Fear and anger have gripped Iran as its people react to the assassination on Friday of Qassem Soleimani, the country’s most revered military commander, in a US air strike.
Iranians became accustomed to mourning their military officers during the devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s but the elimination of Soleimani, the head of the country’s elite Quds force, is different — the first time in Iran’s history that its most senior military figure has been killed in action by an enemy force.
“I feel extremely saddened and lost,” said Majid, a 48-year-old computer engineer. “Regardless of my [pro-reform] political inclinations, it feels like we have lost a legendary hero similar to Persian myths, as if Iran’s saviour and the symbol of our security has been killed.”
Even Iranians opposed to the Islamic regime were shocked by the US action. Despite his feared reputation at home and abroad, many saw the 62-year-old commander as a national hero destined to play an indispensable role in Iran’s future.
“I feel frozen and cannot help staring at the wall since this morning,” said Zahra, a 40-year-old lawyer, who said she was not a supporter of Soleimani. “What is going to happen to us without him? Our miseries are worsened every day.”
His funeral this weekend is expected to be the biggest of any figure since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, in 1989.
The air strike that killed Soleimani at Baghdad airport early on Friday morning came just days after the US embassy in Iraq was attacked by Iran-backed militia. President Donald Trump had blamed Tehran for the incident and earlier this week announced the deployment of 750 additional troops to the country. A US Pentagon statement accused Soleimani of “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq” and said that US forces had “at the direction of the president” taken “decisive defensive action”.
Analysts said they had never imagined the US would go as far as killing Soleimani and that Tehran would be likely to interpret the action as a declaration of war.
Even young Iranians reacted with anger. “Soleimani’s death may lead to a war and this can affect our future,” said 16 year old Arian, who added that he hated the American president. “Soleimani had a huge power in the region and this is what made the US angry.”
In recent years, Soleimani fought Isis in Iraq and Syria and in doing so prevented conflict from spilling over Iran’s borders. Before his death he had become, arguably, the second most influential figure in the Islamic republic after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Ayatollah vowed to take “tough revenge” for Soleimani’s death but at the same time Iranian leaders have sought to tread a fine line and avoid an immediate military confrontation with the US.
“Iran will certainly take revenge and very severely but there is no huge rush,” said one Iranian political analyst. “Its timing, place and method will be determined in the future which may not be necessarily the coming days, weeks or even months.”
Soleimani’s death is set to have political implications at home too, analysts said.
“The US move has not only brought Iran-US tensions to a new make-or-break point . . . but we shall soon see how massively it undermines moderate forces and fuels radicalism in Iran,” said Saeed Laylaz, an expert of Iran’s political economy. “Soleimani was the only public figure in Iran who could help create national unity in times of crisis, as if he was friends with prisoners and jail-keepers alike.”
A power struggle, centred on succession when Mr Khamenei dies, is continuing between hardliners and reformers. Despite his personal relationship with the 80-year-old supreme leader, Soleimani had always remained a largely national figure and, analysts said, may have sought to prevent Iran from drifting towards further radicalism after Mr Khamenei’s eventual death.
“On the day of Khamenei’s death, he could have been the one to intervene for the first time in domestic politics and stop hardliners from taking Iran into an abyss,” the political analyst said. “Many Iranians consciously or subconsciously saw him as a patriot and a general that Iran never had before.”