What You Need to Know about the Political Influence of the Quds Force Commander
Major General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC, or Revolutionary Guards), is one of Iran’s most popular personalities.
According to a survey conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) in conjunction with Toronto-based polling organization IranPoll.com, Soleimani is possibly more popular than any other official in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This telephone survey, which was conducted between January 16 and January 24, 2018 and included interviews with 1,002 Iranian citizens throughout the country, suggests that 64.7 percent of respondents had a “very favorable” opinion of Soleimani, with 18 percent being “somewhat favorable” to him.
The CISSM says that the margin of error in the survey was +/- 3.1 percent, which is a normal margin of error, suggesting the study is reaonsably reliable. But some observers believe that the margin of error may be much more than this, as many Iranians living in country may be afraid of expressing their critical views during a telephone conversation with an unknown person who has announced that he/she has telephoned from abroad to ask sensitive questions on sensitive issues. As a result, it may be reasonable to believe that, apart from those individuals who may be afraid of answering the pollsters’ questions at all, some other respondents would exercise extra caution by giving more conservative answers to the survey’s questions.
What Can be Learnt from the Level of Soleimani’s Popularity over Different Periods of Time?
Despite possible doubts about the margin of error in the recent CISSM’s survey, the results can be helpful when compared with those of previous surveys.
In its surveys, the CISSM has assessed Ghasem Soleimani’s popularity over the last two years. In fact, 52.1 percent of those polled in January 2016, said they were “very favorable” to General Soleimani, 54.1 percent had this response in June 2016, 56.1 percent in December 2016, 54.9 percent in May 2017, 61 percent in June 2017, and finally, 64.7 percent in January 2018. So although the margin of error must be taken into account and these figures may be higher than the actual level of people’s approval for Soleimani, it appears to be undeniable that his popularity has been rising since the beginning of 2016.
It is also important to note that, while different opinion polls have suggested that Mohammad Javad Zarif was more popular than Ghasem Soleimani on the eve and in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA, which was finalized in July 2015), Zarif’s popularity began to decline when people gradually concluded that the JCPOA would not lead to economic gains for Iranian citizens. After Donald Trump became president, his clear opposition to the nuclear agreement, and in particular after the US’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, Zarif’s popularity has decreased even further as people began to lose hope in diplomatic efforts to establish better relations with the international community. According to the CISSM’s opinion polls, 56.1 percent of Iranians polled in August 2015 (after the finalization of the JCPOA) said they were “very favorable” to Zarif, and 36.3 percent in January 2018. Comparing these figures with those applied to Soleimani over the last two years possibly reveals that the more people lose their faith in diplomacy, the more they resort to a military commander such as Ghasem Soleimani, who says that Iran has no chance but to resist the West.
Do all Soleimani’s Fans Support the Iranian Regime?
The majority of Ghasem Soleimani’s supporters are not conservative people. For instance, in the CISSM’s January 2018 poll, only 19.1 percent of respondents were "favorable” to Ebrahim Raeesi, the main conservative candidate to rival Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election — less than one-fourth the number of respondents who had a similar opinion of Ghasem Soleimani.
In fact, in addition to the Iranian conservatives, a great proportion of Iranian reformists support Soleimani as well. Recently, and especially following escalated tensions between the US and its allies and Iran, many pro-Rouhani supporters have gone on to social media to express their support for Soleimani, and their view of him as a powerful defender of the country against foreign threats. A number of pro-Rouhani personalities do not hesitate to openly express their support for General Soleimani for similar reasons. Such political activists and celebrities will never support Soleimani’s interference in Iran’s political scene, but they admire his role in confronting foreign powers.
Apart from the conservatives and reformists, many ordinary Iranian citizens who do not engage overtly in politics express friendly opinions about Soleimani out of patriotism. Many of these citizens go on to social media to express their unhappiness with the Iranian regime’s performance when it comes to the economy and from social perspectives, but they believe Iran needs strong commanders such as Soleimani.
Perhaps Ghasem Soleimani’s most surprising supporters are a group of Iranian regime opponents, including some foreign-based opposition activists, who admire Soleimani as a competent Iranian commander. It may seem strange that even a certain number of Iranian monarchists — harsh critics of the Islamic Republic and Ayatollah Khamenei — do not hesitate to commend General Soleimani. Such Soleimani admirers do come under verbal attack from other opposition activists, but defend their position by emphasizing that they, as Iranian nationalists, are not ashamed to support Iranian soldiers who are against foreign enemies.
Could Ghasem Soleimani Play a Political Role in the Future?
On the eve of Iran’s 2017 presidential election, there were rumors that Ghasem Soleimani did have a desire to run for president, but the Quds Force commander had made it clear that he did not want to abandon his military career to engage in professional politics.
From the beginning of 2018, some conservative figures have favored the prospect of a military president for Iran, which has been interpreted as an effort to lay the groundwork for Soleimani’s candidacy in the next presidential election.
However, many of Soleimani’s supporters within the Iranian regime suggest that the Islamic Republic needs him as a professional commander and not an amateur politician. These supporters apparently fear that his involvement in politics could damage his present reputation. They maintain that many of those who support Soleimani as a commander will not tolerate him as the candidate of the infamous conservative faction.
In addition to that, even if Ghasem Soleimani is elected president, he will have to face a wide range of complicated economic, political and social problems to which there are no simple solutions. This could make him lose popularity in the same way the present and former presidents of Iran (Rouhani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) witnessed a significant decline in their popularity during their second terms.
How Long Will Soleimani’s Fame Last?
The emergence of ISIS, and Iran’s military involvement in Iraq and Syria to confront this group, was a turning point in Ghasem Soleimani’s popularity. It is not deniable that the Quds Force, led by Soleimani, played a key role in defeating ISIS and other Jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. This has had a considerable effect on Iranian public opinion. ISIS and its allies are widely hated by Iranians holding a variety of different views and so many of them admire Ghasem Soleimani’s role in defeating these Jihadists and keeping them away from Iran’s borders.
In other words, the major reason for Ghasem Soleimani’s fame is his victories on the battlefields, victories that have enhanced Iranians’ sense of national pride.
That being said, it seems obvious that Ghasem Soleimani’s position in public opinion depends on the Quds Force’s performance in regional battlefields. If the Quds Force gains more victories, one can expect Soleimani’s popularity to remain intact, or even increase. On the other hand, his popularity could possibly decline if the Quds Force fails to portray a victorious image during Iran’s various military confrontations in the future. For instance, if the Quds Army does not respond effectively to attacks by Israeli forces on Iranian bases in Syria, some Ghasem Soleimani’s supporters may gradually become disappointed and disenchanted by him.
The outbreak of public protests may also affect General Soleimani’s popularity in Iran. Iran has seen dozens of protests in recent months across the country, and if they erupt and intensify in future, the public acceptance of certain opposition leaders may increase, and support for many regime officials may decline (including for Soleimani). For instance, as some online surveys suggest, the late December/early January protests in Iran may have led to a relative increase in the popularity of Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s late shah.
Finally, Ghasem Soleimani could damage his public position if he, for whatever reason, becomes more involved in politics. A significant amount of his present acceptance is due to the fact that he, unlike many other high-ranking IRGC commanders, does not often speak about domestic political issues, and in general, does not speak very much. If General Soleimani is tempted to play a more active role in Iran’s political scene, it will possibly discredit him in the same way that many other IRGC commanders have been discredited in the past, largely due to their continuous political blunders.