Accessibility links

Breaking News

Key Takeaways From Qasem Soleimani’s Massive Funeral Procession

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians thronged onto the streets of Tehran, Qom, Ahvaz, Mashhad, and Kerman this week to take part in the state funeral of Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike on January 3.

The crowds and the grief they expressed were described by some observers as unmatched since the funeral of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that was held in the Iranian capital in 1989.

Many held photos of Soleimani while vowing revenge for his death and chanting support for the state.

The scenes were in sharp contrast to the Iranian streets in November, when thousands of Iranians protested in some 100 cities and towns against the clerical establishment following a significant hike in the prices of gasoline. Hundreds of demonstrators were also slain by security forces during the rallies.

The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force and the key figure in advancing Iranian foreign policy interests from Lebanon to Yemen and many places in between, Soleimani is accused by Washington as being responsible “for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”

Others hold him accountable for the thousands of people -- including many civilians -- killed in the proxy wars that pro-Iranian paramilitaries have waged throughout the Middle East.

So what are the reasons behind the massive outpouring of grief at Soleimani's funeral and where are all of those Iranians who were angry at their leaders several weeks ago?

An External Enemy Has United The Deeply Nationalistic Iranians

The assassination of Soleimani was a major escalation in the already heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. It has also worried many Iranians with vivid memories of the bloody 1980-1988 war with Iraq that it could lead to the breakout of a major military conflict between Iran and the United States.

To some, the killing of Soleimani was seen as an act of war. Iran has promised to take harsh revenge, which some fear could lead to retaliation by the United States and the breakout of a wider conflict.

During times of war, deeply nationalistic and patriotic Iranians are known to come together and rally behind their country. That sentiment was highlighted by a prominent critic of the Iranian establishment, Abdolah Momeni, who has been jailed and tortured in Iran.

"No nation is happy when its soldiers and commanders are killed by foreigners," Momeni, a widely respected former student leader, said on Twitter on January 3, adding that “Soleimani’s martyrdom has hurt Iranians’ national pride.”

Soleimani was awarded Iran’s highest military honor, the Order of Zolfiqar medal, on March 11, 2019.
Soleimani was awarded Iran’s highest military honor, the Order of Zolfiqar medal, on March 11, 2019.

A businessman in Tehran who took part in the 2009 mass street demonstrations against a disputed presidential vote, told RFE/RL that Soleimani's killing has ignited a sense of national unity in Iran.

“I’m not a supporter of this establishment but when I see my country is under possible attack, I stand with my country and my people,” he said.

"Soleimani was a genius military strategist and his death is a loss for Iran," he said, adding that “now is not the time to criticize [the clerical establishment].”

With the assassination of Soleimani followed by a warning that Iranian culture sites could be targeted in any future attack, U.S. President Donald Trump has brought Iranians together at a time many are still angered by the brutal November crackdown on anti-establishment protests.

“Trump severely underestimates Iranian nationalism,” said historian Roham Alvandi on Twitter on January 5.

"Someone should tell him about the pilots of the Imperial Iranian Air Force, who were allowed out of their prison cells by their revolutionary jailers in 1980 to fly sorties against the invading Iraqis," said Alvandi, an associate professor of International History at the London School of Economics.

Actual Results And A Big Chunk Of Propaganda

Soleimani was unknown to many Iranians only a few years ago. He was rarely seen in the media and only a few, grainy amateur photos of him were available.

But in recent years things changed dramatically when Soleimani -- who called himself “a soldier of the revolution” -- was turned into a national hero.

Iran’s PR machine also boosted his image and made him a celebrity who was shown to be a deeply pious and selfless hero working tirelessly to keep Iran safe from terrorist bands and the extremist Islamic State (IS) group, which took responsibility for an attack in Tehran in 2017 that resulted in 23 deaths.

Key Facts About Iranian General Qasem Soleimani
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:23 0:00

Afshon Ostovar, an expert on the IRGC and associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, told The Wall Street Journal that “his accolades were as deserved as they were exaggerated, the product of both years of effective operations and an elaborate, state-sponsored public-relations campaign.”

Numerous photos of him on a "battlefield" battling Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria consistently popped up on social media and news blogs. He was also seen at funerals held for Iranian fighters killed in Syria and Iraq and there were pop songs, social-media posts, and documentaries devoted to him.

Media outlets interviewed his relatives, including a brother who described him as a serious but "very kind" and emotional person.

A recent poll by the University of Maryland showed that 82 percent of Iranians held a positive view of Soleimani and 59 percent a highly positive view.

In past days, many Iranians have grieved his death and honored him, including some unlikely figures, such as one of the greatest Iranian novelists, Mahmud Dolatabadi, who has had to deal with strict state censorship, and Ardeshir Zahedi, a Shah-era Iranian diplomat living in exile in Switzerland, who praised Soleimani as a "patriotic and honorable soldier."

Soleimani's Detractors Not Allowed To Express Themselves

The state has encouraged people to take to the streets to honor Soleimani by declaring three days of mourning and they closed government offices and schools.

But those Iranians who are not supportive of Soleimani and Iran’s regional policies are not free to express themselves due to the repressive nature of the Iranian regime.

What we don't see on TV are those who are not mourning his death.

Iran-U.S. Tensions: Calls For Revenge And Restraint
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:36 0:00

Soleimani’s new stature as a state martyr will make any criticism even more difficult.

Here is one small example.

Amir Hossein Rezazadeh, a prosecutor in Shahreza, a city in the central province of Isfahan, was quoted earlier this week as saying that four people had been detained for insulting “the status of Soleimani.

Rezazadeh said the detainees had upset many mourners by making derogatory comments about Soleimani on social media.

“The publishing of offensive material about martyrs is considered a criminal offense…and, due to the sanctity of martyrs, it is viewed as insulting sanctities and it results in arrest and penalty,” he said.

  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.