Sectarianism a possible factor in Ayatollah Soleimani’s murder

The 75-year-old was a former prayer leader in Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province. A close associate of Khamenei, he was a member of the Assembly of Experts. No motive has yet to be found. His native Mazandaran province has seen protests and strikes in recent months.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – Mystery still shrouds the death of Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani 24 hours after he was assassinated under obscure circumstances. The murder has raised many questions, starting with why him.

The victim is a former prayer leader in Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, a Sunni-majority province in south-eastern Iran which saw some of the most violent protests and clashes associated with the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

The cleric was shot from the back at a bank in Babolsar, a city in his native province, Mazandaran, in northern Iran. The shooter, a security guard, was arrested, the IRNA agency reported.

So far, few details of the incident have been released, including the motive. What is certain is that the 75-year-old victim was a high-ranking official, one of 88 members of the Assembly of Experts who have the power to choose the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.

Soleimani, who was a close associate of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can be seen in CCTV footage sitting in a chair, with the guard walking up to him from behind and shooting him in the head with his turban falling on the ground.

Reacting to the crime, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called for a quick investigation into the killing, urging security forces to "act as quickly as possible" to determine "the causes of the incident" and "identify the possible motive."

Various stories are already circulating online. In one, a man is said to have taken a gun from a security guard before firing at the cleric. After a brief period of confusion and fear, other security guards intervene and disarmed the shooter who was arrested.

In a statement, Mazandaran Governor-General Mahmoud Hosseinipour Nouri said that police had no evidence suggesting a security-related or terrorism motive behind the attack. That has not stopped some from alleging a Sunni connection.

Soleimani had served as the supreme leader's representative in Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders Sunni-majority Pakistan and Afghanistan, both home to anti-Shia groups, smugglers and drug traffickers.

In April last year, a suspected Sunni extremist stabbed to death two Shia clerics and wounded another in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan province, north-eastern Iran.

Sistan-Baluchestan saw some of the most violent clashes between protesters and security forces, following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was taken into custody by Iran’s morality police last September in Tehran because she was not correctly wearing the mandatory headscarf.

The crackdown in Sistan-Baluchestan was particularly brutal culminating in the alleged shooting of more than 80 unarmed protesters in September 2022.

Protests and clashes with police were reported yesterday in the province’s Fanuj county, following the apparent killing of a young protester by security forces.

Separately, workers in the energy, minerals and petrochemicals sectors went on strike this week demanding a pay raise.

Amid the protests and widespread dissatisfaction, clerics have become a target for protesters who have repeatedly knocked off their turbans in a show of defiance (and contempt), posting footage and pictures online.