Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An attempt at regime change in Iran may be deadlier than Libya

Basij militiamen aim their weapons at unarmed protesters

As brave dissidents from the Arab states of the gulf to the western shores of North Africa continue their often deadly confrontations with decades-old regimes in the region, many may have forgotten about the images of thousands of Iranians that flooded their own proclaimed "liberation square" in their country's capital. We were all surprised by the eighteen long days in which Hosni Mubarak refused to heed to the calls of massive protests in Egypt, and later, we became shocked by Muammar Qaddafi's fatuous behavior and insistence on staying in power in Tripoli.

However, none quite compare to the two years that have passed since Iranians began massive protests against their own government. In those two years, dissidents have faced an ever-increasing crackdown by Iranian authorities that seems to have successfully put an end to the people's boldest and massive protests following Iran's 2009 presidential elections.

The turning points in the events in Tunisia and Egypt, and to some degree in Libya, have coincided with the decisions made by the military generals of each country. It's no secret that each regime change in recent history was preceded by the military's unwillingness to participate in the government's repressive policies and a willingness of the military to eventually side with dissidents and approve a regime change.

In the case of Iran, the complex situation of the armed forces makes such an event much more improbable. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini carefully constructed and configured his new regime's army such that many components would exist and function for the sole purpose of protecting the Islamic Republic from a coup or a revolution similar to that which his predecessor, the Shah, faced. In order to achieve these purposes, Khomeini founded two additional autonomous units: the so-called "people’s militia", or Basij, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In addition to its independence from Iran's regular military, the IRGC also runs its own branches of the navy, air force, ground and special forces.

In the months following the initial protests in 2009, the response of the various branches of Iran's armed forces, and in particular the Basij militia, was execrable. The Basij poured in the streets attacking, and killing, many of the demonstrators who began their protests peacefully. The violence unleashed by the Basij, and the mostly silent approval of Iran's remaining military branches, was enough to assume that the military had chosen its position in the unrest.

Less than two months ago, however, an alleged letter by senior officers of the IRGC went into circulation in which they call for assurances from Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari – a high commander of the IRGC – that they will not be ordered to fire on demonstrators any longer. The letter also asks that the commander exercise his authority to restrain the Basij militia from attacking demonstrators as well.

However, Khomeini's construction of a seemingly fragmented military was made for days like these; days in which the frustrations of people in the Middle East reached a tipping point. In 2009, and in smaller numbers today, we have seen Basij militiamen entering into the streets on motorbikes and attacking protestors with guns, sticks and other weapons. If the letter is real and the commander does respond positively, while there may be some promise that the IRGC stops its attacks, the Basij is an entirely different story.

Despite the mainstream media's common portrayal of the Basij as nothing more than a paramilitary unit that largely gets its recruits from Iran's rural south, the Basij, since its founding, functions far more like a movement that is spread across the entire country. The radical Islamist organization is entrenched in society and gains young recruits through its network of mosques that act as community centers and through centers in many primary schools all over Iran. Joining the Basij is far more like joining a club, community or even a cult, than it might be like joining a military, in which an emotional attachment and longstanding tie is developed. Furthermore, this attachment is strengthened by a religious indoctrination that creates an unwavering loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader.

Thus, breaking these ties would require far more than a persuasive argument of a commander; a commander that is unlikely to oppose the orders of his superiors in any case.

In a scenario that might come to pass if regime change is the ultimate goal of the people, and if Iran's regular military and a less likely IRGC decide to take their side, Iran could see an explosion in violence unprecedented in its modern history. Protestors in the millions put on a brave and fearless display of opposition to the current regime in 2009 and Iran is certainly not short of outlawed opposition groups, particularly in its various ethnic regions in both the eastern and western parts of the country. However, various estimates indicate that the Basij are also by no means short in numbers. An estimated 90,000 are on active duty, with another 300,000 in reserves. Moreover, the real divulgence of strengths might come when the Islamic Republic is seriously threatened. Although the official figures are difficult to confirm, various sources estimate that anywhere between 5 million and 11 million Basij members are ready to take up arms if such a situation arises.

A bloody civil war that could cost a shocking number of lives may be the only way that Iranians attain their freedom. The so-called opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have reasserted their desire to reform the current system in a recent communiqué earlier this year. However, freedom in a system that retains a supreme leader and council of members who have the final say in appointing authorities in the state will be difficult to envision. On the other hand, the roots planted by Khomeini in 1979 to preserve this radical Islamist project may be far more difficult to dig up than demonstrators may have hoped for. A revolution for a regime change that ends the theocracy in Iran could easily surpass the violence being witnessed in Libya. If such a case does emerge, Iranians will require swifter international responses and a scale of assistance much larger than we might imagine.

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