(Bloomberg) -- Top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani said he hopes to remain a soldier “until the end” of his life, in remarks that follow weeks of media speculation he might contest presidential elections in May.
“I am a soldier of Velayat and the Islamic Republic regime and the brave population, which I value more than my own life,” Soleimani said in a statement published by Tasnim news agency on Thursday. “God willing, I will remain in this role of soldier until the end of my life.” Velayat refers to Iran’s ultimate arbiter on all matters of state, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani’s popularity has surged as he became the most high-profile face of largely Shiite Iran’s fight against the Sunni jihadists of Islamic State. He regularly visits frontlines in Iraq and Syria, where the governments are Iranian allies, and in recent months his interests have appeared to spread to social issues and foreign policy.
Commentators latched onto those interventions at a time when conservative and hardline politicians who oppose President Hassan Rouhani, and his diplomatic engagement with the West, are looking to agree on a candidate for the poll in eight months’ time.
Soleimani said he was commenting as enemies of the state were seeking to create divisions. He urged Iranians “to ignore the deceptive and divisive comments of the enemy and not allow the valuable time of servants of this nation to be spent on their ominous aims.”
Soleimani heads the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, an elite unit that operates overseas and supports regional militant movements like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, classified by the U.S. and some European nations as a terrorist group. Recent opinion polls have placed him among the nation’s most trusted officials.
The commander “appeals to multiple sides,” said Narges Bajoghli, a researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute who has specialized on Iran’s Guards. There’s a cult of personality surrounding him, she said, that’s “wrapped up in nationalism and masculinity.”
Rouhani, whose diplomatic offensive ended Iran’s political and economic isolation, is well placed to win a second term on May 19, according to Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at Washington’s Brookings Institution. Yet there’s evidence of “real division within the system,” she said. Economic rewards from last year’s nuclear deal have been slow to emerge, and hardliners are accusing the president of making too many concessions.
While Rouhani’s cultural adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, has urged Iranians not to involve Soleimani in political games, reformist analyst Sadegh Zibakalam argued that he’s one of only two people who could seriously challenge Rouhani. The other being Rouhani’s predecessor as president and vocal critic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad clashed with Khamenei during his second term, a history that could eliminate him. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who won the most votes after Rouhani in 2013 and has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, was accused in the media earlier this month of granting property at discounted prices to city council members. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying the transactions were legitimate.
Candidates can only register about a month before voting, and have to be screened by the conservative Guardian Council.
Whenever Soleimani, who’s in his late 50s, visits a battlefield his presence is often documented on social media. For many Iranians, Bajoghli said, the Guards -- and by extension Soleimani -- have become the guarantors of national security amid regional chaos.
Seventy-six percent of Iranians hold a favorable view of Soleimani, with more than half having a “very favorable” opinion, according to a June survey by Toronto-based IranPoll.com for the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. Rouhani trailed on 38 percent in the latter category. A book of the general’s speeches and war recollections spanning two decades sold out a week after its publication.
This year, Soleimani has also devoted time to non-military issues. In February, he lauded the wisdom of parliament’s influential speaker, just days before elections that reshaped the assembly. Four months later, he condemned Bahrain’s Sunni leaders for revoking the citizenship of a Shiite cleric. In between, a smiling Soleimani was photographed hugging a child at an event for poor families in the holy city of Mashhad.