A 25-year-old-member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who was recently beheaded by the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is becoming the poster child of Iran’s military efforts in Syria and Iraq, where Tehran has deployed hundreds of so-called shrine defenders to assist the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fight IS, and spread its influence.
Mohsen Hojaji, who according to Iranian state media was a member of Iran's advisory support team in Syria, was reportedly captured by IS last week in an ambush near the border with Iraq. Iranian media report that he was beheaded two days later.
IRGC commanders have vowed to avenge Hojaji's killing, while many senior officials have used his “martyrdom” to justify their policies.
Images of Hojaji’s capture by IS, where the young man appears calm and unfazed, have resulted in an outpouring of support and solidarity from citizens, officials, artists, athletes, television personalities, and others who see him as a symbol of courage and resistance.
Hojaji has been already honored at several cultural and sports events.
And there are more plans to honor him, including by naming a street in Tehran and a square in Mashhad and erecting his statue in a major square in the Iranian capital.
Senior officials, including IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and parliament speaker Ali Larijani attended Hojaji’s memorial services in his hometown of Najafabad and in the Iranian capital, respectively, and praised his "martyrdom."
Jafari said Hojaji's death brought Iran dignity. He also said that Hojaji neutralized an "ugly move" by lawmakers. Jafari did not elaborate, but he appeared to be referring to controversial selfies a group of lawmakers recently took with EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini.
"Political and cultural threats and ideological attacks are targeting our country, the martyrdom of Hojaji created a unique solidarity that couldn’t be achieved with any other action," Jafari said.
Larijani, for his part, said that Hojaji’s death has brought "dignity and pride" for the country while adding that the value of Hojaji and his fellow shrine defenders is incomparable.
Top officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Guardians Council chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, have condemned Hojaji’s killing while glorifying his death by saying that he sacrificed his life to keep the country safe and defend Islam.
"They sacrificed their lives to fight the crimes of Takfiri terrorists and guarantee security and peace for the oppressed Muslims of the region," Zarif said in a post on Instagram.
Praise also came from Iran's highest authority: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who posted Hojaji’s picture on his Persian Twitter account.
"The young shrine defenders are showing a shining image of Islam," the post says.
Khamenei’s adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, was quoted as saying by state media that Iran owes its security to the "bravery" of Hojaji and shrine defenders.
Speaking on state-controlled television, popular TV presenter Adel Ferdosipour said Hojaji’s "martyrdom," which he said has saddened all segments of the Iranian society, is "special."
"We’ve given many martyrs; we’ve been through many bitter events. But the martyrdom of Hojaji is really shocking," he said.
He said Hojaji’s "courage," "self-confidence," and "the fearlessness" in his eyes were "exemplary."
"His picture will remain in the history of Iran," he added.
The commander of IRGC's Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, vowed to eradicate IS in reaction to Hojaji's killing.
"I swear upon the cut throat of our dear martyr [Hojaji] and all the other martyrs, we will not stop chasing this cursed [family] tree and we will eradicate this dangerous tumor on the body of the Islamic world to their last man," Soleimani wrote in his statement issued by the hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC.
The head of the IRGC’s ground force, Mohammad Pakpour, said the guards would take action in response to Hojaji’s decapitation.
"It's not necessary to say how we will take revenge, but our objective is to take vengeance and we are determined to do it," Pakpour was quoted as saying earlier this week by the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency.
Hojaji is being described as an avid reader and a deeply religious young man who believed Iranian state propaganda that his deployment abroad would preserve Islam.
He was reportedly active in the cultural activities of the Basij, Iran's volunteer paramilitary militia.
'Dreaming Of Martyrdom'
Hojaji's wife, Zahra Abbasi, has said in an interview with Jamejamonline.ir that Hojaji’s dream was to become a martyr and that he had told her that he was ready to defend Islam "within Iranian borders or in another country."
She said Hojaji was captured during his second deployment in Syria.
She said he had asked her to pray for him to remain in Syria until the war was over.
She said she found out about his fate from a channel on the highly popular Telegram app.
"After I saw images of his capture, I kept thinking about the state he was in. All of a sudden, I saw the message about a headless martyr on Telegram," she said.
"I realized the headless martyr was my husband," she added.
Hojaji’s death comes following the deadly June 7 twin attacks on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic republic that were claimed by Islamic State.
In recent months, the group has increased its propaganda and recruitment efforts aimed at Iranian Sunnis.
Days after the attacks that left 17 dead, the IRGC said it launched several missiles on IS targets in eastern Syria.