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Soleimnai's Death Injects New Life Into Iran's Myth-Making

Iranian mourners carry a huge banner with poster of Qassem Soleimani and slogans reading in Persian "hard revenge is on the way". January 6, 2020

The targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani by the United States was a back-breaking military and political blow to the clergy-dominated Iran, but the Islamic Republic is using his funeral to inject fresh blood into its propaganda machine by presenting him as a legendary heroic figure, a martyr.

For more than three decades the Islamic Republic has been promoting the Revolutionary Guard generals for their role in the Iran-Iraq war, advancing legendary stories about their heroism. But the propaganda campaign promoting their “mind-boggling” roles in the deadly eight-year war (1980-88) had become frayed and tedious. Almost nobody in Iran cares anymore about the battles fought more than three decades ago. Soleimani’s targeted killing, however, created a chance for Tehran's propaganda machine to rev up its engine, hoping to recover the lost popularity of war heroes.

Presenting Soleimani as an imaginary knight immune to corruption started long before his fall in the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. The Islamic Republic had somehow succeeded in giving Soleimani an aura that is traditionally reserved for mythical heroes and saints.

The reason behind the success was the fact that appearing humble and behaving like the man in the street is highly appreciated in Iranian society. And Soleimani indeed behaved like ordinary people, casting his image as a man devoid of any arrogance. He knew how the image he was presenting of himself helped him advance his goals.

He did interfere in political affairs behind the scenes but made sure not to leave any trace of his meddling, therefore, many Iranians were not aware of his interventions in politics.

Furthermore, besides some exceptional cases, he tried to keep a balanced relationship with all political factions in the Islamic Republic. Still, he made sure to stay away from political in-fighting and avoid political labels – reformist or conservative.

Meanwhile, being an Iran-Iraq war veteran, Soleimani was highly popular among the younger generation of IRGC members.

In the meantime, the Islamic Republic was quietly inundating people with stunning stories about Soleimani's military capabilities as a mythical commander who could also infiltrate the enemies' camp and safely return.

Based on one of these legends, Soleimani had attended a Friday prayer ceremony led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the notorious leader of the Islamic State group to weigh the forces loyal to the so-called Islamic Caliphate, in person.

Another aspect of Soleimani's popularity was based on the propaganda that presented him as a corruption-free character.

In Iran, as a rule, all public figures are in one way or another linked with corruption. Therefore, the exceptions are highly revered.

Nevertheless, Soleimani also had his share in at least two cases related to widely spread financial corruption in Iran.

Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Soleimani early last year of mediating for the release of the Islamic Republic VP's brother, arrested for financial corruption.

In several letters addressed to Soleimani, the outspoken former president also indirectly accused him of pocketing $3.9 million intended for distribution among several leaders of African countries.

In the March 2018 letter, Ahmadinejad threatened to expose the details of a financial incident that created a dispute involving his former Deputy, Hamid Baqaei (Baghaei), and Soleimani.

"You are investing so much effort into an unjustified war in Syria and other places, so why are you silent when it comes to a bigger injustice occurring in your country?" Ahmadinejad demanded in one of the letters.

A supporter of the Houthis has a poster attached to his waist of Soleimani, during a rally to denounce the U.S. killing.
A supporter of the Houthis has a poster attached to his waist of Soleimani, during a rally to denounce the U.S. killing.

A court convicted Baqaei of receiving the sum of €3.5 million ($3.9 million) from Soleimani as the Chief Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Qods Force, in charge of Iran's extraterritorial military operations. The funds were intended for distribution among several leaders of the countries in Africa. Still, the court sentenced Baqaei to long-term prison for having made inappropriate use of the money.

Baghaei has repeatedly denied receiving the money.

Nonetheless, as media in Iran are officially banned from publishing stories related to Ahmadinejad and his close allies, the case against Soleimani was never publicized, and it is not yet clear who pocketed the missing euros.

In recent years two factors helped pave the way for presenting Soleimani as an invulnerable commander fighting to keep a brutal enemy outside Iran and demolish it: His involvement in the fight against ISIS and the aura of fame he gained in the West and among his enemies. When foreign media wrote about Soleimani, this was presented to Iranian audience as proof of his impoirtance.

Commander of United States Central Command (2008-10), the retired general and former CIA director, David Petraeus played a pivotal role in presenting Soleimani as an exceptional military figure.

"What I will say is that he is [a] very capable and resourceful individual, a worthy adversary. He has played his hand well," Petraeus told Washington Post, March 20, 2015. "But this is a long game, so let's see how events transpire."

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    Ehsan Mehrabi

    Ehsan Mehrabi is an Iranian journalist and an expert on Iran's domestic politics. Mehrabi was arrested with a group of other journalists on February 7, 2010 in Iran and served a one-year prison sentence. He resides in Germany and is a contributor to Radio Farda.