The explosions that killed more than 100 people in Iran on Wednesday took place at an anniversary commemoration for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the top Iranian commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike four years ago.
General Suleimani, the most powerful Iranian commander at the head of the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, was considered a hero by some in Iran and in other parts of the region for building an axis of allied militias to defend Iran’s interests across the Middle East and for helping to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
That network, with Iran at its center, countered the United States’s influence in the region and served as what many saw as a resistance force against Israel.
In the United States, he was regarded as a force behind international terrorism campaigns, and President Donald Trump said his killing in January 2020 was ordered “to stop a war” because General Suleimani had been plotting attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.
Who was Qassim Suleimani?
General Suleimani was designated as a terrorist by the United States and Israel, where he helped orchestrate waves of militia attacks. But among some Iranians, he is a nearly mythical figure, known as a warrior-philosopher who played a key role in fighting the country’s enemies.
General Suleimani was part of Iran’s revolutionary generation, and joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in his early 20s after the 1979 theocratic uprising that toppled the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a close American ally.
He rose in the hierarchy during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and in 1998 he became the head of the powerful, outside-facing arm of Iran’s military-security apparatus, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. There, he combined intelligence work with a strategic nurturing of other militias abroad.
General Suleimani created a Shiite-led network of groups in Iraq and Syria and helped arm and support other militant groups such as Hamas, which governs Gaza, and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
He tightened Iran’s grip on Iraq and had profound impacts on the Syrian civil war, propping up President Bashar al-Assad and fighting against the Islamic State. U.S. officials also blamed him for hundreds of American deaths in Iraq.
How did the United States kill General Suleimani?
General Suleimani was killed in an American drone strike authorized by President Trump as he arrived at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. He was killed along with several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Tehran.
In a statement after the strike, the Pentagon accused General Suleimani of planning attacks on Americans, of orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq, and of approving an attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CNN that the American drone strike had disrupted an “imminent attack” on American interests in the Middle East.
After General Suleimani’s death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for three days of public mourning, and then retaliation.
What happened after his death?
Massive crowds of mourners gathered for General Suleimani’s funeral, and a few days later Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that housed American troops to avenge his killing.
On the same day, Iranian missiles struck a Ukraine Airlines plane, killing all 176 people on board. After denying responsibility for days, Iran announced that it had accidentally shot down the jetliner.
In the following years, General Suleimani’s supporters in Iran erected many busts and statues of him. They also organized yearly commemorations that drew thousands of people, including the one that was attacked on Wednesday.
But the tributes also enraged his opponents. Several statues were vandalized, and an Asian Champions League soccer match between the Iranian and Saudi Arabian teams was canceled in October after players for the Saudi club refused to take the field because of the presence of three busts of General Suleimani.
Iranian authorities have also made several arrests of people accused of vandalizing and burning statues of the general, the Iran International News Channel reported.
At the same time, Iranian officials have continued pledging to avenge General Suleimani’s death.
“We have not and will not forget the blood of martyr Suleimani,” Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, told an audience of thousands during last year’s anniversary of General Suleimani’s death, according to Al Jazeera.
“The Americans must know that revenge for martyr Suleimani’s blood is certain, and the murderers and perpetrators will have no easy sleep,” he added.
Farnaz Fassihi and Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting.