Tehran, Iran – The assassination of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in air raids by the United States has triggered a wave of emotions and garnered a response of solidarity and retribution across the otherwise divided Iranian political spectrum.
Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and mastermind of its regional influence, was killed early on Friday near Baghdad’s international airport in an air strike ordered by US President Donald Trump.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei paid tribute to him as a “martyr” and promised to exact “harsh revenge”.
He announced three days of national mourning in honour of Soleimani, who was widely believed to be the second-most powerful figure in Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed the threat of revenge and vowed that there would be consequences. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killing as an “act of state terrorism” in a statement.
“The pure blood of Qassem Soleimani will surely strengthen the tree of resistance, unite the Iranian people, and make US policies in the region less effective by the day,” he said.
Iran’s National Security Council has convened an emergency meeting to decide Iran’s reaction to the killing. Reports say Khamenei has participated in the meeting for the first time ever, denoting the gravity of the situation.
Iran’s supreme leader appointed Esmail Qaani as the new head of the IRGC’s foreign operations on Friday.
“Following the martyrdom of the glorious General Haj Qasem Soleimani, I name Brigadier General Esmail Qaani as the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website.
Several local news sources have reported that a number of Iranian fighter jets are patrolling the western parts of the country, which border Iraq.
The US air strike was a dramatic escalation of tensions with Iran, which have been continuously growing since Trump unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May last year and imposed crippling sanctions.
IRGC officials, clerics, ministers, members of parliament, and the business community reacted in unison and hailed the commander as a fallen hero.
Gatherings are being organised in Tehran and across the country after Friday prayers to commemorate Soleimani and denounce the US and Israel.
State broadcaster IRIB and radio channels were allotting almost their entire broadcast time to news of Soleimani’s assassination and programmes commemorating him. All television presenters wore black and a black strip adorned the top corner of the screens.
An IRIB presenter, who was interviewing IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif, kissed his uniform and embraced him as they broke down in tears.
All comedy films slated to be showed in cinemas were postponed and all music concerts were temporarily suspended.
A major passageway in Tehran, which has yet to be announced, will be named after Soleimani, officials said.
“The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has definitely enraged a majority of Iranians, irrespective of political beliefs,” said Ali Akbar Dareini, an expert on Iran-US affairs at the Center for Strategic Studies in Tehran.
Soleimani was the most popular political figure in Iran, according to several local and external polls. The latest, a poll commissioned by the Center of International and Security Studies at Maryland University, found that Soleimani had increased his influence, with eight in 10 respondents saying they view him favourably.
‘Declaration of war’
“The unilateral US sanctions were a declaration of economic war and this reckless move is obviously a major escalation and a declaration of war against Iran,” Dareini told Al Jazeera.
The White House and Pentagon said the attack on Soleimani was carried out with the aim of deterring future attacks allegedly being planned by Iran.
The Pentagon said Trump had ordered Soleimani’s “killing” after pro-Iran protesters this week stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad.
But Dareini believes the attack will lead to more insecurity and violence across the Middle East “exactly contrary to what the Americans claim”.
“This is also a gift to Daesh and all terrorists in the region,” the political analyst said.
Soleimani, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a key figure in Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who was also killed in the air strikes, were instrumental to the two countries’ fight against ISIL (ISIS).
“After him [Soleimani], the political, security and military red lines of the region will be transformed,” tweeted Hesammodin Ashna, a top adviser to President Rouhani. “The deserts, mountains and valleys know him better than the streets, palaces and towers”.