January 5, 2021, 1:00 AM EST
When it comes to the propaganda of fallen heroes, the Islamic Republic is in a league of its own. But its capacity to squeeze blood from headstones is coming up against the law of diminishing returns.
Four decades after its war with Iraq, giant murals of Iran’s “martyred” soldiers still dominate its urban landscapes and their names mark streets, buildings, schools, parks and bridges. Their ranks are constantly topped up with the more recently deceased — even, on occasion, with the victims of the regime itself.
A year ago, the families of Iranians killed when a Ukrainian jetliner was shot down after taking off from Tehran received ghoulish phone calls from the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, a giant organization controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The callers offered not condolences or apologies for the killing of the passengers, but congratulations on their “martyrdom.”
Not long before that, Khamenei had declared that people killed during the regime’s brutal suppression of anti-government protests were also to be treated as martyrs, and their families compensated.
Last week Iran’s martyrdom machine was again cranked up to full capacity to commemorate the death anniversary of Qassem Soleimani, arguably the regime’s greatest hero since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. Killed by an American drone in Baghdad last year, Soleimani was more than the leader of the elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was, as I wrote at the time, Khamenei’s “most effective instrument of terror, a commander distinguished for his unquestioned obedience and apparently inexhaustible appetite for violence.”
Soleimani was commemorated in mural and song, even an English-language dirge. In a series of carefully choreographed events, Iranian leaders and commanders of proxy militias across the Middle East declaimed paeans to their slain hero and swore vengeance against the U.S.
Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, directed verbal salvos at President Donald Trump, warning that the instrument of revenge could be someone “from inside your own home.” The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, who is widely tipped to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader, promised that those responsible, including Trump, would “no longer be safe on the Earth.”
This would be stirring stuff … except we’ve heard it all before. And it does not conceal the inconvenient fact that, a year after his death, the Islamic Republic’s great champion remains unavenged. Khamenei’s refrain that it will strike “at the right time” has simply worn thin in the repetition.
Iranians tiring of such solemn pledges might also ask why scores have not yet been evened for other “martyrs,” such as the nuclear scientists assassinated a decade ago. That question will undoubtedly come up next week, at the end of the 40-day mourning period for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, who was killed on the outskirts of Tehran in November.
The rude reality is the regime cannot take revenge for Soleimani. Its own overheated rhetoric has set the bar for retribution too high: The bloodlust stoked by the likes of Khamenei and Ghaani can only be slaked by American casualties, either prominent or numerous. Tehran’s usual tricks — from rocket attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to missile strikes on Saudi oil installations — will not suffice.
But any attempt to top those stunts will bring a world of condemnation down on Khamenei’s head, and dash any prospects of the Joe Biden administration bringing the Iranian regime back in from the cold. Instead Biden would likely have to respond with punitive measures. And not only would the country lose European support for an end to Trump’s sanctions on Iran and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, it would also make it awkward for Russia and China to keep backing Tehran.
The regime has already stretched European patience to a breaking point by announcing it will ratchet up its uranium enrichment levels. And the IRGC’s capture of a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf — a transparent attempt to scare Seoul into releasing billions of dollars in frozen payments — will not win Iran any friends in the oil-thirsty Asian economies.
Retribution for Soleimani’s killing is the very last thing Iran can afford. The regime will have to make do with tough talk, and hope that its martyrdom machine can cover up for the emptiness of its threats.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Bobby Ghosh at email@example.com