Qassem Soleimani, the son of a labourer who became Iran’s most revered military commander and the man responsible for the Islamic republic’s involvement in a string of devastating wars across the Middle East, has died in a targeted US air strike.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, Iranian politicians said it would have been Soleimani’s dream to be “martyred” by the US, Iran’s “arch foe”, which he had relentlessly tried to undermine in the Middle East for the more than two decades he led the elite Quds force.
One of the most notorious military commanders in Iran in recent decades, the 62-year-old had long been seen as the symbol of the country’s ambitions for the region, so close to Iran’s supreme leader that he saw him as a son. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the death was “bitter” for Iran but he vowed revenge, which would make it “more bitter” for the US.
For his foes, Soleimani was responsible for interventions across the Middle East, notably in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where he created and fostered proxy forces to fight against US and Israeli-backed forces. On Friday, in the wake of the attack that killed him and a senior leader of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, the US Pentagon 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”.
But for Iranians, even those critical of the regional and defence policies Soleimani championed, he is a source of national pride. Many Iranians attribute the defeat of the jihadi group Isis in Syria and Iraq to Soleimani’s policies, as well as the fact that Iran’s security has remained intact despite broader turbulence in the region.
Born to a modest family in a remote, mountainous village, Qanat-e Malek, in southern Kerman, he left home aged 12 to work as a construction labourer. When war broke out with Iraq in 1980, Soleimani, then in his early twenties, gathered a group of young men from his hometown to head to the oil-rich province of Khuzestan — a hotspot in the war — to fight.
“I noticed Soleimani because on a personal and spontaneous initiative, he decided to create [a group] to fight with Iraq,” said Hossein Marashi, a friend of Soleimani and a former government official, who first met him in 1981 on the battlefields of southern Iran.
“This group became bigger and turned into a brigade which still exists as a major military unit,” he said. “His strong point was his creativity in tactics and strategies which helped him break deadlocks while he always remained an intimate and humble character as well as a firm and brave commander.”
After rising through the ranks of the Iranian military, Soleimani was in 1997 appointed commander of the Quds Forces, which are responsible for the overseas military operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He cemented his reputation with operations such as Iran’s backing for Lebanon’s Shia Hizbollah group during the 33-day war with Israel in 2006. He fought Isis in Iraq and Syria by replicating a model he had established in Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution — setting up voluntary, ideologically-motivated militias.
Forces such as the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq — blamed for the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad this week — and Jaysh al-Sha’bi in Syria were pivotal in the battles that followed.
A deeply ideological figure, Soleimani’s world view was forged on the battlefield — he remained perennially on a war footing, convinced that the hostility between Iran and the US would never be resolved.
After Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear accord in May 2018 and threatened Iran with military action, Soleimani delivered a warning to the US president.
“Mr Trump, the gambler! I tell you that we are close to you in places you cannot think of. We are a nation of martyrdom,” he said, in some of the harshest public comments he made against a US president. “I myself and the Quds forces can defeat you. There is no single night that we sleep without thinking of how to destroy you.”
His experience during the Iran-Iraq war that led to tens of thousands of Iranians being killed and subjected to chemical gas attacks proved formative. He became determined never to allow Iran’s borders to be attacked again. Despite his hostility to the US, analysts said he wanted to avoid direct confrontation and instead kept proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen at the forefront of the battle against Washington.
While in recent decades, Iranian politics has been riven by fights between hardline conservatives and reformers, Soleimani largely steered clear of domestic politics. Even the reformists who opposed Iran’s interventions in the region treated Soleimani with huge respect. Former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, described his death as “a huge loss for Islam and Iran”. Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president, said: “We never saw him a threat as he was bipartisan and positioned himself as a national figure.”
Last March, the supreme leader awarded Soleimani the country’s highest military medal. Pinning the Zolfaghar medal on him, the top leader wished him “martyrdom”, words that were interpreted to mean that the guards, a force of 120,000 soldiers and millions of voluntary forces, could survive even Soleimani’s demise.
There are fears that his death may trigger conflict across the region. In a testament to his influence in his home country and beyond — with the creation and fostering of Iran-backed militias — the initial response to his death might be evident on the street.
“It does not work in an old way by which the guards should take revenge themselves,” Hamid Reza Moghaddamfar, an adviser to the guards, told state television on Friday. “Today millions of people in the world are ready for this revenge.”