Kafkaesque Impediments to Challenging Iran’s Theocracy

Photo by Blondinrikard Fröberg | CC BY 2.0

Shahid Beshesti University (SBU), Tehran

On several occasions, meeting with brilliant, tech-savvy Iranian university students who are thoroughly charming, fearless and outspoken, this observer is presented a very different picture of what Iranians are facing than what is being offered by some pro-regimen internet bloggers and water carriers.

It is from Iranian students, among others that this observer has learned during recent scintillating conversations about current events in Iran as well student’s radiant optimism about Iran’s future if what they call the current “theocratic dictatorship” is removed.

More than 1,000 students, most of whom attend Tehran or Beshesti Universities are among approximately 4,000 Iranian civilians who have been arrested, more than 200 in “preventive detention.” This, according to reports from the Iranian Students’ News Agency which quoted Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist member of parliament as complaining that “many of those arrested were not even involved in protests.” One Iranian woman, speaking from Europe, told Fox News by phone on 1/9/2017 that her family member – 31-year-old Alireza Gomar – suffered a “bullet in the heart” while demonstrating outside an office for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tuyserkan, Hamadan Province, on 12/31/2017. The relative said he was rushed to the hospital by fellow activists but later died and that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took his body – and others who had been wounded – directly from the hospital. “Our family had to beg to get the body back. The Guards wanted them first to agree to be silent, to not tell the media what had happened,” the relative claimed. “Only after five days did they get his body back as the family kept up the pressure, but there were IRGC surrounding the funeral.”

Unlike the widespread 2009 election fraud protests, which left at least 30 citizens dead and hundreds jailed with some politicians still under house arrest eight years later, the current protests are not only about various specific economic grievances but rather they constitute an historic challenge to the very presumption of an Islamic republic.

Also unlike 2009, Iranians today have a powerful weapon in social/mass media communication, which, while being franticly targeted by the regime, will survive and it will grow. It’s true that seemingly panicked hard-liner Iranian clerics have recently been calling for Iran to create its own indigenous social media apps, blaming current social apps for the uprising. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami preached this during last week’s Friday prayers in Tehran. He insisted that when the regime blocked social media “the riots stopped.” Khatami insists that “the nation does not support a social network because its key is in the hand of the United States and that anyone who burned Iran’s flag should be sentenced to death.” This view is agreed to, but qualified slightly, by Ali Khomeini who blames the usual suspects, the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The regime has blocked much social media but without significant intimidation of protesters.

Regime officials last week also announced that teaching English in Iran opened the way to a western “cultural invasion” and the regime has now banned the teaching of English in primary schools, a senior education official has announced. “Teaching English in government and non-government schools is against laws and regulations,” Mehdi Navid-Adham, head of the regimes high education council, told state television. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced outrage over the “teaching of the English language spreading to nursery schools, insisting that “this is the promotion of a foreign culture in the country and among children, young adults and youths.” A video of the announcement of the ban has become a joke in Iran and is being widely circulated by students and others on social media with Iranians calling it “the filtering of English” while sarcastically comparing it to the recent blocking of the popular apps Telegram, and Instantgram by the government.

The formidable impediments regime internal security forces are currently targeting protestors with, according to students at Tehran and Beshesti Universities, and other Iranians, as well as research by Iran scholar Saeid Golkar include some of the following:

The main security, military, and judicial branches of Iran’s coercive apparatus are the police (NAJA), the Basij, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). All are under the control of Ali Khamenei.

The NAJA (police) national police commandership oversees all of Iran’s 31 provinces, each of which controls all police stations in a specific province. Each city within a province has one disciplinary area (nahieh-e entezami) that administers all police stations. Normally, according to a Professor at Tehran University, every Iranian police station has deputies of prevention, of intelligence, of inspections, of operations, as well as a judiciary police official. There are approximately 200,000 police with 100,000 additional support staff. Roughly 40% of the latter work for various surveillance organizations that closely monitor more than 4,600 neighborhoods.

In addition to the police, Iran’s notorious Basij target students and other protestors regardless of the subject, should they criticize the regime. Iran’s Basij is the largest civil militia organization in the world, including China and Russia’s. It has approximately six million members working from twenty-four branches with four rankings, regular, active, cadre, and special. The Basij also operate a network consisting of Basij bases, districts, and regions. The Basij bases operate in more than 50,000 locations throughout Iran and students claim not much ever happens, on or off campus, without them keeping close tabs. Each Basij district operates ten to fifteen bases and is home to around 45 sundry, opaque local security and military forces. These districts are controlled by IRGC regional branches.

The Basij also operate security and military units, including the Imam Ali Security Battalions, which are trained in special tactics such as the use of customized bespoke weapons and motorcycles to suppress unrest. Some active Basij members are organized into rapid-reaction battalions called the Beit al-Muqaddas, with responsibility for defending vital installations in their neighborhoods.

In addition, the IRGC operates approximately a dozen regional headquarters with each commanding a handful of provincial corps specializing in neutralizing opposition to the regime such as protests and insurgency. All members of the IRGC Ground Forces and Basij report to their local IRGC provincial corps and focus on quelling internal disorder. The IRGC-IO also has its Basij intelligence staff (stead-e khaberi-e Basij), whose members operates in Iran’s estimated 4,000 Basij districts. Much like the Herasat noted below, the Basij intelligence officers act as the regime’s eyes and ears by monitoring citizen activities and keeping files on local activists.

The Iranian regime also operates two dozen different security organizations, in addition to the Ministry of Intelligence, the IRGC Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO), and the Intelligence and Public Security Police (PAVA), a branch of the NAJA. All of them are overseen by the Supreme Leader and all work exclusively to protect the regime.

These organizations also have control over Iranian society through the Herasat and IRGC-IO. The Intelligence Ministry has established Herasat branches in every civilian organization and all of the Universities in the country. Their main job is to identify and neutralize perceived security threats. Herasat officials reportedly surveil employees by monitoring their communications and act as informants, and influence hiring and firing practices.

PAVA, the Public Security Police (PAVA), a branch of the NAJA is responsible for gathering intelligence in neighborhoods and penetrating Iran’s guilds, arresting any workers who are deemed too subversive. To do so, it runs a network of local informers (mokhber mahali) to collect news and rumors. PAVA has also been tasked with conducting religious activities and ferreting out homes used for Christian worship.

The regime controlled judiciary, according to Iranian sources, is another key part of Iran’s coercive apparatus currently being used against protestors. The regime operates numerous extraconstitutional courts, the Special Court of the Clergy specializes in silencing dissident clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Courts try dissent against the regime cases. These court were used to suppress uprisings, including the 1992 riots in Mashhad and Shiraz (where some demonstrators were sentenced to death during summary trials) and the 2009 Green Movement, where 30 activists were killed, and hundreds were sentenced to long-term imprisonment.
Color coding Iran’s protesters
At any given time, Iran’s security condition, is assigned one of four colors: white, gray, yellow, and red. White is everyday public order. Gray is when unorganized opposition peacefully undermine public order, with no sign of violence. In that case, the police are mainly responsible for controlling the situation and maintaining order. Basij offices help the police quash any strikes, while Herasat personnel help gather intelligence and identify protestors.

If the police cannot control a given situation and the crisis intensifies, the regime invokes condition yellow, in which an organized opposition has begun more violent forms of protest such as disrupting order, blocking public spaces, and attacking public buildings. In response, the Basij are required to work more closely with the police by intensifying their intelligence activities and increasing their patrols and checkpoint stops. Plainclothes Basij officers are responsible for penetrating demonstrations, identifying activists, and misleading protestors. Other Basij members deploy near police personnel, recording videos and occasionally attacking people. In some cases, they use motorcycles to take control of the streets, contain unrest, and intimidate protesters, using force as needed to scatter people.

Finally, if the above measures fail to reestablish control, the security level increases to condition red, defined as a crisis in which revolts have expanded throughout the country and the opposition is using weapons. In this case, the IRGC takes full control of internal operations, and all other forces must work with the Guards to restore control. During the current protests, IRGC forces have reportedly been deployed in three provinces to smash demonstrations.
Following my hosts two-hour detailed description of how government security forces will attack their demands, my Iranian friends gazed at my chagrined face and pursed lips with a touch of concern and empathy. And, bless them, they tried to assure this observer that all was not hopeless. They explained to me that I should take some solace from the fact that they, and many Iranian protesters know a lot of the security forces, especially the Basij some of whose members may be neighbors, friends, or relatives.

Although the regime has spent a lot of money on security groups, Iranian friends question how reliable or disciplined they sometimes are when it comes to beating, terrorizing and arresting their own community.

Many in the security services also themselves suffer from economic and other regime caused problems. Moreover, morale and cohesion are impacted by the social makeup of individual units, as well as the social and class cleavages present in Iranian society. This has been a serious problem for the regime during the current protests because many security personnel are reportedly drawn from the country’s lower and lower-middle classes and its smaller cities. These are the same people they are being ordered to suppress.

I am advised that there is also speculation that cracks may be appearing among the Republican Guards leading to a domino effect shaking the regime. History vaguely instructs that the tipping point for a repressive regime often comes-sometimes suddenly-when those tasked with internal repression sympathize with the protesters and either stand down or declare their rejection of the regime.

Today there is much concern on University campuses in Iran for students and other citizens who have been “disappeared” by regime forces.

On 1/9/2018 Amnesty international called for an investigation of reports that at least five people were murdered in custody among 23 killed among the nearly 4000 arrested. Iranian authorities claim that all five-committed suicide.
Amnesty wants independent autopsies of all of them according to Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa: “We have long documented the nightmarish conditions in detention facilities in Iran, including the use of torture. Those suspected of having any responsibility for these deaths must be prosecuted in proceedings that respect international fair trial standards and without recourse to the death penalty.”

Fears for the lives of hundreds of detainees have been heightened by the unexplained death of five students held in the ‘quarantine’ section of Tehran’s Evin prison, where detainees are taken immediately after being arrested. Among the regime claimed ‘suicides’ are of Sina Ghanbari, 23, and Vahid Heydari and Moshsen Adeli, who died in custody in Markazi and Khuzestan provinces. Not one of them, according to fellow prisoners and family members committed suicide.

In this observer’s view the continuing demonstrations constitute an historic watershed moment for the Iranian people. The genie is out of the bottle and humpty dumpty has been splattered.

Regime efforts to turn back the clock of global communication and cut off Iranians from engaging politically with one another will ultimately fail. Nor are most Iranians supportive of the Mullahs insistence to turn Iran into a regional hegemonic power. Iranians, like most people, want to improve lives in their own country and not subjugate other countries fantasizing about what may have been 2500 years ago during the Persian empire, which, in all events only lasted a bit more than 200 years.

Students report that the uprising is not a question of being pro-West. Rather they simply do not want to be a part of an Islamic Republic. The idea of having Mullahs dictate the conduct of their personal lives and beliefs in the country is simply not acceptable to this generation. Nor for an increasing number of their parents’ generation. They want much more freedom and much more democracy. Not because they seek what Western countries have but because they are universal human value

One student explained that many regime officials fancy themselves “revolutionaries” and that there is nothing they fear more than a “counterrevolution.” When asked about speculation that the current uprising will die out or be crushed by the regime, the students were emphatic. “This may well be the case. The Mullahs have the highest per capita execution rate in the world, they treat us women like second-class citizens, constantly harass gays and religious minorities. For many Iranians they appear to resemble Daesh (ISIS)! And there is no such thing as free speech. So real change will not be easy.” His friend added. “The more we demonstrate the more brutal the regime will be. Victory will not be fast, nor will it be easy for us, but I promise you that we will succeed.”

While this observer does not concur with all of UK journalist Robert Fisk’s views on Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran, he does credit Fisk’s comment published this week: “My own concerns lie in the inherent cruelty of an (Iranian) regime which can send a young and innocent woman to the gallows as a prison official yells taunts at her mother on the daughter’s mobile phone. I’ve said before that the gallows stain Iran far more than the centrifuge.”

Near the entrance to Tehran’s ‘Grand Bazaar’ Souk, an Iranian mother of three beautiful rambunctious children, who teaches in a private North Tehran school explained to this observer when he asked her about reports of growing agnosticism among educated young Iranians, “I am sure there is some of this happening. And its likely due to our religiously bigoted regime. I am a devout Muslim. Islam will always play a role in my life and I think the same is true of most of Iranians. But why not allow us to return Islam to our homes. Religion is a personal, private and family matter isn’t it? That is what the Koran teaches us, and it makes sense. What we Iranians want is to live in an Iranian republic not an 7th Century Islamic republic! We can get that from Daesh (ISIS). Many of these holier than thou Mullahs care less about true Islam. They are quite simply corrupt politicians using Islam to repress us and steal Iran’s wealth and potential. When the Madhi (PBUH) does appear from Occultation, he will surely damn these corrupt Mullahs, every one of them!”

However, whatever happens during the months ahead, a key regime barrier has been shattered. Iranians are no longer contained by the wall of fear. Iranians have demonstrated that they will no longer participate in the political game of “reformist vs. conservative” (better known as “moderates vs. conservatives” in the West). For them, no one from the establishment, including the so-called reformists, can make their lives better.

For them, the entire system must fall for a new Iran to be reborn. Iranians are focused on improving life inside Iran and given the opportunity, Iran’s Steller people can quickly achieve this.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.