The assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani — the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and one of the most prominent figures in Iran’s political establishment — by the United States last week is one of those moments when the pretences that usually veil the West’s dealings with the wider Arab world are dropped and the unvarnished ideology at play becomes clear for the world to see. It’s also when the proponents of the so-called “resistance bloc” that diminishes Tehran’s deleterious acts in the region decide to step into the light. Neither of which is pretty.
But this does present a rare opportunity to examine and scrutinise these ideological contours, while people are paying attention, before the propaganda offensive that was launched in the days after the drone strike hides the truth within the folds of so many denials, alibis and post hoc justifications.
There are, it seems to me, two dominant narratives in operation in the wider international media when it comes to Qassem Soleimani. The first situates his death within the broader attempt to lay the groundwork for regime change in Iran. This is the narrative advanced by many of the staunchest backers of the Trump administration. For them, Soleimani’s death represents an opportunity to “take the fight” to Iran; hence any adverse consequence that might flow from the decision to assassinate one of the most nefarious leaders of the Iranian militia is worth it. This is a dangerous narrative — all the more so since can be heard in the mouths some of Trump’s most senior neoconservative advisors, former and current, such as John Bolton.
Thankfully, dissenting voices are warning against the implications of such a drift, both within the United States and abroad — and one can only hope that the Trump administration will heed the dire predictions of some of the more rational, experienced, informed figures within the diplomatic corps and Pentagon, as well as those of the United States’ allies in the region and in Europe.
There is a second narrative, however, that is no less propagandistic the first — though perhaps not quite so widespread. This is that appeal for “nuance” about who Qassem Soleimani was — namely, a “resistance” leader within the “anti-imperialist axis.” Some have cast him as one of the strongest and most effective opponents of Islamic State (ISIS); others portray him is the champion of the wellbeing of Shi’i Muslims. This is, admittedly, a cynical narrative promoted by acolytes of the Iranian regime, like Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or by reactionaries on the “hard left” who have somehow forgotten the left’s historical commitment to solidarity with oppressed peoples, everywhere — including the victims of Soleimani and his kind.
This second narrative feeds off the first, and finds a degree of support among those erstwhile supporters of American foreign policy who nonetheless saw the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the United States’ willingness to involve itself in the overthrow of democratically elected governments — including Iran — to be calamitous.
But there is a relatively straightforward way to avoid both the prevailing neoconservative narrative and those morally dubious attempts to minimise Soleimani’s appalling record of sectarian violence and brutality. This doesn’t entail lending one’s support to the policy of regime change, nor to the degradation of a rules-based international order, nor to excusing Soleimani’s history on account of America’s misadventures in the region. Rather, it relies on a different narrative framing altogether — one that centres on neither the machinations of Tehran nor of Washington, D.C. Instead, it focusses on one simple moral imperative: honouring the victims.
Consider, for example, the narrative that Soleimani was a central actor in the war against ISIS, and foregrounding this “fact” in descriptions about him. This is a peculiar way of describing him, because other groups fought against ISIS with the same ferocity, if not more — including many radical extremist groups from among Sunni communities in Syria. They fought ISIS out of self-interest, not because they were heroes. The Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad also fought against ISIS in different places, and they were responsible for some of the most grotesque atrocities against civilians in Syria. Moreover, when it comes to Soleimani, the sectarianism he promoted against Sunni communities throughout the Arab world — not least in Syria and Iraq — remains a persistent rallying cry for ISIS propagandists and recruiters.
Then there is the argument that has been deployed which calls us to recognise “shades of grey” in Soleimani’s history, and to have at least empathy, if not outright sympathy, for the fact that a not insignificant number in different Shi’i communities in the wider Middle East saw him as a hero. This, too, is a dangerous argument. For if we relativise morality in this fashion, then, indeed, why not for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Or Osama bin Laden? They too attracted their fair share of devotees, on the basis of warped readings of reality. Or why not go further and relativise the crimes of any war criminal or mass murderer, any white supremacist or serial killer — whether they are in the United States, Russia, Europe, China, the Arab world — just because they have their acolytes? The sheer existence of a fan-club isn’t proof of anything but the enduring ability of human beings to arrive at abysmal moral conclusions when conditions are just right.
Moreover, the appeal to Soleimani as some kind of “Che Guevara” depends on a noxious sectarian narrative framing. Soleimani didn’t speak on behalf of Shi’i Muslims of the world, any more than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does in Tehran — or, for that matter, any political figure does vis-à-vis Sunni Muslims. On the contrary, Soleimani cracked down on the Shi’is in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon who opposed his allies or his regime. Those Shi’is who protested in those countries over the past few months will testify to no less — and we should not tolerate their erasure on the altar of ideological expediency.
Again, this is not to imply that such protesters are somehow pro-Trump — that would be a dubious conclusion, to say the least. Rather, we should give priority to those people on the ground who have suffered immeasurably from such sectarian schemes, rather than buy into the forced polarisation that either Tehran or Washington promote. Indeed, that kind of polarisation is precisely what is hoped for by the most extreme elements in Tehran and Washington, because it forces fence-sitters to “pick a side.” But that’s the same game that autocrats and aspiring authoritarians have played for decades — and all it leads to is further sectarianism and its inevitable paroxysms of violence.
The narrative frame of the region ought to be one borne of the region, and rooted in the experiences of those who have suffered most in the region. Rather than accept the framing of Soleimani’s forces and his allies in the Assad regime of Syria — far and away the region’s most tyrannical regime — one should consider the victims of that regime, to which Soleimani and his forces were so closely aligned. It is a regime that has destroyed and killed far more even than ISIS, as nihilistic and morally grotesque as that terrorist group is. Rather than accept the framing of Soleimani’s forces and his allies in Lebanon or Iraq, one should consider the victims among the protesters in those countries, who have been pushing for free, independent societies vis-à-vis any foreign power — including Iran and the United States.
In short, rather than making the worst elements of the United States or Iran the pivots around which we judge — negatively or positively — figures like Qassem Soleimani, our moral centre of gravity should be the victims in the region. Otherwise, we might as well admit that universal moral commitments no longer play a substantive role in our worldviews, and resign ourselves to the fact that we’re little more than tribalistic automatons.