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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 January 2021

We must remember what Suleimani stood for

An Iraqi woman carries a portrait of killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. AFP
An Iraqi woman carries a portrait of killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. AFP

Yesterday marked a year since the killing of Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani. One year on, a carefully crafted and tactical story in which he is the saviour of Iran and a regional leader to be reckoned with is being built up. Despite his death, Suleimani's grand strategy remains.

He was the former leader of the foreign branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a hugely influential state within a state that is tasked with preserving the revolutionary zeal of Iran's regime and exporting its ideology. During his long career, he became the prime architect of Tehran's militant and destabilising web of proxies across the Middle East.

He had profited from a symbolic power even before his death, enjoying a unique degree of popular appeal in Iran, rarely the case for IRGC officials, who many view as corrupt. Over the years, he cast himself as a nationalistic defender of Iran's sovereignty, even though the battles he fought were on the lands of others, using foot soldiers from countries as varied as Afghanistan and Yemen. The entire purpose of Suleimani's organisation was to sow extra-territorial subversion.

Nonetheless, images repeatedly circulate in Iran of huge turnouts at his funeral last year, his coffin touring the country draped in flags, flowers and religious symbols. This ignores the killings for which he is responsible, and the hypocrisy at the heart of his mission. Victims of his militias enjoy no such ceremony. And yet, anniversary gatherings in his support, such as one recently outside Baghdad airport, show that even abroad some remain enraptured by his mythical status, and willing to mourn a man responsible for the deaths of many of their fellow countrymen.

Constant circulation of images from his funeral whitewashes the many deaths for which he was responsible

He was instrumental to Iran’s war effort in the Iran-Iraq War, sometimes referred to as the "Middle East's First World War", given the widespread use of trench warfare and its huge death toll. He is lionised as Iran's bulwark against ISIS, even though he was allied with the US in that battle and relied on the international coalition to operate in ISIS-controlled areas. And while his forces did play a role, it is important to remember that subversion by Iranian-backed militias stunted Iraqi security for years, paving the way for ISIS to spread as much as it did. This, unsurprisingly, is not part of Tehran's version of events. Mention is also not given to the fact that outside Iran, he was widely resented, especially in countries central to his strategy, such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. His freedom to do as he pleased under the flawed terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was a primary reason many in the region opposed the agreement.

A man lights a candle at the sight of the strike ordered by President Trump last January. EPA
A man lights a candle at the sight of the strike ordered by President Trump last January. EPA

The collective memory of Suleimani that Iran’s leadership is manufacturing cannot go on unchallenged. Showing Tehran’s belligerence for what it is will require a more realistic picture of Suleimani. Providing one should not be difficult, however, given the many crimes that he committed. Winning this battle of narratives, and countering an image of Suleimani as a type of freedom fighter when in reality he committed great crimes, will benefit the people of the Middle East, including Iranians, who live under the constant threat posed by the paranoid alternative reality provided by Tehran's leadership.

Updated: January 4, 2021 09:49 AM

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