There are no official figures for the number of Iranian citizens who have actually fallen in Syria. Yet their graves are visible in local cemeteries across the country. Being no more than two years old and thus still new in appearance, they are easy to identify. That and the fact that all martyrs are commemorated in Iran as 'defenders of the shrines' – heroes of the people.
The shadow commander
Wherever Iranian soldiers killed in Syria are buried, the image of a grey-haired man with dark rings under his eyes is never far away. This man is often pictured shaking hands or posing for photos alongside soldiers. A huge number of books in Iran have been written about him and although he has never actually given a television interview, his face is everywhere: on T-shirts, mugs and pendants.
Qassem Soleimani, 59, is a major general in Iran's Revolutionary Guards and the commander of the Quds Force. The Quds Force is deployed exclusively for clandestine and extraterritorial operations, currently above all in fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Soleimani is an excellent example of how the Iranian leadership turns individuals who have made a name for themselves fighting alongside Shia allies and against Sunni enemies into immortal heroes while they are still alive. Ali Khamenei apparently referred to him once as a 'living martyr'. This explains why his face is everywhere and why every Iranian is familiar with it. In the West, he is simply known as 'the shadow commander', because information about him is so sparse.
Iran's leaders and many of its citizens are convinced that religious rather than political motivations have driven not only the war against Iraq, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State. Only a few minutes away from the graves, in the official martyr souvenir shop, it is possible to buy some mementoes of martyr veneration for just a few Iranian rials.
There are books, photo books, videos, religious souvenirs, badges, mugs, lunchboxes in the shape of landmines and even children's toys. The aim is to teach even the smallest children that on earth as in heaven, martyrs are paid the deepest respect.
When asked about the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, shop-owner Ali is quick to reply, drawing comparisons with the war on Iraq 36 years ago: ″if you go to Khuzestan on the Iraqi border, you can see that there is not much there except desert. But when the Iraqis crossed this border, they not only attacked our country, they also attacked our religion. It was an attack on Islam!″