Before his death in a US airstrike, Soleimani was a canny, ruthless military leader. In this profile from 2019, Arron Merat asked if Trump fundamentally misunderstood the motives of Iran's greatest defenderby Arron Merat / October 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the summer of 2014, Islamic State (IS) blindsided Iran by occupying a third of neighbouring Iraq. The self-styled caliphate captured a town only 20 miles from the border with Iran named Jalawla, where Islam’s second caliph Omar defeated the Persian Empire in 637. Jalawla was also where, 1,377 years later, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Iran. For Iranians, the enemy was once more at the gates.
Within days, Tehran dispatched Qasim Soleimani, the commander of its overseas paramilitary forces. There he co-ordinated the supply of 140 tons of military equipment per day to the Iraqi army and Shia paramilitary groups: small arms, mortars, Ababil surveillance drones and tank and artillery ammunition. The United States-led international coalition against IS would pick up the slack later in 2014. But right then Iran’s early intervention, led by Soleimani, was the only thing keeping Iraq together.
Iran also began deploying Soleimani on another front: launching a propaganda war centring on the self-styled “noble warrior,” a man who could appeal to both nationalists and religious conservatives. The “Commander of Hearts” became a fixture on domestic news. Iranian elites who would refer to him tongue-in-cheek as “Soleiman the Magnificent,” after the Ottoman sultan who so intimidated Europe, presented him as the nation’s protector against the barbarism of IS and the imperialism of the US. Tehran authorised the translation into Farsi of western articles that cast Soleimani as a formidable agent of Iranian regional power.
Instagram accounts dedicated to him sprung up, many with hundreds of thousands of followers. They showed Soleimani posing with children; Soleimani reading Gabriel García Márquez; Soleimani in a Palestinian keffiyeh; and Soleimani posing alongside Iran-backed paramilitary fighters in Iraq and Syria. Increasingly, he was also held up as a pious and humble servant of the Islamic Republic. When a state-run news agency asked his father why America feared him so much, he responded: “They’re afraid of Islam, not of my son.” Soleimani has enemies closer to home too—in October Iranian officials claimed they had foiled an assassination attempt against Soleimani, pinnng the blame on Israeli and Arab agents.
Tensions with Iran have been growing since Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the nuclear deal. His subsequent campaign of “maximum pressure” has included the imposition of sanctions that have gutted Iran’s middle class…