The second anniversary of the targeted assassination by the US of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was marked on January 3 by an attempted Iranian drone strike against a civilian airport in Baghdad, the seizure by Houthi rebels of an Emirati ship off the coast of Yemen, the hacking of the Jerusalem Post newspaper’s website, and violent protests.
An HonestReporting analysis of English-language state-backed Middle Eastern media outlets exposes how Iran continues to polarize regional politics.
Background: Qassem Soleimani Foments Mayhem Across Middle East
Qassem Soleimani was head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). An elite group responsible for clandestine military activities conducted outside Iran, the Quds Force’s stated goal is to end Western influence in the Middle East and to “liberate” Al-Quds, Arabic for Jerusalem.
During his tenure, Soleimani orchestrated mayhem across the Middle East as part of Iran’s numerous proxy wars. His collaboration with terrorist groups such as the Gaza Strip’s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, among others, resulted in a staggering number of civilian and US troop deaths.
In 2019, Soleimani traveled to Iraq to oversee an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31. Three days later, then-US President Donald Trump ordered a precision drone strike that killed Soleimani and Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al Muhandis as the pair were traveling by car.
Iran Vows Revenge in Response to Killing of ‘World’s Number One Bad Guy’
On the week of the assassination’s second anniversary, Tehran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism that has repeatedly called for Israel’s eradication, ramped up the rhetoric extolling the virtues of a man known as “the world’s number one bad guy.”
The state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) published on January 3 excerpts from a speech delivered by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during an event in Tehran celebrating “the second martyrdom anniversary of General Soleimani.” Raisi said that “General Qassem Soleimani was a school of thought” and noted that “the school cannot be destroyed with terror and missiles.” According to the newly-minted president, IRNA reported, “the main perpetrator of this horrible crime – the former US President Donald Trump – has to be convicted, otherwise the hand of revenge will come out of the sleeve of the nation.”
The Tehran Times, which is owned by the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, also held Trump culpable in another January 3 article. “Iran has said the UN Security Council must hold the US and Israel accountable,” wrote the Tehran Times, “for planning and assassinating Iranian Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani.” The publication added that Soleimani was “a legendary commander in the fight against terrorist groups including Daesh [ISIS].”
Syria Times: Soleimani Assassination ‘Crime Against Humanity’
Syria, where the repressive regime of President Bashar al Assad had long benefited from the Soleimani’s assistance, also weighed in on the second anniversary of his assassination.
The Syria Times, described by the independent Syrian Observer as a pro-government newspaper, announced on January 3 that Tehran had identified “125 suspects, mostly Americans, in connection with [General] Soleimani’s assassination.” The publication said that Kazem Gharibabadi, Vice-President of Iran’s Judiciary for International Affairs, “clarified that [an] investigation into the assassination is underway and the probe will be completed in the near future.” Gharibabadi also stressed that “the terrorist act of assassinating Soleimani is an example of crimes against humanity.”
In a January 2 report, the Syria Times added that Syria’s ambassador to Iran, Dr. Shafiq Dioub, “indicated that Soleimani spent his life in national work, serving his country, the axis of resistance and fighting terrorism and its supporters” and that “relations between Syria and Iran constitute a model for cooperation between countries, and that strengthening them in all fields represents the greatest gift to the spirit of martyr Soleimani.”
Hezbollah Official Website: ‘Blood of Top Commanders Will Not Go in Vain’
As for Hezbollah, the US-designated Lebanese terrorist organization that has been supported by the Quds Force, portrayed Soleimani as a hero. Citing Ira’’s foreign ministry in a December 31 article, Hezbollah’s official Al-Manar website reported that “according to international and legal standards, the US government bears ‘definitive international responsibility’ for this crime.” Al Manar elaborated that:
The Iranian ministry said that the blood of the Iranian and Iraqi commanders had “spiritual effects” that brought about the failure of US strategy in the region. “The US fleeing from Afghanistan, the beginning of the process of withdrawal from Iraq and the change in the strategy of the US military presence in the geostrategic region of Persian Gulf showcase a small part of such impacts and consequences.”
Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah then vowed in a January 3 speech that “blood of the top commanders will not go in vain, stressing that the strike will lead to the withdrawal of US troops from the region.”
Turkish Press: ‘Bring Perpetrators to Justice’
For its part, the Turkish press took to emphasizing what it saw as Western aggression and the need to bring Soleimani’s killers to justice. In a January 3 article, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had hosted the family of the late general at a commemorative event. “Gen. Soleimani’s assassins,” Khamenei said, “would be consigned to the dustbin of history, but of course, after receiving retribution for their worldly crimes.” Anadolu added: “In a strongly-worded statement, the ministry noted that the killing of Soleimani was an example of ‘state terrorism’ carried out on the direct orders of Trump, vowing to bring perpetrators to justice.”
According to the Anadolu Agency, Iran has launched several initiatives to achieve ‘justice’ for Soleimani’s killing, including the convening of a high-level committee to investigate the assassination, and submitting appeals to the UN General Assembly to bring about reform that would prevent similar strikes from being carried out in the future.
Meanwhile, the Turkish state-owned outlet TRT World on January 2 published a piece focused on Tehran’s meddling in Iraq. Chanting “Death to America,” thousands reportedly rallied at a Baghdad square to protest the death of Soleimani and his Iraqi partner Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. Placards reportedly read, “US terrorism has to end,” and “We will not let you stay after today on in the land of the martyrs.”
Turkey opposes Western intervention in the Middle East as it continues to strive to become a more dominant regional power. But, as it cannot outright condone the intervention of its rival Iran, Ankara has focused its coverage on the anti-Western sentiment inspired by the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.
Saudi Arabia’s Asharq Al-Awsa Newspaper: ‘Baghdad Is Being Managed From Tehran’
On the other side of the Middle East’s cold war, the Saudi government-backed newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat argued in a January 3 article that Iran’s military actions under Soleimani had a destabilizing effect across the region. Such is the power of Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat said, “that Baghdad is being managed from Tehran.”
“It is no secret,” the Saudi newspaper held, “that the key to entering the office of the prime minister in Iraq can be found in Tehran” and “it is obvious that those who had assumed that office after Saddam’s ouster had received a permit from Qassem Soleimani.”
In another January 3 article, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, reportedly addressed a leaked recording by ex-foreign minister Javad Zarif. In the recording, “Zarif criticizes the Revolutionary Guard for overruling his diplomacy efforts with their military activity in the region.” Zarif also “leveled criticism against Soleimani for visiting Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin a few days into the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015.”
The spat between the Quds Force and the Iranian Foreign Ministry appeared to damage Zarif’s career prospects. “Condemnation against Zarif’s remarks had kept him from running in the country’s presidential elections despite some reformers urging him to do so,” Asharq Al-Awsat wrote. Bowing to the outrage over his criticisms of Soleimani, “Zarif did not run, and ultra-hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi won the election, which recorded the lowest turnout in the past four decades.”
The Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia has for years been embroiled in bloody conflicts with Iran’s violent Shi’ite proxies, such as the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen. By drawing attention to the internal divisions inside Tehran caused by Iranian military adventurism, Riyadh is countering popular perceptions in the region of Soleimani as a unifying figure.
UAE Media: Soleimani Linked to Iraqi Attacks Against US Troops
From the UAE, the Dubai-based Gulf News outlet, which is owned by a government minister and cabinet member, focused its reporting on Iran’s revenge tactics. The agency published a January 3 report on a drone strike intended for a Baghdad airport that was foiled by the US. “There is no damage,” said a coalition officer, “but this is a civilian airport, it is very dangerous to launch this type of attack.” Gulf News reported that on the remains of one of the projectiles from the airstrike was written the message “commanders’ revenge operations.”
Another January 3 report from Gulf News described a hacking attack on the Israeli Jerusalem Post newspaper. The hackers “[replaced the website’s] content with an image threatening a site associated with Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons programme.” While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the hack, the picture depicted “a missile coming down from a fist bearing a ring long associated with Qassem Soleimani” and “an exploding target from a recent Iranian military drill designed to look like the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona.”
Gulf News added that “US officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against US troops after the invasion of Iraq.”
As the UAE continues to strengthen its ties with Israel, and as a strategic partner of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh’s ongoing battle against Iran in Yemen, Dubai has cause to call out Iranian aggression.
The regional state-backed coverage of the anniversary of Soleimani’s death demonstrates the polarizing effect of the general’s violent legacy. His demise is seen by Iran and its supporters as a “martyrdom” that is fuelling further animus against the West and Tehran’s enemies in the region. However, among Israel, Saudi, Arabia, and the UAE, Soleimani’s killing has been depicted as a necessary response to Iran’s incessant campaign of terrorism.
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Featured Image: Majdi Fathi/TPS