The first news report, to a nation usually kept in the dark about military matters, was shocking: 13 Iranian soldiers, all with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had been killed in an ambush near the Syrian city of Aleppo. What followed this spring may have been even more surprising. Details about the soldiers appeared extensively in the Iranian news media, which not only gave the names of the dead but lionized them with sweeping life stories. Poster-size portraits were plastered all over their hometowns.
For years, Iran covered up it military activities in Syria and Iraq, so the government could deny any official involvement on the ground. Coffins arrived with the bodies of soldiers who went unidentified, referred to only as “defenders of the shrines” of the Shiite saints. When the bodies began to come home in larger numbers, the state news media began calling them “volunteers.”
No longer. Now every Iranian killed in action is named, his picture published, his valor lauded in elaborate tributes in the hard-line news media and on Instagram accounts dedicated to the fighters. The reason for the change, analysts say, is not some newfound dedication to transparency but a rift between the Iranian establishment’s hard-liners, who control the military, and the moderates.
The hard-liners, they say, want to prevent any decline in Tehran’s absolute support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and to undermine the moderates, who they fear might be open to a political settlement in which Mr. Assad would step down.
The Revolutionary Guards see publicizing the sacrifices of the fallen as a way to build domestic support for the current Syria policy and squelch any talk of compromise. The Instagram accounts have attracted tens of thousands of followers, most of them supporting the military effort.
“By being open about our role, we can prevent a diplomatic solution in Syria,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line political analyst close to Iran’s leaders. “First, we must defeat all terrorists in the battlefield. Only after that can we negotiate with them.”
Hard-liners are promulgating Iran’s military successes — and even setbacks — in a variety of ways, including news reports and documentaries. An exhibit at the recent Tehran International Book Fair allowed ordinary Iranians to pose as “defenders of the shrines,” photographed sitting on a military motorcycle in front of a billboard showing a pulverized city street in Syria.
The main focus, however, is on social media.
Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the state in Iran, but the photograph-sharing app Instagram is freely accessible. Previously used mostly by middle-class Iranians showing off new puppies or vacations on the Caspian Sea, the app is now suffused with images of “martyrs” and young men proudly wielding machine guns.
One of the more prominent Instagram accounts is run by a reporter for Iranian state television, Hassan Shemshadi, who honors Iranian fighters and Afghans in the Iran-backed Fatemiyoun brigade.
Mr. Shemshadi’s more than 90,000 followers are treated to selfies and other shots from the front lines in Syria. There are pictures of him doing a stand-up for state television in front of an armored vehicle, of his passport and boarding pass for a flight to Damascus, and of the star officer of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
But most of Mr. Shemshadi’s posts concern the increasing number of Iranian casualties in Syria and Iraq. Since he started posting news of soldiers’ deaths in 2015, he has published a total of 346 mini-obituaries of Iranians and Iranian-backed Afghans in Syria and Iraq. That is a large majority of the 400 or so Iranian and Afghan soldiers thought to have died so far in the conflicts there.
“In the name of the Lord of the Martyrs and the honest, the defenders of the shrine, Asadollah Ebrahimi and Saheb Nazari both from #Fatemiyoun, Mehdi Asgari from #Karaj, Mehdi Bidi from #Tehran, Mohammad Amin Karimian from #Mazandaran were martyred by takfiri terrorists in Syria,” Mr. Shemshadi wrote a week ago, using an Arabic word for infidels. Over 3,700 people said they liked the post.
Mr. Shemsadi continued, “They died while defending the pure Mohammedan Islam and the holy shrines and also maintaining the national security of our country, and ascended to the heavens.”
Mr. Shemshadi regularly posts images of those killed in action, like Abbas Daneshgar, who died at 23 in 2015, and two 21-year-olds, one Iranian and one Afghan, both named Mostafa Mousavi and seen holding up guns.
Some scenes are of everyday life on the front. In May, Mr. Shemshadi posted a picture of a man he called “martyr Belbasi,” cutting the hair of another fighter. In hindsight, a bad omen, he wrote in a caption. “The fighters who have returned from the battle of Khan Tuman say that whomever that was barbered by martyr Belbasi was martyred.”
Mr. Shemshadi declined to be interviewed for this article.
He is not shy about describing Iran’s military activities in the region, a freedom of expression that would have to be permitted at the highest levels of the government. At a conference in Mashhad in February, for instance, Mr. Shemshadi said that Iran was directly involved in the Syrian conflict and that there was a danger that its Russian allies could one day stop supporting Mr. Assad.
Iran is in Syria and Iraq not only to defend the shrines, Mr. Shemshadi said. “It is wrong to have a one-dimensional view of what we are doing in Syria,” he said. Iran provides national security for the Syrians, too, and “we are there to show the real Islam,” meaning the Shiite strain.
In February, he posted an image of Hadi Zolfaghari, who died fighting near the Iraqi city of Samarra. One of his followers, @fatima.baran.110, nicknamed Isfahan Iran Muslim, wrote that he was tired of all the killing. “Are Iraq or Syria not able to defend themselves? So why should Iranian youths lose their lives for the sake of another country?”
Mr. Shemshadi was quick to respond. “It is not for the sake of another country,” he said. “It is for the sake of Islam, religion, beliefs, Shiism, resistance, holy shrines and so much more.”