If you watched the news last week, you might have seen images from the funeral of Qassem Soleimani. The “huge” crowds surrounding his coffin seemed to lend credence to oft-repeated claims about the commander of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force. For the role that he played fighting a wide range of the Iran regime’s “enemies,” he was supposedly regarded with something approaching a sense of worship. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei openly wept at the ceremony, in between vows of revenge that he insisted would be supported by the Iranian people.
But, if you logged into Twitter while the funeral was ongoing, you might have encountered a much different narrative about the Quds Force commander and the impact of his death. There, hundreds of thousands of people tweeted using the hashtag #IraniansDetestSoleimani. Many posts included descriptions of the carnage that he has wrought, both in his home country and in the broader region. And in a repeat of the outpouring of eyewitness testimony regarding recent anti-government protests, many of the verbal accounts were backed up by images.
Just in the last two months, more than 1,500 Iranians have been killed at the hands of the suppressive state security forces, principally the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The tactics on display in those killings were notably similar to those utilised against Iraqi protesters from mid-October onwards. It was at that time that Soleimani was dispatched to Baghdad to assist in putting down demonstrations that had begun to plainly target Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government.
In both Iraq and Iran, human rights groups determined that suppressive forces were using live ammunition and shooting to kill. In Iran, upwards of 4,000 protesters have also been wounded and 12,000 arrested. The death toll may still climb as those arrested face down explicit threats of capital punishment for their role in encouraging popular dissent. The scale of the ongoing repression will no doubt be proportional to the extent of the IRGC’s involvement. Hard-line paramilitaries - like the IRGC - and the judiciary are the regime’s preferred tools to crush popular dissent and silence pro-democracy voices.
All of this remains on the minds of the Iranian people, even as Soleimani is laid to rest. In fact, as the discussion on Twitter indicates, his death may only bring greater attention to the brutality still being visited upon Iranian activists nearly two months after nationwide protests first began. As the leader of the IRGC’s foreign special operations division, Soleimani was a hardliner par excellence. And by extension, he was a symbol of the worst impulses of the Iran regime, both at home and abroad.
As perhaps the most revered figure within the IRGC, his activities beyond Iran’s borders were an inspiration to those whose zealotry made them committed to stamping out dissent at home, too.
In explaining this month’s drone strike, the White House noted that Soleimani had blood on his hands from the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq, as well as Iraqi security forces and various other victims of Iran-backed terrorism. But to this, it might be added that he is also in some way responsible for the deaths of countless Iranians - and the Iranian people know this better than anyone.
So, despite anything you might have seen on television this week, ordinary Iranians are not mourning for Soleimani. To the extent that they were present on the streets of Tehran during his funeral, it was largely because the regime is masterful at managing public demonstrations and shaping a propaganda narrative around them. They, like other dictatorships in history, have done this countless times in the past, often in the form of counter-protests that spring up in support of the theocratic system after diverse groups of popular protesters have called for its downfall.
These feigned counter-protests were seen, of course, in the midst of the uprising that began on 15 November. The first week of that uprising was virtually a blind spot in international reporting, since the government and authorities in Iran had cut off all access to the internet in order to halt the spread of objective information. But once connectivity was restored, State media rushed to portray counter-protesters as overcoming the voices of “rioters” and “thugs.”
Even so, the anti-regime demonstrations stretched on for weeks, and it would be premature to say that order has been fully restored. Indeed, regime officials have remained plainly fearful of resurgent protests, to the extent that they have arrested and threatened the families of those killed by its suppressive security forces since 15 November, warning them against holding public memorials that could turn into rallying points for new expressions of rage and dissent against the clerical regime.
The funeral of Suleimani is a mirror image of these funerals that were never allowed to happen. Tehran is doing everything in its power to boost its media coverage. Officials have provided absurd estimates of a crowd size in the millions, in hopes that this event will be the one that is seen as a rallying point. But anti-Western sentiment is not going to flare up in the wake of Soleimani’s death because the truth is that Iranians hated him and all he stood for.
To the extent that Iranians are able to freely access the internet today, many are telling the truth online about the Quds Force commander. The truth comes through unvarnished from exiled Iranians and members of pro-democracy opposition groups, like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) and the broader opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). These people will gladly tell the world about the crimes of Qassem Soleimani and how they have harmed both Iran and the Middle East as a whole.
But you would not see this sentiment on television broadcasts coming from the streets of Iran. There, the flow of information is too tightly controlled, the proceedings too closely managed, and the people too afraid to speak out. It may have looked like those people were mourning last week. But with rare exceptions, they were at the site of Soleimani’s funeral under duress. And when it was over, they simply went home.
The anti-regime protests in Iran last weekend reflect the genuine attitudes of the Iranian people. These protests are a continuation of those beginning in November and proceeding through December, reforming again and again in the face of harsh repression and 1,500 deaths. Iranians may not be willing to risk their lives in order to sit out a state-mandated memorial service, but they will do so in order to gather another day and repudiate what this dead terrorist stood for.
- Bob Blackman is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Harrow East and a member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom.
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