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LESSONS LEARNED

Soleimani assassination sets back opposition to Iran’s regime

Official Khamenei website
Fueling the regime’s narrative.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Reporter

The US assassination of Iranian Quds Force major general Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 took down a key figure in the Iranian regime. But it also provided some precious help to the regime itself, by feeding its fourth estate: The propaganda machine.

And that propaganda machine hurts the Iranian opposition more than anyone else. Those opposing Iran’s regime are not small in number. They regularly organize large protests, which are then often put down violently. In the most recent example, opposition protesters rallied in November in cities across the country after the government raised gas prices. Hundreds of them died at the hands of Iran’s security forces.

The US government has expressed support for the Iranian opposition. In September, US president Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was a keynote speaker at an opposition event in Paris. But now, after Soleimani’s death, that same group is facing down a wave of highly curated information that has damaged its movement. And the Trump administration, trying to reduce tensions, has instructed diplomats not to engage with them.

After Soleimani’s death, the Iranian regime immediately set about framing him as a martyr. As the country lurched into a state of mourning, celebrating the general’s life, it was hard to find anywhere the opposition’s message that Soleimani was in fact a war criminal. The Iranians in the country and around the world who took to the streets to protest the assassination weren’t the same who stood against the regime in the months prior, but those who wanted to cement Soleimani’s legacy as an Iranian hero.

As Amro Ali, a sociology professor at the American University of Cairo, noted, the regime wouldn’t have been able to draw so much sympathy and support for Soleimani had he died some other way, or at the hands of anyone else. It’s precisely the fact that he was assassinated by an American drone strike that led to the patriotic outpouring that has gripped Iran over the last couple days.

In the government’s efforts to marshal support for the major general in Iran, it revved up its propaganda machine. On the day after the attack, for instance, children in schools were provided worksheets that celebrated the general’s life and laid out the reasons for his death. Here’s one that was shared with Quartz:

At the start of the lesson plan, a template that’s been used for other prominent regime figures, the government explains that it is intended to help students “remember commanders who gave blood so that safety is ensured.” The first page asks questions about the “martyr” that the student can reply to (name, birthday), while the second page provides “facts” for the students to learn, including:

“The Iranian general was fighting with evil.
He wished for Iran to be free.
Evil people were afraid of the general.”

This isn’t the only example. A parent in Iran shared a video on Instagram of another example:

“My generation did the same for Khomeini,” the mother wrote in her post, calling it “brainwashing.”

“This is a propaganda exercise on all fronts,” Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher in the use of new communication technology in Iranian politics, told Quartz.

She noted that the narrative that Soleimani was “martyred at the hands of American terrorists” was dominating much of the conversations in Persian on Telegram, a messaging app. Alimardani said that while opposition sympathizers alleged that the government was paying citizens to participate in the commemoration of Soleimani and the protests against the United States, that message has been far less visible.

Much as been written about the Trump administration’s longterm strategy with Iran, or lack thereof. But Trump’s policies on Iran, including the shredding of the 2015 Iran deal, have emboldened the country’s hardliners, sidelined its moderates, and now damaged its opposition. It’s hard to see how any of those developments helps the United States.

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