Coup, revolution and war: Events that propped up Soleimani reveal why Iran is split on his death

In the wake of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s death, many in Iran have mourned the loss of a martyr while others have celebrated the end of a dangerous military leader. The duality of this response is a window into the polarization that envelops Iranian politics as well as the shadowy conflict overshadowing U.S.-Iranian relations for decades.

For some Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Soleimani was a popular figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure. For others, he was a military tyrant responsible for overwhelming numbers of senseless deaths.

For the U.S. and Israel, he was a conflict-shrouded figure in command of Iran's proxy forces, responsible for fighters in Syria backing President Bashar Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Soleimani's popularity and mystique grew after American officials called for his killing. A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran's most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but growing as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad's international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”

The duality of Soleimani’s image in remembrance after death is reflective of the conflict that has dominated Iran and the greater Middle Eastern region for most of the last half-century, oftentimes spurred by interventionist measures by Western powers, including the U.S.

A handful of major events have delivered us to the present moment, and they help illuminate who Soleimani was, how he was perceived by his people and why his death has rocked the world.

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on September 18, 2016. (Photo by Pool / Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

1953 CIA-assisted coup d’etat overthrows Iranian government

With the backing and financial assistance of the U.S. government, the Iranian military overthrew the standing Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq on Aug. 19, 1953.

In his place, the Shah of Iran was instated, and he and his government served as a Cold War ally to America until the Shah’s rule was forcibly ended in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Mossadeq was a fierce nationalist, while the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, was pro-Western (as was the case with most of the Iranian elite class), and this led to conflict between the two, who were dealing with both Western and Soviet powers targeting Iran after World War II to gain control of the country’s vast and valuable oil reserves.

Immediately after coming to power in 1951, Mossadeq began attacks on British oil companies operating within Iran in an attempt to push out Western influence. He called for Iran to take back ownership of and nationalize the British-operated oil fields.

This caused the Shah to remove Mossadeq from his position, but only until massive public riots forced him to reinstate the popular leader in mid-1952.

British intelligence along with the CIA attempted a first coup after determining that Mossadeq would align Iran with Soviet forces if allowed to stay in power. When it failed, British intelligence backed out and left the CIA to its covert operation.

The second coup attempt was successful, in part due to the street protests that were backed and organized by the CIA.

The Shah returned to power and Mossadeq was arrested. The Shah signed away 40 percent of Iran’s oil fields in return for the American help, and he acted as one of America’s most trusted allies during the Cold War.

For the next three decades, the U.S. poured military and financial aid into Iran until anti-Shah and anti-American protests rocked the country in 1978.

The CIA didn’t publicly admit its involvement in the coup until the 60-year anniversary of the event on Aug. 19, 2013.

1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution

The 1970s in Iran were an era of massive economic growth, heavy government spending and a boom in oil prices, but the wealth garnered was not distributed evenly.

The Shah pushed an aggressive modernization plan that led to widespread and rapid urbanization and Westernization that upended Iranian society as most people knew it. Landowners and clerics watched their wealth and influence slip away and local economies began to struggle.

High rates of inflation and stagnating standards of living for the average Iranian fed social unrest, bolstered by the marginalization and outlawing of political parties in opposition to the Shah’s monarchy. Censorship, surveillance, harassment, illegal detention and torture all become common methods of quieting dissenters.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a former professor of philosophy who had been exiled in 1964 for speaking out against the Shah’s reforms, gained significant populist appeals. From his place of exile, he continued to preach against the Shah, accusing him of being subservient to foreign powers.

The Iranian people began to push back.

At first, it was religious youth protesting the Shah, followed by secular youth from the countryside. In the following weeks, government workers and oil workers began to strike, halting the oil industry.

More than 1 million people took to the streets of Tehran to show support for Khomeini, who arrived back in Iran to incredible fanfare from the people on Feb. 1.

The Iranian monarchy was toppled 10 days later on Feb. 11, 1979, making room for the establishment of an Islamic republic and forever changing the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

On April 1, a national referendum solidified Khomeini as the desired leader of the people, and he declared Iran an Islamic republic. The clerics and militias in power began to unravel all Western influence in Iran and return to conservative social values.

After a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979 and proceeded to hold 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days, the U.S. imposed harsh sanctions on the country.

Washington has increasingly relied on economic pressure against Iran ever since.

When asked for the top five geopolitical events spurred by the Iranian revolution, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, former-professor of political science at Syracuse University, and director of Virginia Tech's School of Public and International Affairs, told Al Jazeera:

The emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the moral boost provided to Shia forces in Iraq, the regional cold war against Saudi Arabia and Israel, lending an Islamic flavour to the anti-imperialist, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and inadvertently widening the Sunni-Shia cleavage, are for me the most important by-products of the Iranian revolution.

— Mehrzad Boroujerdi

Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988

Following the revolution, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, saw an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos and isolation of Iran’s new government.

After Iran’s Islamic revolution, Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard, which was then an informal religious militia created by Khomeini to ward off potential coups backed by foreign powers. Soleimani deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest.

Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries’ bloody eight-year war. The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers. Solemani’s unit and others were attacked by Iraqi chemical weapons.

Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield. He wept with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.

Soleimani survived the horror of the long war with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic republic’s campaigns abroad.

Increasing tensions in the 21st Century

As the U.S. entrenched itself deeply in conflict in the Middle East following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1989, Iran’s military took a subtle approach to deterring American efforts in the region.

Knowing they were no match militarily for American war capabilities, Iran’s solution has been largely focused on influence operations, such as cultivating proxy forces in regions where America holds alliances as well. These groups included Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Behind the majority of the operations were Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force unit — Soleimani commanded the latter. Many throughout the Middle East pin responsibility for the deaths caused by these proxy forces on Soleimani.

As chief of the Quds Foce — or Jerusalem Force — Soleimani oversaw the guard’s foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In 2007, U.S. commandos watched as a convoy carrying Soleimani made its way to northern Iraq.

It was a prime opportunity to take out Soleimani, who had been accused of aiding Shiite forces that killed thousands of American troops in Iraq.

Ultimately, military leaders passed on a strike, deferring to deep concerns about the potential fallout of such a provocative attack.

“To avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan, not strike immediately,” retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote last year in Foreign Policy.

Fears about the repercussions and reverberations of a targeted killing of Soleimani persisted throughout the administrations of President George W. Bush, a Republican, and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, according to officials who served under both.

Soleimani, they calculated, was just as dangerous dead and martyred as he was alive and plotting against Americans.

As tensions between the U.S. and Iran increased after Trump pulled out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018, Iranian officials quickly vowed to retaliate. While Soleimani was the guard's most prominent general, many others in its ranks have experience in waging the asymmetrical, proxy attacks for which Iran has become known.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

A split Iran

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, the country’s leaders have mourned his loss grievously, with Khamenei weeping openly during Soleimani’s funeral.

Media have portrayed the Iranian response to Soleimani’s death as overwhelmingly angered and saddened for the loss, highlighting the millions of people who showed up to his funeral.

But many Iranians both at home and abroad do not share the sentiments of the country’s political leadership.

On Monday, the hashtag #IraniansDetestSoleimani was trending on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of Iranians expressing their contempt for the slain military leader.

"So, all you see in Iranian state television -- state media — [is], like, showing some people took to the street mourning and showing their sympathy [towards] Qassem Soleimani," Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad told FOX News Friday. "But, the fact is this: many Iranians do not see him as a hero and if you go to social media, that they are very happy."

Alinejad went on to say that, though the Iranian people largely want to avoid war or any kind of conflict, they are overpowered by leaders who retaliate by imprisoning people.

Other social media users have echoed Alinejad’s claims, calling out Iranian media for skewing the country’s reaction to Soleimani’s killing and citing the many instances in which his decisions led to the deaths of innocent people abroad and at home.

When asked how she felt about Soleimani’s death, Alinejad said that though her dream was to see the military leader and his cohorts tried in court, “this is what they had to face.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.