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Sunday 20 August 2017

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According to Iranian state media Mohsen Hojaji was in Syria as a member of Iran's advisory support team. (file photo)

Iran is mourning the death of one of its fighters, who was recently beheaded by the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

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."

'Unique Solidarity'

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.

'Exemplary Courage'

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 the IRGC's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani (file photo)
The commander of the IRGC's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani (file photo)

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 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.

Journalists and police crouch near the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran during an attack on the complex that left at least a dozen people dead.

Iran's latest arrests of alleged Islamic State extremists has added to the scrutiny of the group's presence in Iran

A fresh wave of arrests of alleged Islamic State (IS) militants, while scant on details, is helping build the case that the extremist group's activities in Iran go beyond the recent deadly bombings in Tehran.

That 10 of the 27 alleged IS members were arrested in another country revealed that the effort to clamp down on the militant group had expanded past Iran's borders. The authorities claimed the arrests resulted from intelligence sharing with a third country and they touted the operation as a success that was carried out as IS was planning further attacks on Iran.

However, in announcing the arrests on August 7, Iran's Intelligence Ministry did not divulge where exactly the alleged militants were arrested, or where they were from, or what foreign country authorities in Tehran might have worked with.

In its August 7 statement, Iran's Intelligence Ministry said the arrested were planning to carry out attacks in central provinces and religious cities. However, the ministry did not mention those alleged targets by name.

It was the latest announcement of mass arrests since the June 7 twin attacks on the parliament and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The attacks claimed by IS on two symbolic pillars of the state were the worst to hit the country in recent years. On June 9, two days after the attacks that left 17 dead, the Intelligence Ministry said its forces had arrested 41 IS members.

'Complex Operations'

The ministry said the latest arrests were made ahead of the August 5 inauguration of President Hassan Rohani, which took place in the country's parliament.

"The arrests were made in a series of complex operations that involved identifying and arresting them with their weapons and ammunition before they were able to carry out their plans," the ministry said in a brief statement published by Iranian news agencies.

Five of the 27, the statement claimed, were planning to carry out attacks in Iran and the rest were coordinating and supporting them. The ministry said the suspects were planning to smuggle weapons and ammunition into Iran by hiding them inside home appliances.

PHOTO GALLERY: Islamic State Attacks Tehran (Click on image to open gallery)

Since the June attacks, Iran has announced the arrests of dozens of alleged IS members and members of other "terrorist groups," without providing much detail.

The August 7 announcement came just days after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said it had killed two "armed assassins" in the northwest of the country.

The IRGC said the two were planning to penetrate Iran "with the aim of sabotage and conducting terrorist acts."

In July, a Judiciary official in Mashhad said a total of 27 IS members were arrested in the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi.

On June 9, two days after the attacks in the Iranian capital that left 17 dead, the Intelligence Ministry said its forces had arrested 41 IS members.

Iranian Involvement In Syria, Iraq

Even before the Tehran attacks, Iranian authorities had said on separate occasions that they had arrested dozens of "terrorists," some with links to IS, and thwarted several planned attacks.

The Islamic republic is seen as an enemy by IS, which considers Shi'a to be heretics.

Iran has been heavily involved in the fight against IS in Syria, where Tehran has sent hundreds of military advisers and is believed to have sent fighters or Iran-backed soldiers to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Assad has been fighting both Western-backed forces -- who seek his ouster and are also engaged in fighting IS -- as well as Islamic State itself for more than six years in a brutal civil war.

Iran has also been active in anti-IS efforts in Iraq, where the IRGC has reportedly advised Iraqi forces and helped mobilize Shi'ite militias.

Iranian authorities have claimed that their efforts will prevent IS from advancing toward Iranian territory.

In March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran's Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi'a-dominated Iranian establishment.
In March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran's Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi'a-dominated Iranian establishment.

The June attacks, whose perpetrators were said to all be Iranians, and the growing number of arrests inside the country have underscored the domestic threat Iran faces from IS.

The militant group has in past months increased its propaganda activities targeting Iranian Sunnis, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population of 80 million.

A 2015 report by the Interior Ministry's Tehran-based Center for Strategic Studies warned about a homegrown IS threat in Iran and the presence of Sunni Salafi groups in the country's western Kurdistan region.

It said that Salafist ideas in the Kurdish inhabited region, whichborders both Iraq's Kurdish region and Kurdish populated areas of eastern Turkey, were not "imported" anymore and that, in the past two decades, dozens of prominent clerics and religious students have been disseminating and studying Salafist ideas.

Kurds, a significant proportion of which are Sunni, make up about 10 percent of Iran's population.

Using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, the report warned that IS had increased its activities to recruit in Iran's Kurdistan region, while warning that "in the future, we will see a large number of Iranian Kurds and Baluchis joining Daesh."

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.