Published by the Atlantic Council’s Iran Source
Late March marks the ancient holiday of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. But with Iran one of the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Nowruz had a somber tone this time around. Being avid users of Instagram, Iranians took to the photo-sharing app to share their mood on Nowruz. Among them, was a young woman in her late twenties and an unlikely rising celebrity in Iran and beyond.
Zeinab Soleimani was virtually unknown as a public figure before January 2020. She is the youngest child of Qasem Soleimani, a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who led its foreign arm—the Quds Force—and masterminded Iran’s armed intervention in the Middle East. After the commander was killed in a US drone attack on Baghdad’s international airport on January 3, Zeinab quickly emerged as his most visible offspring.
On Nowruz, Zeinab used Instagram to share a memory of her father with a picture of a dog tag that the fallen general had gifted to his daughter. “You gave me this when we went to Syria and asked me to keep it so they would know that I’m your daughter,” Zeinab wrote on her Instagram post. “You told me you’d be happy if we were martyred tougher. You flew away and left me behind. Maybe my wings were too small.” Zeinab ended by wishing a happy new year to the “honorable and patient” people of Iran.
Such posts are typical of Zeinab Soleimani, who is a regular on Instagram—the only major social media platform not blocked in Iran. Emerging from obscurity, she is now easily a household name and subject of dozens of media stories in Arab, Israeli, and Western media. A common theme contained in her Instagram posts are praises sung about her father and comparing him to historical Islamic figures such as the companions of Hossein, the third Shia imam who was killed in the historical battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680 AD.
Due to security concerns, Qasem Soleimani’s personal life was tightly guarded during his lifetime. Very little is known about his wife—even her name is unknown—his four children, and a late son that he lost to disease many years ago.
But, for those in circles close to Soleimani, Zeinab has long been well-known as an ardent devotee of her father who often accompanied him on his numerous trips to the Arab world, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
In 2016, when visiting the family of an Iranian soldier killed in Aleppo, Syria, Soleimani briefly spoke fondly of his daughter. “I have a daughter who is a guerrilla in her own right,” he told them, according to the account they later published.
An Iraqi Shia militant mentioned Zeinab’s surprising presence by the side of her father, even during intense battleground trips in Iraq.
“She is very bright, speaks very good Arabic and English, and was clearly a favorite of her father,” the Iraqi follower of Soleimani explained to this author, speaking not for attribution. “We were all shocked at how often she’d accompany him on trips.”
“Zeinab resembles Hajji Qasem more than anyone in the world,” Nasrollah Jahanshahi, a fellow IRGC member who has been working as Soleimani’s personal driver since the 1980s, recounted in an interview with Sobhe Sadegh, an IRGC publication. “In both her attitude and behavior, she is very much like Qasem Soleimani.”
In the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination in January, Zeinab became the public face of the Soleimani family, openly calling for Iran to avenge her father’s blood. Her older brothers, Mohammad Reza and Hossein, were also shown on state television but pride of place was given to Zeinab, who delivered a searing 10-minute speech at her father’s memorial in Tehran on January 6.
This was a calculated decision by the Iranian leadership that speaks not only to Zeinab’s rhetorical talents, but her symbolic presence. Soleimani’s daughter is named after Zeinab bint Ali, a sister of Imam Hossein and a key figure in Shia history. In 680 AD, after Hossein and his comrades fell to the armies of the Caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala, Zeinab led the caravan of survivors as they were taken as prisoners of war. She purportedly made a memorable address to Yazid in his Damascus palace, bemoaning him for straying from the path of the Prophet Mohammad. Shia political movements have idolized Zeinab as a symbol of resistance and eloquence for years. Her shrine outside Damascus continues to be a focus of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. Ali Shariati, an Iranian thinker who pioneered modern revolutionary Shia politics, is buried in the shrine—right next to Zeinab.
The symbolism of an eloquent speech given by a young woman named Zeinab, starting with verses of the Quran and ending with her calling for revenge of her fallen father, was not lost to millions of Shias and many other Arabs familiar with Shia imagery. Iran’s sophisticated media coverage put Zeinab in the spotlight from the outset. When meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Zeinab asked him to avenge her father’s death. In an interview with the Lebanese television station Al Manar, which is affiliated with the Shia militia group Hezbollah, Zeinab repeated the same request for revenge, this time, from her “uncle Hassan Nasrallah,” the secretary-general of Hezbollah.
In the fiery speech at the Tehran memorial, she addressed US President Donald Trump with the same phrase her father had once used: “Trump the Gambler.” She said the US president was being “played by the Zionists” and warned the families of US soldiers in the region that they should “spend their days… waiting for the death of their children.” She ended by listing five men that could help “destroy” Trump now that her father was gone: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Nakhale, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iraqi Shia militant leader Abu Hassan Ameri, and Abdulmalek Houthi, the leader of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Tehran speech was followed by a few more; she spoke at the Friday prayers in Kerman, a city in southern Iran where her father was buried, followed by another memorial speech in Beirut, given in fluent Lebanese Arabic—although, with a Persian accent.
What will Zeinab’s future look like?
Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as the leader of the Quds Force, is struggling to fill the old general’s shoes. More of a specialist in Iran’s relations with its allies in the Indian subcontinent, Ghaani has failed to coordinate between the pro-Iran forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria in the swift way that Soleimani did. He also lacks the general’s charisma and character. Could the young Zeinab help continue the path of her father by emerging as a charismatic leader in the region?
We know very little about her besides the fact that she was born in 1991, has studied humanities, and has been living in Tehran for many years. Rumors of her having married a son of Baqer Qalibaf, an old comrade of Soleimani in the IRGC during the eight-year war with Iraq and, now, a powerful politician slated to become the next speaker of the parliament, were falsified—she is said to be married to a cousin. By all indications, Zeinab is talented and charismatic but her hardcore rhetoric will repel as many as it will attract. Prior to her father’s assassination, her only known intervention was an online attack on Saba Kamali, an Iranian actress who outraged conservatives by comparing Imam Hossein to Sahar Khodayari, also known as the “Blue Girl,” a 29-year-old young woman who died following self-immolation in a protest against the ban on women entering Iranian stadiums. “I advise you to be silent and keep your empty beliefs in your limited brain,” Zeinab wrote, addressing Kamali. Qasem Soleimani was able to be popular among many Iranians precisely by avoiding such outbursts on sensitive domestic issues.
Some of Zeinab’s Instagram posts show an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. One of them is accompanied by a song by Salar Aqili, a popular Iranian singer based in Tehran, who caused outrage in 2017 by giving an in-studio interview to the London-based banned satellite channel Manoto.
Both for Iranian audiences and beyond, Zeinab has to shape a careful message if she wants to inherit her father’s popularity.
Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of the upcoming book, “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions” which will be published by Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehranFollow me!