Iranian media have been buzzing with the notion that Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, could be the country’s next president.
Headlines have praised his achievements as a military leader—crediting him with freeing the town of Amirli from the grip of the so-called Islamic State and providing Syria’s Bashar al Assad with essential support. They’ve also marveled at his wider political efforts to promote Shia expansion.
But whether or not the commander extends his reach beyond the military realm is not really the point. For many, it is what he symbolizes that really counts: a strong leader with a solid record and absolute devotion to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—and an ability to combine political intelligence with military might.
Such speculation is not new. Hardliner analyst and Tehran University professor Mohammad Sadegh Kooshki first raised the prospect of Suleimani as a presidential contender back in October 2012. But over the last year or so, Suleimani has enjoyed greater media attention, lending the theory more credibility than ever before.
In the 2013 elections, he did not appear on any surveys listing the top 10 public figures in Iran, but now he comes top of the list alongside the current President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Suleimani’s emergence as a public figure, even a celebrity, is a marked change from his previous image as an influential figure behind the scenes. Over the last year, Suleimani has appeared on television regularly, addressed large audiences and grieved publicly for members of the Iranian military killed by Islamic State.
On February 16, 2014, the commander signaled that his ambitions involve more than just initiating effective military operations. During a speech at a Revolutionary Guards base, he outlined Islam’s long history, from its reach into Andalusia and its later decline, to its recent resurgence thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Islamic influence and power, he said, was once again on the rise and Iran is in a particularly strong position to lead the revival of Shiism, making it a political, religious and economic powerhouse and ensuring its borders are safe and secure.
Hardline Iranian media are more than ready to see Suleimani as the leader of this new era of change.
On August 8, 2014, the website “Nuclear Iran,” which is edited by Mehdi Mohammadi, a nuclear negotiator under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published an article that claimed that, when it came to regional politics and military operations, Suleimani had the last word, often shaping Iran’s official stance on a range of matters.
The article went on to describe his accomplishments: “(1) Managing the political crisis in Iraq, keeping the Shiite coalition together and the premiership of Haider al-Abadi [who replaced Nouri al-Maliki]; (2) creating a new faction in the Iraqi parliament led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari [prime minister of Iraq from 2005 to 2006]; (3) bringing the Kurds into the fight against Islamic State; (4) Improving relations between the Kurds and the Shia central government in Iraq; and (5) Keeping Nouri al-Maliki as a political asset in Iraq.”
And, according to Sadollah Zarei, an analyst with close ties to the Iranian military, Suleimani also gives the Saudis a reason for concern. Speaking to Defa Press on September 20, 2014, he said, “the Saudis are extremely worried that with developments in Yemen…the case of Saudi Arabia will be passed on to Commander Suleimani.”
The idea that Suleimani is a potential contender in 2017’s presidential elections has also been dismissed as a false notion dreamed up by Western media or reformists. But looking at the trajectory of his media presence shows that hardline media and politicians have invested in this narrative, and Suleimani has to some extent engineered it himself.
“Capable, a good manager, polite and moral,” is how Mohammad Sadegh Kooshki described Suleimani in 2012. He is formidable against foreign enemies and challenges, he wrote, but also respects the law. “He knows his boundaries.” And, in addition to this, Kooshki said, ”the more famous he becomes around the world, the more humble he becomes towards the regime and the Supreme Leader”—an attitude that no doubt gains him wide support among hardliners.
Acording to Kooshki, an Iranian president must “enforce the law, obey the Supreme Leader, have a coordinated executive team, accurately understand the regime’s big plans and goals, and be faithful to them. His record must be free of the slightest taint of standing against the Leadership or ignoring his announced directives and policies.”
Citing other praise for him in the media, he called Suleimani a “thoughtful and deep strategist” and an “international figure,” somebody “who is not starving for negotiations and relations. And his friends know that he would not exchange an approving smile from the Supreme Leader for the world.”
Hardliner media has been especially fond of documenting Suleimani’s travels around Iran. Photographs of the commander smiling as he greets the people of one province or another have become a staple of Iran’s news cycle, reminding the public of the commander’s popularity, moral qualities, and bravery.
Although hardliners would like Suleimani to one day be president, the recent media hype is more about presenting the Quds leader as a symbol, an icon that represents all that an Iranian president should be. It is about reminding reformists, the public and independent journalists that military and political power are intertwined in Iran.
Whether Qasem Suleimani can be president one day is not really the question. In Iran, complex political games begin with the most ordinary and simple moves or seemingly unimportant events. Perhaps he will move towards the presidency, or perhaps one of his close associates will move in that direction. For now he is playing a very important role: encapsulating what many in the country believe Iran needs, a strong leader with solid devotion to the regime, the Supreme Leader and the project of pushing Shia Islam into the wider world. It is the sort of narrative and image, they believe, that gives Iran’s political system such strength and resilience.
This article is adapted from one that originally appeared on IranWire, a partner of The Daily Beast.