Warlords are no strangers to popular culture and social media. Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin have ironic online cult followings spanning thousands of internet forums, memes, and websites. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads the 1.3-million-strong statelet of Chechnya at the southern peripheries of Russia, has 2.2 million followers on Instagram.
No one, however, would have expected to see Major General Qasem Soleimani, celebrated as a folk hero in Iran, but denounced as a terrorist throughout the Arab and Western worlds, photoshopped into sexy poses and Viagra commercials. But it's these same memes that could make him unforgettable to opponents and supporters from Beirut and Tehran to Riyadh and Washington.
Soleimani leads the Quds Force, a subunit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for Iran's extraterritorial operations. The Quds Force acts as Iran's equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command in one, conducting black, clandestine, and covert operations in Africa, Asia, and South America. Soleimani has been the face of the Iranian interventions in Iraq and Syria, posing with Shia militiamen on the front lines against ISIS.
The major general's foray into pop culture started with his photo opportunities in the dunes and trenches of Iraq's deserts. According to the book Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani began these photo ops in September 2014, appearing on the Facebook pages of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), an umbrella organization of Shia militias in Iraq. As though inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, he always wore khaki caps, pants, and shoes.
"The images became so ubiquitous that a meme developed on social media depicting Soleimani in all sorts of places with all sorts of people," wrote Afshon Ostovar, author of Vanguard of the Imam.
The memes range from clever and funny to cryptic and obscure. Many revolve around geopolitical inside jokes. One shows Soleimani's head edited onto a monochrome photo of a male model with the caption, "I can see Mosul from here," referencing the Battle of Mosul and the ongoing offensive in the north of Iraq. Another, a photoshopped Viagra commercial with the caption, "I have no need for these pills, but Muhandis pops them like they're pistachios," serves to ridicule Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iranian-backed PMU commander and Soleimani's right-hand man in Iraq, whom the US State Department considers a terrorist for killing American soldiers during the Iraq War.
Most of the memes criticize Soleimani and target an English-speaking audience. Arabic and Persian memes are far fewer, suggesting that Westerners opposed to Soleimani's anti-American and -Israeli campaigns in the Middle East spearheaded the English memes' spread. The major general has armed, funded, and trained Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, all labelled terrorist organizations by the State Department, which has refrained from giving the same label to the IRGC. The US Treasury has sanctioned Soleimani for his role in black ops, though.
"I view the memes as the product of primarily four things:" Ostovar told Motherboard in an email, "the social media focus of the IRGC and its allies, whose Facebook pages are often the genesis of Soleimani photos; the fandom that Soleimani has garnered among mostly second-generation Iranian émigrés; the use of Soleimani as a symbol of Iran's backing of Assad by supporters of Syria's rebels and the rebels themselves; and the culture of social media and the Internet more broadly."
One meme depicts Soleimani running for president of Syria alongside "his deputy" Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian President, whom many Syrians view as a figurehead for Iranian influence.
Most of the memes seem more lighthearted, showing Soleimani drinking a Coke as he congratulates himself for victories in the Yemeni Civil War, eating a sandwich as he ponders his love for former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, flying like Superman as he reflects on the Iraqi Civil War, and shaking hands with an astronaut on the Moon in a mockery of his poses on the battlefronts of Iraq and Syria.
Vanguard of the Imam mentions the existence of memes depicting Soleimani attending the Nobel Banquet with Albert Einstein and riding a motorcade with Jacqueline Kennedy, yet Motherboard could find no record of them in Arabic, English, or Persian.
But now that Putin and Soleimani have allied themselves in the Syrian Civil War, it will only be a matter of time before cultural critics begin posting memes of them together. Fars News Agency, a mouthpiece of the Iranian government, has already combined snapshots of the two. "He's been promoted by Iran and its clients like none other than the supreme leader," concluded Ostovar. "So it is perhaps unsurprising that he is so well recognized on social media by Iran's supporters and critics."
The IRGC's campaigns in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen have helped the major general expand his name recognition, but it may be these memes that sear his photoshopped image into national consciousness. Maybe, then, Donald Trump will start remembering Soleimani's name.
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