The killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful and iconic military commander who headed the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a major blow to the Islamic republic on many levels.
At the same time, Soleimani’s death — at a time of increased U.S. pressure and following last month’s bloody crackdown on anti-establishment protests in more than 100 cities and towns — has allowed the Iranian government to display unity and popular support by organizing mass street funeral ceremonies.
That includes on January 5 in the southern city of Ahvaz and Mashhad in the northeast, where hundreds of thousands of mourners dressed in black were seen honoring the influential military commander who played a key role in advancing Iran’s foreign policy interests from Lebanon to Yemen and many places in between.
The 62-year-old Soleimani was killed in a U.S. air strike in neighboring Iraq on January 3 ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump — who said the Iranian commander had organized attacks on U.S. and Iraqi targets and was planning further acts of terror against U.S. interests.
Images on Iranian television and state-controlled media showed men and women, young and old, crying while holding images of Soleimani that said: “Your Way Will Continue” and signs with state slogans including “Death To America.”
State-controlled television, which does not cover anti-establishment protests, called the demonstration in Mashhad “unprecedented,” referring to Soleimani — blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians in several Middle Eastern countries due to conflicts involving pro-Iran militias — as “the fatherland’s soldier.”
Iranian officials declared January 6 a holiday in Tehran and January 7 a holiday in Kerman while inviting Iranians to attend a funeral ceremony for Soleimani in the capital and a day later in his hometown of Kerman, where he is to be buried.
On social media, some Iranians have in past days paid tribute to Soleimani while condemning his assassination as “government-sponsored terrorism.”
But the reaction to his death has also been very mixed. A large faction of anti-regime activists and demonstrators are unhappy with Iran’s activities — organized and carried out by Soleimani — and large military expenditures supporting regional conflicts when the Iranian economy is in such desperate straits and facing enormous budget shortfalls in virtually all spheres due to U.S.-led economic sanctions that have destroyed Tehran’s oil revenues.
Such sentiments were also echoed by people in other countries in the region, who even celebrated Soleimani’s killing.
Still others expressed fear over the consequences of Soleimani’s killing, which is considered a major escalation in the already heightened conflict between Tehran and Washington.
Some of the comments appeared to highlight a fear of war rather than support for the clerical establishment which, according to Amnesty International, killed at least 304 people in the November crackdown on protests triggered by a significant hike in the price of gasoline. Reuters reported that some 1,500 people were slain in the nationwide demonstrations. That figure could not be confirmed.
Regime supporters have been using the hashtag #hardrevenge to underline comments by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vowed “harsh” retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.
“We won’t rest until we avenge your death, commander of the hearts,” tweeted user Morteza Ben Hassan, whose profile photo was Soleimani.
Reformist figures including former President Mohammad Khatami and cleric Mehdi Karrubi — who’s been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging the Iranian establishment after a purported fraudulent presidential election — also praised Soleimani while expressing their condolences over his “martyrdom.”
Ali Fathollah Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center think tank, noted that Iran’s state propaganda had portrayed Soleimani “as a nationalist hero masterfully protecting Iran from regional threats such as [Islamic State] while erecting Iran as the region’s supreme power.”
“Beyond the fact that Soleimani’s killing has raised fears among various sections of Iranian society of an impending war ravaging the country and the empowerment of the most hard-line domestic elements, the pro-Soleimani statements by the Islamic republic’s reformists are a reflection of demonstrating elite unity in the face of internal and external pressure as well as a reminder of how engrained the marriage of Islamism and nationalism is among the Islamic republic’s establishment,” Fathollah Nejad told RFE/RL.
“[More] blood spilled on the wall of mistrust; poor #peace; poor justice,” human rights activist Hassan Assadi Zeidabadi, who went to prison several times because of his activism, said on Twitter.
Reformist journalist Maziar Khosravi complained that he had used 10 anti-filtering tools to be able to access Twitter, which is banned in Iran except for top government officials, to condemn “state terrorism.”
“Domestic tyranny and an external enemy are pulling the rope on both sides of our throat and choking us,” Khosravi tweeted.
Prominent journalist and human rights advocate Emad Baghi, who was also jailed in Iran for his peaceful activities and public dissent, noted that Soleimani’s death had made some happy and others sad while adding that not condemning the “terrorist action” by the Trump administration would mean “prescribing the violation of human rights and international laws.”
But Baghi also appeared to blame the Iranian establishment, writing that “a series of causes and effects brought matters to this point.”
He suggested that “reason” on the issue could have brought a different outcome.
“I see Soleimani’s martyrdom as the result of a past process that could have been definitely different,” Baghi said.
A journalist in Tehran who did not want to be named said the establishment needed to rally the public at a sensitive time.
“Clearly, even those who are not regime supporters were shocked by Soleimani’s killing,” he said. “Soleimani was seen by many as a national hero.”
But he added that does not necessarily mean that “people have forgotten” the recent bloody crackdown against protesters.
“Many are still upset,” he said.
Sussan Tahmasebi, a well-known human rights activist and the executive director of FEMENA, an organization focused on women’s rights in the Middle East, said Soleimani’s killing is likely to make it more difficult to raise human rights issues due to an “increased securitized atmosphere.”
“The cost of dissent and criticism will increase,” Tahmasebi said, while adding that those killed and those in prison following last month’s protests are likely to be forgotten.
“In an emergency war situation, even the less politicized demands for rights will take on a lesser priority,” she told RFE/RL.