Interview with Reza Alijani on Soleimani's assassination

In the wake of Iran's shadow commander

The assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a surprise U.S. drone strike is being used by the Islamic Republic of Iran to political ends, says Iranian journalist and activist Reza Alijani. Interview conducted by Azadeh Fathi

Mr Alijani, there have been a number of huge funeral processions for Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in both Iran and Iraq in recent days. Some Western media and analyses and some of his political opponents have called Soleimani the "shadow commander" or the "phantom". His supporters – who include both reformists and conservatives, as well as young Iranians – even call him the "Malik al-Ashtar of our time" (Malik al-Ashtar was a companion of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shia imam – ed.) or the "enemy's nightmare" and consider him a national hero. In your opinion, why is Qassem Soleimani such a significant figure?

Reza Alijani: Opinions about Qassem Soleimani the man differ among Iranian citizens and political and civil society activists, and these different opinions are very clearly expressed, above all in social media. Officially, however, there are no opportunities to openly discuss this range of opinions. Let me give you one example: one conservative newspaper referred to the "killing" of Soleimani in a report instead of using the term "martyr". For this choice of words, it was roundly criticised and received an official reprimand. This one case shines a light on the regime's propaganda, which dominates the political climate in Iran.

The attitudes to Qassem Soleimani the man can be divided into three categories: the first group considers him a national hero and a great commander and defends him to the hilt. Then there are those who look exclusively to Soleimani's closeness to Ali Khamenei, his activities, his influence in the region and his role in Iranian foreign policy. For all of this, they are extremely critical of him. Some even celebrated his death. Finally, there is the third group, to which I count myself. This group sees Donald Trump's attack as a dangerous act of terrorism – an attack that could provoke a war – but does not disregard Soleimani's actions during his lifetime wholesale: as a young man, he served in the Iran–Iraq war, fought for the defence and independence of Iran, and later did his bit to fight IS. That being said, there is no denying the dark side to his political activities: Soleimani was one of the masterminds and military leaders that shaped Iran's foreign policy in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and other parts of the region.

Hundreds of thousands mourn the assassination of General Soleimani in Tehran (photo: Reuters/WANA/N. Tabatabaee)
The legend of Qassem Soleimani: following the killing of the Iranian general and leader of the Quds Brigades, who was considered one of the most important architects of Iranian foreign policy, the situation in the Middle East is on a knife-edge. Even regime-critical Iranians appear to approve of Tehran's calls for revenge. Whether the strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops will satisfy Iran's desire for retribution remains to be seen

This was a policy that went against Iran's national interests and the wishes of most of the Iranian population. Several presidential elections in Iran have shown that a large majority cast their vote for candidates who were in favour of a policy of detente in the region. These votes were in opposition to Khamenei's agenda, who largely used his dominance to impose his own will on Iran.

As far as the size of the funeral processions is concerned, it should not be forgotten that they were organised by the state. Just like the leaders of the former Soviet bloc in Europe, the Islamic Republic is very adept at organising events that can be used for propaganda purposes. They also know how to disseminate them in the media. If there were opportunities for critics and opposition activists to hold demonstrations, there would certainly be no shortage of them. Nevertheless, figures from across the political spectrum – even those who are opposed to Iran's foreign policy – have condemned the U.S. attack. But this doesn't mean that they stand in solidarity with the regime.

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