General Qasem Soleimani: everything you want to know about the powerful general of Iran

TEHRAN: The commander of the Revolutionary Guard, killed Friday in an American attack, was one of the most popular figures in Iran and was seen as a deadly adversary by the United States and its allies.

General Soleimani, who led the Quds Force of external operations for the Guards, had exerted his regional influence publicly since 2018 when it was revealed that he had a direct participation in high-level talks about the formation of the Iraqi government.

It was no surprise at that time for a man who has been at the center of the exchange of power in the region for two decades.

Soleimani has been in and out of Baghdad since then, more recently last month when the parties sought to form a new government.

Where he once remained in the shade, Soleimani has become in recent years an unlikely celebrity in Iran, full of a large following on Instagram.

His profile suddenly rose when he was promoted as the public face of Iran's intervention in the Syrian conflict since 2013, appearing in photos of the battlefield, documentaries and even appearing in a music video and an animated film.

In a rare interview on Iranian state television in October, he said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah to oversee the conflict.

For both his fans and his enemies, Soleimani was the key architect of Iran's regional influence, led the fight against jihadist forces and extended Iran's diplomatic weight in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

For the Shiites of the Middle East, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga in one, former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack wrote in a profile for Time's 100 most influential people in 2017.

For the West, he is ... responsible for exporting Iran's Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and fighting Iran's foreign wars, Pollack added.

With Iran agitated by protests and economic problems at home, and the United States once again pressing from abroad, some Iranians had even asked Soleimani to enter domestic politics.

While he rejected rumors that one day he could run for president, the general has played a decisive role in the politics of Iran's neighbor, Iraq.

In addition to conversations about the formation of a government, it was critical to pressure Iraqi Kurds to abandon their independence plans after a poorly judged referendum last September.

Its influence has deep roots, since Soleimani was already leading the Quds Force when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

My Iranian interlocutors in Afghanistan made it clear that while they kept the Foreign Ministry informed, it was ultimately General Soleimani who would make the decisions, former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told the BBC in 2013 .

His firm but calm presence plays perfectly with the Iranian inclination for dignified humility.

He sits there on the other side of the room, alone, in a very quiet way. He doesn't speak, he doesn't comment, he just sits and listens. And, of course, everyone thinks only of him, said a senior. An Iraqi official told the New Yorker about a long profile of Soleimani.

A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland , one of the few considered reliable by analysts, found that Soleimani had an 83 percent popularity rating, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Western leaders saw it as the center of Iran's ties with militia groups, including Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas in Lebanon.

Part of its appeal was the suggestion that it could save Iran's bitter social divisions on issues such as its strict hijab dress rules.

If we constantly use terms like 'bad hijab' and 'good hijab', reformist or conservative ... then who is left? Soleimani said in a speech to commemorate World Mosque Day in 2017.

They are all people. Are all your children religious? All are equal? No, but the father attracts them all.