Qassem Suleimani is less camera-shy than just about any covert operative on earth.
As head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Suleimani is responsible for coordinating the activities of Iran’s various proxy militias around the Middle East. This is a particularly important job nowadays, thanks in no small part to Suleimani himself.
Iranian-allied Shi’ite militant groups are dominant in four Arab countries. Hezbollah is Lebanon’s strongest military and political actor. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t be in power without Iranian-backed militias. Shi’ite rebels just overthrew the government of Yemen. And the Iraqi state has more or less owes its continued existence to a constellation of Tehran-backed armed groups.
The Quds Force has helped orchestrate Iran’s strategic triumph, and Qassem Suleimani has been sure to take as much credit for it as possible.
During the recent assault against ISIS in Tikrit — spearheaded almost entirely by Iran-backed Shi’ite militia groups — Suleimani stopped by for a photo on the front lines (see above), surrounded by American-built weaponry and marching triumphantly into the hometown of Saddam Hussein (who is not incidentally the most despised enemy the Islamic Republic has faced in its 35-year history).
Suleimani showed up for a photo during the assault that successfully dislodged ISIS from Amerli, in eastern Iraq, this past September. There are photos of him holding babies and drinking tea, and cartoons of him strong-arming symbols of the US and Israel, the Islamic Republic’s top enemies. He was also just voted man of the year in Iran.
As Philip Smyth, a terrorism researcher at the University of Maryland and a leading scholar of Shi’ite militia groups told Business Insider, the pages of Khomeinists on Facebook often display banner images with Suleimani on one side, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on the other.
According to Smyth, who has collected scores of Suleimani photos passed around the Shi’ite militant web, Shi’ite sectarian social media has a “top-down” structure, with talking points “run out of far more centralized places” than on the Sunni jihadist web. And users have been trying to evoke a very specific image of the Quds Force commander.
“They try to promote Qassam on the whole as a brave and honorable leader who’s kicking it to the Americans, who’s kicking it to ISIS, and who’s projecting the true power of the Islamic Revolution across the region,” Smyth told Business Insider.
“Whenever there are major offensives his picture always seems to go up on the web,” he added. “But beyond that, whenever new groups are being promoted, all of a sudden Uncle Qassem shows up. There’s an entire process or promoting his image and for sending a certain narrative message out there into the web.”
This narrative of Qassem Suleimani’s battlefield involvement probably inflates his operational significance, and his degree of actual control over numerous armed groups across the Middle East.
The mythology of an all-seeing, all-powerful super-operative out-manoeuvring the US and Israel and pulling strings across the Middle East on the Islamic Revolution’s behalf has clear benefits for Tehran.
Suleimani’s photo ops portray a sense of Iranian control over Shi’ite fighters around the region, something that reassures Tehran’s various armed adjuncts while demonstrating the reach of the Islamic Republic’s power — and it handily promotes a single, charismatic individual as the embodiment of that power.
This web-bolstered image of Suleimani can be understood as a media hack, a phenomena that researcher James Borthwick defines as the “usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame.”
“This is the definition of a media hack,” Smyth says of Suleimani’s web-promoted image. “Hajj Qassem is in full control everywhere he goes. It’s the omniscient Suleimani. He’s all-knowing and all-powerful.”
Images of the general even include clear religious references that reinforce both Suleimani’s omniscient image and the religious mission of the regime in Tehran. In September, Smyth says, Shi’ite militant supporters began circulating a photo of Suleimani drinking water close to the ground.
Smyth says this was meant to recall Abbas, one of the top lieutenants of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein during the Battle of Karbala, the 680 AD clash that marked the split between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam. Abbas risked his life during the battle to gather water from a stream surrounded by enemy fighters.
If Suleimani is Abbas, then his Hussein would be the Ayatollah Khamenei — meaning that the fight unfolding in Iraq and Syria is a modern-day equivalent of the founding battle of Shi’ite Islam.
This image helps deepen perceptions of Iranian power, and of some broader, theological battle unfolding across the Middle East.
But there’s still something false and misleading about it: Iranian proxies are ascendant in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, but they are also over-extended and their control is arguably tenuous in each place.
Iran has reliable proxies, but they work within a number of highly unstable countries; in any case, Iran is far from the region’s leading conventional military power.
But right now, Tehran oversees an empire of allied groups fighting in a vast security vacuum — a favourable hand, but not yet a dominant one.
As Smyth explains, Suleimani’s carefully cultivated persona — the image of a supernaturally talented and religiously-blessed military super-genius that can out-think a range of more powerful foes — helps close that gap.
“Projection is not just about military force. It’s also about perception,” Smyth said. “If you’re Iran and the rising power in the region and you want to stick it to the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia — large military entities in the region that you consider your foes — there’s no better way to do it.”
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