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How an assassination led to a wave of Iranian nationalism and a downed airliner

One year ago, the murder of Qassem Soleimani sparked a tit-for-tat that ended up killing 176 innocent civilians.

Analysis | Middle East

In the early morning hours of January 8, 2020, I was boarding a plane at the Tehran airport to return to Europe after participating in “Tehran Dialogues,” an international conference organized by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On an otherwise deserted tarmac, I saw a lonely aircraft belonging to Ukrainian Airlines parked at the terminal. Shortly before boarding, I learned that Iranian security forces had launched a series of strikes on an American base in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic and influential Iranian commander of Al-Quds, the elite force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

A few hours later, while landing in Vienna, I learned that the Ukrainian plane had crashed, killing all aboard. A few days later, Tehran acknowledged that it was shot down by the IRGC which mistook it for an American warplane. I could have been on that plane.

This tragedy, that led to the deaths of 176 innocent souls on that fateful PS752 flight, announced the arrival of this century’s “roaring twenties.” No one can excuse the lethal incompetence of the IRGC. However, the Trump administration laid the groundwork with its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. It was this campaign that led to the unprecedented assassination of a high-ranking Iranian official and provoked an inevitable response. It created a frenzied atmosphere in which such a catastrophic mistake was made possible.

For a few days, the world was kept on the brink of a hot war between the United States and the Islamic Republic. That it did not reach that stage was attributed by many to a deterrence that Trump’s strike against Soleimani allegedly re-established. This characteristically Washington-centered view, however, ignores the other side of the story: that the deterrence is mutual. An all-out war against Iran would have made a U.S. war in Iraq look like the proverbial cakewalk indeed.

First, as details emerged of the Iranian strike on the U.S. base in Iraq, it cast doubt on the prevailing narrative that it was some sort of an “agreed strike” that would allow the Iranians to claim they avenged the death of Soleimani in a way that avoided American deaths and the risk of a further escalation. More than one hundred American service members were reported to have suffered brain injuries. It was probably sheer luck that no one was killed.

But the strike highlighted the bitter reality: when Iranians claimed that they were ready for all-out war, they weren’t bluffing. In fact, any suggestion that they were would be naïve; an implacable enmity with the United States made them prepare for such an eventuality for decades. This doesn’t mean that they sought such a war, only that they invested in deterrence, chiefly through their advanced missile program and their regional network of allies and proxies.

However, Iranian nationalism constitutes an even more potent source of Iranian deterrence. Ironically, Gen. Soleimani has proved to be more instrumental in forging it in his death than in life. Walking around Tehran during the days of the mourning that followed his assassination, I witnessed its power and mechanics firsthand. 

Narges Bajoghli describes in her indispensable book on the IRGC cultural and propaganda work how the state has increasingly used the Iranian-Shiite symbiosis to foster its legitimacy among the youth, many of whom are disenchanted with the rigidities of life in the Islamic Republic. Soleimani embodied that symbiosis like no one else. His assassination provided a golden opportunity to test these ideas in practice on an unprecedented scale.

Television programs accompanied the images of mourners with dynamic pop tunes suffused with rich patriotic and Shiite imagery and young men reciting poetry. The content was practically devoid of purely religious themes and heavy on those of resistance and nationalism. In its first years, the Islamic Republic frowned on pop music as a decadent Western import. Now it uses it to maximize its own outreach to the society, particularly among the young. The programs were attractively packaged, calculated to stir emotions, with not a trace of tedious sermonizing by aging clerics.

Around seven million people reportedly marched in memory of Soleimani in Tehran alone. Contrary to the nonsensical claims spread by Iranian monarchist and pro-MEK exiles and their neoconservative allies abroad, these people were neither forced by the government nor brainwashed by the propaganda into participating. To the extent the regime was successful in casting Soleimani as a national figure, it is because he was perceived as such by many, including opponents of the Islamic Republic.

A secular middle-class woman who could not be suspected of harboring the slightest sympathy for the regime, put it to me succinctly: “unlike people in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, we in Iran are reasonably confident that we’d be able to come home in the evening when we leave it in the morning.”

Many credit the IRGC and Soleimani personally for keeping the ISIS threat far from Iran’s borders. It also helped his image that he seldom spoke of internal politics, and, when he did, his positions were generally moderate and conciliatory. For example, a couple of years ago he criticized some clerics’ obsession with the “bad veil” on women that failed to cover all their hair, insisting that all women were part of the community, no matter how “badly” they were veiled. Most importantly, Soleimani imbued Iranians with a sense of national pride. His successes allowed them to feel victorious.

Much was made of an apparent contradiction between the widespread protests against deteriorating economic conditions that took place in the weeks before and shortly after Soleimani’s assassination on the one hand and the multitudes who publicly mourned his death. Although, no doubt there are Iranians who are critical of Soleimani’s legacy, let alone the regime he came to represent, there really was no contradiction at all: a predatory superpower killing a popular national figure and a corrupt, incompetent, repressive local system both offend the people’s sense of dignity and agency. It is therefore inherently consistent that people protest both.

There is, however, a crucial nuance: when push comes to shove, whatever many Iranians’ disaffection towards the Islamic Republic, they are sure to defend Iran, its independence, territorial integrity and national dignity against external threats. That was true before Soleimani’s death, but it solidified the glue uniting Iranians, irrespective of their political and religious views.

This acute sense of national cohesion should serve as an ultimate deterrent against any plans to start a war against Iran. As an increasingly erratic President Trump nears the end of his disastrous mandate, he should not be allowed to take any steps towards such a war. That includes creating an environment conducive to more tragedies like that of the Ukrainian airliner and its passengers and crew. There are enough innocent deaths already. It is high time to de-escalate and inaugurate a new era of dialogue with Iran.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament

Photo: A M Syed via shutterstock.com
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