A huge billboard in the center of the Iranian capital often features images with a political agenda close to the hard-liners. But the space above Valiasr Square does not belong to Tehran’s municipality; it is owned by Owj, an emerging media powerhouse with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that is branching out in Iran’s cultural space.
On June 18, 2017, 11 days after the Islamic State (IS) launched unprecedented attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the IRGC retaliated by firing multiple missiles at IS sites in northeastern Syria. Amid this rare display of Iran’s ability to directly hit its foes, Owj’s flagship billboard featured a new image: The launch of five missiles in the palm of a man's hand wearing an IRGC uniform, with the caption, “I am the Guardian of Iran.” While this may appear as standard Iranian state propaganda at first glance, it in fact embodies an emerging — and possibly tectonic — shift in the official discourse of the Islamic Republic.
For more than four decades, Iranian leaders have struggled with how to incorporate both nationalism and religious ideology in the political identity of the state. This duality — and the ongoing effort to maintain a balance between its two components to achieve optimum political outcomes — is evident in most instances of major political and military crossroads in post-revolutionary Iran. At this junction in the country’s history, it is apparent that a new nationalism is emerging. To be clear, the struggle surrounding the duality in Iranian identity is not new. In the years leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a generation of prominent intellectuals attempted to merge Shiism with revolutionary ideology and Marxism. The latter inspired some groups to take up armed resistance, which soon after the revolution became the embryo of the IRGC. The perhaps best representative of these groups is Mostafa Chamran, a Berkeley-educated engineer who left the United States in the mid-1960s, received initial training in Cuba and then joined the PLO and Amal camps in Lebanon as a skillful guerrilla organizer. His ideas of a transnational movement have lived on through Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force, and still appeal to the loyal support base of the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, all this is epitomized in the IRGC’s very emblem that features an assault rifle in a raised fist and a globe suggesting expansion beyond borders. As professor and IRGC expert Afshon Ostovar has noted, this design was meant to represent a militant, Islamic and revolutionary organization, which is why it more closely resembles the standard of a resistance movement rather than the national army the IRGC has become.
The turn toward nationalism first emerged amid the very heyday of Iranian Pan-Islamism: When Iraq invaded the country in 1980, the realpolitik of the war forced Tehran to take a step back from its “Export of the Revolution.” In fact, at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that all forces are needed to defend national borders and that the IRGC’s transnational mission should take the back seat until the end of the conflict, thereby prioritizing nationalism over the revolutionary cause. The religious nationalist narrative played a crucial role in sustaining the “human wave attacks” through the creation of the Basij, the “People’s Militia,” which had masses of volunteers charging into enemy positions and across minefields.
The conduct of the eight-year-long war reveals that the Islamic Republic’s strategy became increasingly dependent on religiously motivated volunteers, which were considered Iran’s only advantage over Iraq’s growing military capabilities. In this equation, Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership and his religious philosophy had an indisputable influence on this narrative. Iranian soldiers employed the seventh-century Battle of Karbala as a metaphor for a struggle in which they held positions similar to those of Hussein ibn Ali, the third Shiite imam, who was also isolated and outnumbered by numerous enemies.
This reboot of Shiite history generated a new military ideology that was as powerful as nationalism. The redefinition of the religious, cultural and historical metaphors not only motivated Iranian society to fight, but also created the new strategy of “martyrdom seeking.” The emphasis was thus on self-sacrifice; young soldiers felt that they had to complete a religious duty, one that could only be accomplished through martyrdom.
But since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC has struggled to expand its public support beyond its religious base. In a diverse society such as Iran, many among the younger generation — those born after the revolution or who did not live through the war — have begun to question its mission abroad. At protests in recent years, common slogans have come to include “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, [I sacrifice] my life [only] for Iran.” There are many reasons for this. Perhaps one key factor may be that Iran’s support for Lebanese Hezbollah and Quds Force operations abroad was never articulated and explained as part of a strategic plan to achieve deterrence and boost national power.
Enter the rise of IS in the summer of 2014. The fight against the vehemently anti-Iran and anti-Shiite group provided the perfect opportunity and platform for the IRGC to once again portray itself as a defender of the nation. It launched a massive publicity campaign, and at its heart was none other than Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. Having previously kept a very low profile as a “shadow commander,” he became an overnight celebrity as the IRGC has increasingly publicized its key role in the war against IS.
Soleimani’s rise as a national hero has partly been the result of a subtle and calculated strategy on the part of the IRGC to adapt to the shifting political-cultural dynamics within Iran. It is true that the publicity campaign started with official media, but it quickly spread to a wide range of other Iranian outlets, including those without ties to the IRGC. Some of them put Soleimani alongside Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as two wings of Iranian foreign policy. Indeed, some opinion polls suggest that these two men are the most popular public figures in Iran, with the 2018 survey putting Soleimani even above Zarif, who gained fame while negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
It is important to remain mindful that the IRGC has a highly loyal core religious support base. In fact, the Quds Force had so many volunteers for the Syrian war who were driven by a holy conviction to defend sacred religious sites that it had to set a limit to one volunteer per family. However, the leadership in Iran also deeply understands that it is crucial to maintain a link to the middle class, which is growing less religious, and to adapt to the growing sense of nationalism.
The strategy to seize on the rising nationalist sentiment has been highlighted in the Islamic Republic’s increasing discourse about forward-defense in Syria and Iraq, which explicitly argues that the fight must be taken beyond Iran’s borders to avoid bloodshed at home. The latter is notable given that Iran’s involvement in Syria was initially — and still, in parallel — referred to as a mission to “defend the [holy Shiite] shrines.”
Iranian millennials have no memory of the Iran-Iraq War or the revolution, so a redefinition of revolutionary values and objectives is key for the Islamic Republic to maintain legitimacy. Who better fits this rebranding strategy than a mysterious and shrewd character such as Soleimani — a man who embodies both religious values and nationalism?