent came after the tragic downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet, when protesters also tore images of Soleimani. Popular slogans indicate that many Iranians reject the state’s regional ambitions and the associated political and economic costs borne by the Iranian people—beyond the rhetoric, the network of regional proxies is highly dependent on Iranian finances. Some slogans directly targeted the IRGC whose elements were also involved in the brutal suppression of thousands of protesters.
Regionally, the circumstances are no better. Protests weakening Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon were followed by reports of celebrations of Soleimani’s death in the region. As political Shiism recedes in confronting realities on the ground and the cash and material flow that sustained proxies is reduced because of sanctions, the Islamic Republic faces stark choices in striking a balance between rebuilding a broad-based domestic legitimacy—a task that seems impossible at present—and maintaining its regional grip which is increasingly undermining its domestic legitimacy.
Under the circumstances, resorting to volatilities of conflict will allow it to reinvigorate its militant Shiite component abroad and its version of nationalism among its domestic constituents. It is a way of maintaining a sense of unity under duress, which cannot be sustained in perpetuity. However, it will be helped by threats to ideas of Iranian nationhood and destruction of heritage. Such threats are likely to pale or remove divisions in Iran.
Iran as a civilizational idea has deep cultural, historical and familial roots in the region and may thus survive. But the Islamic Republic and its brand of identity and politics are likely to have a different fate.