Iran's Most Famous General Is More Popular Than President as New Threats Emerge at Home and Abroad

The head of Iran's most secretive, elite force has become increasingly popular at home as he helps expand Tehran's influence through military victories by allies across the Middle East.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the expeditionary Quds Force branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), enjoyed a "very favorable" view among 67.7 percent of Iranians, according to a poll conducted last month by the University of Maryland and cited Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal. In the past two years, public opinion of the military leader, seen as one of the top faces of Iran's hardline conservative political bloc, has substantially gained on the more liberal Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose enthusiastic supporters have dropped to 23.5 percent among the population polled.

Related: Iran threatens to flatten Tel Aviv and kill Netanyahu if Israel attacks

The results came as ultraconservative Sunni Muslim fighters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) suffered consecutive defeats partially overseen by Soleimani at the hands of Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq and Syria. With these developments, however, have also come increasingly violent tensions with Israel and sparks of unrest toward the revolutionary religious government at home.

RTR4TTZ2 Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani (left) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against ISIS in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province on March 8, 2015. For 20 years, Soleimani has been at the vanguard of Iran's foreign operations across the Middle East. Stringer/Reuters

As head of Iran's foremost group tasked with conducting operations abroad for some 20 years, Soleimani has earned a lengthy reputation among the Islamic Republic's allies and enemies alike. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, he ascended to his position in 1998 and has been at the vanguard of Iran's relations with various foreign movements including the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and the Iraqi Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of many groups that resisted U.S. occupation of Iraq and later became part of the Popular Mobilization Forces battling ISIS there.

In 2007, the State Department branded Soleimani a supporter of terrorism and, under the administration of President Donald Trump, the U.S. has taken an increasingly hardline stance against the IRGC as a whole. These measures have apparently had little effect on the public relations value of Soleimani's visits to the frontlines against jihadis, which Iran often accused the U.S. of secretly protecting. He was also named one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2017.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo personally reached out in November to Soleimani, who reportedly rejected the U.S. spy chief's "secret" gesture later exposed by Iran.

Despite the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, whose 2015 nuclear deal has been assaulted by Trump, the two powers were forced to work alongside one another in beating ISIS in Iraq. In neighboring Syria, Iran and Russia helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad overcome a 2011 uprising by jihadis and rebels, including insurgents once sponsored by the U.S. With ISIS largely destroyed, ground forces backed by the U.S. and Iran have continued to both support and clash with one another at times in Iraq and Syria.

The proliferation of Iran-backed militias in Syria has also angered U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Earlier this month, the alleged crossing of an Iranian drone over Israeli airspace provoked massive Israeli air raids against reported pro-Syrian government and Iranian positions near Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed one Israeli F-16, stoking further tensions and Israeli attacks. Israel has occasionally conducted operations and airstrikes in neighboring Syria and Lebanon targeting positions and individuals associated with Iran and its partners, which have also attacked Israel at times.

At a commemoration of the 2008 assassination of a senior Hezbollah figure Imad Mughniyah, who died in a Damascus car bombing blamed on Israel, Soleimani said Thursday an appropriate revenge would be "not launching one missile or killing one person, but the dismantling and uprooting of the baby-killing Zionist regime" in Israel, according to the Associated Press.

Iran's growing footprint in the region may have won over much of the Iranian population, but many other Iranians were less impressed with the costly war effort and the militarization of their economy. Discontent toward the Iranian government's latest budget, which favored defense and religious organizations, exploded in rare nationwide New Year's protests that have yet to completely dissipate despite crackdowns by authorities and the appearance of larger, pro-government counterdemonstrations.

Trump's threats to scrap his predecessor's nuclear agreement and targeting of the Iranian government with new sanctions over alleged support for terrorism and ballistic missile activity have put pressure on Rouhani's promises to open the economy, which has been heavily controlled by the IRGC. Soleimani, on the other hand, has continued to successfully portray himself to the public as the necessary strongarm of Iran's regional ambitions, constantly under threat by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.