Over the next few days, it will be hard to escape footage of huge crowds gathering in Iranian cities to mourn the death of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by a U.S. drone strike. For anyone watching, I have one piece of advice: Don’t take what you’re seeing at face value.
This past November, thousands of Iranians took to the streets across the country to protest against the regime, in the biggest challenge to the clerical rule in 40 years. According to Reuters, more than 1,500 people were killed by security forces, including units of Soleimani’s Revolutionary Guard, and at least 7,000 have been arrested. The Internet was shut down for five days. Tehran has yet to release official figures of its own, which suggests the death toll may have been even higher.
The protesters had harsh words for Soleimani and his foreign adventures, chanting against Iran’s involvement in Syria and its support of Hezbollah. That came as a shock to the regime, which portrays Soleimani as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s adopted son.
Remember all the articles that predicted how Iranians were going to unite in resistance to President Trump’s sanctions? The same analysts who missed November’s protests are now predicting Iranian will rally around the flag. This sorely underestimates the anger and resentment over the crackdown. The authorities forced many families to pay blood money in order to receive the body of their loved ones from the morgue. Some even had to sign official forms waiving the right to hold a public funeral as a condition of getting bodies returned.