TEHRAN: Iran this week honours military commander Qasem Soleimani who was assassinated a year ago by arch-enemy the United States and is revered as a heroic warrior across the Islamic republic.
Since his death in a January 3 Baghdad drone strike that sparked mourning across Iran at mass funeral processions, the “martyr” Soleimani has entered the ranks of Iran’s glorious generals, immortalised in portraits, sculptures, ballads and an upcoming TV series.
The commemorations on Sunday come only weeks before US President Donald Trump, who ordered the killing, leaves the White House and Joe Biden takes over, offering hopes of a somewhat less bellicose relationship.
Soleimani’s killing at age 62 sharply heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran, whose decades-old animosity had deepened when Trump withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate Iran.
Within days, Iran retaliated to the killing of a military leader long deemed untouchable by firing rockets at Iraqi bases housing US forces, which claimed no lives but caused injuries and preceded a tragedy.
In the tense hours that followed the rocket strikes, when it appeared the conflict could escalate further, Iran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran, claiming the lives of all 176 aboard.
A year on, Iran is readying to honour Soleimani, whom the United States had labelled a “terrorist” in 2005, but whose portrait has been displayed by supporters in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.
The anniversary comes as sanctions-hit Iran remains in the grip of the region’s worst outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 55,000 out of more than 1.2 million people infected in the country.
Soleimani headed the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which directly answers to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he went on to oversee Iran’s military operations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
In the eyes of many Iranians, the country’s projection of power beyond national borders under Soleimani saved the multi-ethnic nation from the conflict and disintegration suffered by Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Khamenei had already declared him a “living martyr” before his death, and in 2019 Soleimani became the only recipient of the highest military honour, the Order of Zolfaghar, since the revolution.
Khamenei said this month that “Soleimani embodies Iranian values” such as “courage and resistance spirit”.
Iran regards Soleimani as having joined the hallowed ranks of warriors who fell for the motherland, from the era of the Persian empire into modern times.
In one of the dozens of songs broadcast during his multi-city funeral procession, Soleimani was compared by the poet Milad Erfanpour to the mythical heroes of the Persian epic Shahnameh, The Book of Kings.
“We have had many heroes, some of them fictional, in our long history, but Soleimani was a real human being whom we have known in flesh and soul,” Erfanpour told AFP.
The late general’s appeal transcended political, religious and class divisions, said academic Mehdi Zakerian, who noted that “in his speeches, Soleimani always spoke to all Iranians and not just to one social class”.
“When he raised social or political issues in Iran, he always tried to express himself in a calculated and thoughtful way to avoid tensions,” Zakerian told AFP.
“It is rare to find a consensus figure like Soleimani in Iran,” said Fatima Alsmadi, a senior researcher at Doha’s Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.
In a 2017 video widely shared on social media, the general is heard advising Iranian politicians to engage with citizens, no matter whether they are “veiled, unveiled, left, right, reformist or conservative”.