What massive gatherings for Soleimani’s death can tell us about Iranian society
Less than two months ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran shut down the internet for a few days to cover up the harsh repression of some recurring popular protests. Also less than two months ago, large gatherings on the streets were somehow feared by the ruling elite, especially when they addressed political changes beyond economic reforms. No one could imagine, nor expect the massive crowd that gathered for the death of General Qasem Soleimani. As the Pasdaran are often linked to the unelected constitutional bodies of the Iranian system, they do not represent the voice of popular quests for reforms and changes, themes advocated instead in the recent and recurring uprisings.
The killing of Soleimani, head of the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that engage in extraterritorial missions, not only changed the equation in the region and thus inflamed tensions between Tehran and Washington, but also revealed the complexity of the Iranian domestic scene, as well as how little we understand about Iranian society.
Less than two months ago, Soleimani was still leading the Niru-ye Qods, the IRGC special forces operating in Iraq, whereas at home some segments of the Iranian society were complaining about economic mismanagement, reduction of oil subsidies and price hikes. The harsh repression on protesters again opened the long-lasting debate on how the legitimacy of the system is increasingly deteriorating. However, after Soleimani was killed by a US drone in Baghdad on January 3rd, massive crowds gathered in the streets of several towns and cities, like Ahvaz, Tehran, and Mashhad. They all came out in huge parades praising the General, recalling the narrative of martyrdom and evoking symbols of the Shia mourning for the sacrifice of Imam Hossein in the year 680. State media largely emphasized popular participation in Soleimani’s funeral in the city of Kerman, including the tragedy that ensued when more than 70 people died in a crowd that grew out of control.
Observers were therefore confused about what these gatherings meant, especially from a political point of view. It is worth noting that it is often erroneous and misleading to speak on behalf of the Iranian population because the variety of its composition defines a heterogeneous society characterized by plural expectations and demands. It is, therefore, dangerous to define what Iranian people generically thought about Soleimani, yet it is possible to reflect on why parts of the Iranian society reacted in such a remarkable and unexpected way during this phase of growing tension and continuous protests.
The “Shadow commander”, as Soleimani was labeled by the New Yorker in 2013, was a devoted and skillful General, a secretive Revolutionary Guard who was only accountable to the Supreme Leader. He was able to frame the national identity in a military and nationalistic way, whereas his funeral was covered by religious themes of resistance and martyrdom. To some extent, he merged principles of Iranian nationalism with religious and Islamist references and therefore his posture may have not polarized Iranian society. He was a very charismatic person who did not appeared directly involved – even though some believe he was very involved in fact – in domestic politics, also due to the fact he was operating abroad, but preferred to join popular events, such as funerals and local gatherings. For these reasons, he did not epitomize the Revolutionary Guard member who stepped into politics, rather the devoted general protecting the nation and defending its territorial integrity. Therefore, inside Iran, some perceived him as the man who kept ISIS far from Iranian territory, that is to say, the one (among those forces) who guaranteed national defense.
Soleimani’s death was framed by government agencies as the sacrifice of the revolutionary man involved in difficult countries to fight imperialism and protect Iran. His strategic skills and military abilities have been lauded by the official narrative and hence state media tried to depict him as an idol. Therefore, national media and political discourses emphasized this rhetoric to strengthen national unity, according to a prominent paradigm that external threats may keep the country united.
People actively participated in street demonstrations against the United States and celebrated Soleimani’s mission. However, popular mourning was not a demonstration of acceptance of the rhetoric of the political elite, rather a national reaction towards what was considered illicit and challenging for Iranian independence. National pride, unity against the interference of the United States, and the profound feeling of independence were mainly the driving factors for the massive crowds.
The expressions of condolences for the General represented more the exhibition of Iranians’ pride, than the prompt adherence to top-down political discourse. Without neglecting a certain level of admiration for General Soleimani, his death symbolized an outrage to Iranian pride and independence. Popular rallies can, therefore, be understood according to this interpretative lens.
Lastly, the emphasis given to the popular gatherings by official news agencies would have had the objective of displaying a population in mourning and therefore adhering to the Islamic Republic politics, casting a shadow over the continuous demand for reforms.
Nonetheless, in light of the recent events concerning the accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian civil aircraft, angry crowds again took over the streets in Tehran. Students gathered in front of Amir Kabir University asking for “the liars” to resign, since only three days after the incident the Iranian elite admitted the responsibility. What changed in the last few days? We witnessed huge gatherings sponsored by the ruling elite and then others violently repressed and obscured, according to unofficial sources. What remains of that sense of union on display at the funeral of General Soleimani? When it comes to endangering national independence, the Iranian people are willing to show their unity, and yet public mourning encouraged by the state did not shadow the quests for accountability and comprehensive reforms still advocated by several strata of the Iranian population.