The Soleimanification of the Middle East | Opinion

Billboards commemorating the death of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani have mushroomed around the Middle East on the one-year anniversary of his death. From the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip to Hezbollah-overrun Lebanon, the memorials and signs are examples of Iran's influence across the region. It is part of a large campaign by Iran to turn Soleimani into a regional "martyr" and hero.

The U.S. killed Iran's Soleimani in January 2020, after he arrived at Baghdad International Airport. He came to meet with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq. The pro-Iranian groups in Iraq had recently attacked the U.S. embassy and killed a U.S. contractor in Kirkuk. The Trump administration retaliated and killed Soleimani and Muhandis as their convoy left the airport. The airstrike came amid a year of escalating Iran-U.S. tensions in the region, which had seen Iran launch a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia, mine ships in the Gulf of Oman and use Iraqi militias to fire rockets at U.S. facilities in Iraq.

Soleimani was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force—an expeditionary force the Iranian regime sent to places like Syria and Iraq. Although he was well known in some pro-Iranian circles, he generally was not celebrated across the region as an important figure. For Iranian-backed groups, from Hamas to the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah, he was an important behind-the-scenes operator. Now, billboards with his quotes are popping up in places far outside the Shiite Islamic circles in which Iran usually operates. One example can be found in the Palestinian West Bank, and others exist in Iraqi areas like Kirkuk, where the majority of the population is not sympathetic to Iran.

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A portrait of slain Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani is pictured on the main road leading to the airport in the Lebanese capital Beirut on January 11, 2020. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

This Soleimanification of the Middle East is an attempt to use Soleimani to project Iran's influence. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has vowed revenge for the death of the Iranian general. Soleimani did play an important to role in the past few decades in the Middle East. He helped convince Moscow to intervene in the Syrian civil war in 2015, changing the map of Syria. He also advised the Iraqi government on recruiting Shiite militias to fight Islamic State. This led to the empowering of an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hezbollah, forever shifting Iraq's security forces toward a more balkanized network of groups linked to Iran. He also worked closely with Nasrallah during the 2006 war against Israel. Israel and the U.S. had considered targeting Soleimani in the past due to his support for Iranian-backed terror networks across the region.

Now in death, Soleimani is being used as a symbol by Iran to knit together a plethora of extremist groups it supports. The messaging is not just about the groups. Iran wants a face of a "martyr" it can use to showcase its role to the public. Pictures of the Ayatollah Khamenei are seen as more narrowly Shiite and sectarian, thus lacking broad appeal. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is a dour and uninteresting functionary. Soleimani, by contrast, is presented a noble and modest soldier confronting American "arrogance" as part of Iran's "resistance."

The mushrooming of Soleimani posters across the region on the anniversary of his death is an example of this public relations onslaught by Iran. It is timed to coincide with a new U.S. administration about to take power in Washington and present the U.S. and allies with a kind of fait accompli, an Iranian influence-peddling octopus astride the region. The U.S. and partners have an uphill battle confronting this Soleimanification of the region. However, there is a silent majority in the region who don't feel connection to these powers—whether it is Kurds in Kirkuk, or average Gazans who have torn down the Soleimani posters. Iran may have overplayed its hand. Most of the region has no clear affinity for the Iranian general, once dubbed the "shadow commander." He was more successful in the shadows than as a poster child for Iran's attempt at regional hegemony.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior analyst of Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post and author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019). Twitter: @sfrantzman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.