Monday, June 22, 2009

Who are Iran's security forces? And whose side are they on?

Guest post by Anonymous

The author, a Truman National Security Project fellow, travels regularly to Iran. For the sake of his/her security, his/her name cannot be revealed at this time.

Following a few days of restrained responses to opposition protests, the Iranian regime is now starting to violently clamp down. As seen in other situations of popular unrest, the cohesiveness of its security forces is one of the most crucial factors. The big question, therefore, is whether Iran's security forces follow orders or fragment and switch sides to join their fellow citizens. The regime's security apparatus is not a unified entity -- and each of its constituent parts has different responsibilities as well as different allegiances.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the ideological and military guarantor of national security for the Islamic Republic, with responsibility for security challenges ranging from Iran's nuclear program to containing domestic disturbances. They have also been the core beneficiary of the
militarization of the regime, with an increasing presence in all branches of government.

The paramilitary Basij is a "people's militia" that is the frontline, street-level expression of repression. It reportedly numbers close to a million men, mostly in small units that are attached to a mosque or university campus, and is tasked with controlling, mobilizing, and indoctrinating the wider population.

The third group involved in suppressing the protests is Ansar-e Hezbollah, a small vigilante group formed in the 1990s by former Basij and other hardliners with a passionate devotion to "purifying" the 1979 revolution. Its exact number is unknown, but it probably counts in the low one thousands and comprises the vanguard units used to intimidate regime opponents.

While Ansar-e Hezbollah is comprised of ideological stalwarts whose regime loyalty is seen as unshakeable, both the IRGC and the Basij are susceptible to fragmentation. Due to IRGC's increased participation as a political actor, it has the potential to splinter along the same fissures as the rest of the political elite.

Notably, one of this year's presidential challengers, Mohsen Rezai, was head of the IRGC from 1981 to 1997, and still enjoys much prestige among current IRGC rank-and-file. In fact, while Defense Minister Mostafa Najjar has sided publicly with Ahmadinejad, Guard Commander Ali Jaafari has not signaled his position. Also, based on unsubstantiated eyewitness reports from Iran, IRGC troops have refrained from entering most cities, and some IRGC commanders have been removed from their posts due to their refusal to confront the protesters.

Most of the killing seems to have occurred in confrontations between Basij and demonstrators. In 2005, the Basij mobilized the vote for Ahmadinejad, but it may be less reliable as a fighting force. In suburban and rural areas, its members are embedded in their home communities in a manner that restrains their actions. In the cities, it is easier to bus Basij from different parts of town and reinforce their hostility to the protesters by adding class conflict to the mix, since most of the Basij are from lower classes.

But even there, most of the Basij are not equipped or prepared for outright battle; according to different estimates, less than 100,000 are actually armed and full-time activists. The remaining are part-time volunteers, whose motivations are frequently not ideological, but professional. In Iran, with rampant unemployment and a bloated public sector, government jobs are one of the few avenues for social mobility. As a Basij in Isfahan put it to me last year, "Behtar az daneshgah" -- "It's better than going to university."

It is difficult to predict how these mercenaries will operate when their "enemies" are unarmed citizens supported by respectable national leaders. Witnessing large-scale killing and beating of fellow Iranians could lead to mutiny among some and break force cohesion. So while the leadership is ready for escalation, they may not be able to count on their foot soldiers.

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