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Iran Military Moves Could Provide Greater Muscle Against Critics

Outgoing Basij commander Hossein Taeb (left) and his replacement, Mohammad Reza Naqdi
Outgoing Basij commander Hossein Taeb (left) and his replacement, Mohammad Reza Naqdi
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kamenei's reshuffle this week of Revolutionary Guard commanders, coming amid reports that the all-volunteer Basij militia will be folded into IRGC "land forces," initially looked to some like an attempt to soothe public anger over postelection violence attributed to the two forces.

But the man chosen to replace Basij commander Hossein Taeb, whom critics want investigated for his possible role in recent abuses and deaths of opposition protesters, is likely to do little to placate administration critics.

Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi is a security official whose conservative credentials are thought to stem from his involvement in efforts to stymie Iran's reform movement under Mohammad Khatami's presidency in the late 90's and first half of this decade.

"The appointment [of Naqdi] shattered the hopes and plans of those who thought they could ease the [postelection crisis] through political mediation," says Mohsen Sazagara, an exiled cofounder of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who has since fallen out of favor with Iran's political leadership.

Sazagara, who has actively supported Iran's Green Movement from Washington in the wake of the disputed June 12 election, says the move signals a hardening of the establishment's stance toward the opposition.

Tip Of The Spear

Reports have linked Naqdi to crackdowns against students and the torture of municipal officials arrested during Khatami's 1997-2005 administration. He also has a record of involvement in the suppression of dissent, including the interrogation and alleged torture of students jailed during 1999 student protests.

Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a journalist and former Basij member who now lives in Berlin, thinks there is reason to believe that Naqdi was involved in the most recent postelection clampdown as well.

"A number of people who were released after being arrested in the postelection crackdown, including one that was held in the Kahrizak detention center, told me that there was someone there that was being called 'Shams,' and that he was the head of the interrogation team," Ebrahimi says.

He says "Shams" has been Naqdi's code name for years.

The Basij militia -- under Taeb's leadership -- was a key weapon in the regime's arsenal to suppress mass demonstrations that took place after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was named the winner of the June vote. Opposition leaders and activists have claimed massive electoral fraud and condemned official brutality, with a widely circulated estimate of 72 people killed as a result of the crackdown.

Human Rights Watch has named Taeb as one of the Iranian security officials who should be investigated for postelection abuses, particularly regarding attacks on student dormitories that left at least five dead. Taeb reportedly has been transferred to serve as the deputy head of the IRGC's intelligence arm.

Powerful Friends

News of the reshuffle within the senior ranks of the Revolutionary Guard -- and the Basij it already oversees -- follows anonymously sourced reports by Mehr news agency and on the "Fararu" website asserting that there are plans to formally merge the Basij with the Revolutionary Guard's "land forces."

Such a merger would further gird a loose alliance of plainclothes enforcers who operate in a legal gray zone and strike fear in ideological enemies who've been on the receiving end of their sometimes brutal methods.

Basij forces on parade in November 2008
Iran observers note that the changes come at a sensitive time, fueling widespread speculation that they are intended to help assuage public anger over postelection violence.

They also suggest the moves could be intended to increase the preparedness of the Basji force to counter future protests against Ahmadinejad.

Journalist Ebrahimi tells RFE/RL that the appointment of Naqdi in particular indicates that authorities don't harbor any remorse over their postelection actions and that abuses will go punished.

The Green Movement that has united opponents of the presidential vote has not gone away despite street deaths, mass arrests, and systematic persecution.

During official Qud's Day (Jerusalem Day) celebrations in September, thousands of green-clad supporters took to the streets of Tehran and other major cities to show that their opposition to Ahmadinejad's election had not abated.

Many shouted slogans that targeted the Basij, saying the use of force would not succeed in suppressing the Green Movement. "Gun, tanks, Basij -- have no effect anymore," protesters chanted.

Since the beginning of the academic year in early September, protests have been reported at a number of Iranian universities.

Hunters And Gatherers

RFE/RL Radio Farda military analyst Hossein Aryan ties the prospect of continued protests to Naqdi's appointment and the reported IRGC-Basij merger. He says the moves could allow for "better coordination" that would allow Naqdi to do a "better job" in countering future demonstrations.

Aryan adds that Supreme Leader Khamenei might be also trying to increase his control over Basij forces.

"Khamenei is trying to balance various factions within the Revolutionary Guards and check the power of Ahmadinejad and that of Major General Jafari, who's very close to the president," Aryan argues.

Aryan notes that the Revolutionary Guards is not a politically homogeneous organization and says it comprises a number of factions.

The IRGC is a major player in Iran, and by most accounts its influence has increased following Ahmadinejad's election in 2005. The force was formed after the 1979 revolution to safeguard the Islamic establishment.

IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said on October 7 that the "main responsibility" of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij was now to counter "soft threats" to the Islamic order. Iranian authorities have accused a number of reformists and intellectuals arrested in the postelection crackdown of trying to stage a "velvet coup."

Cofounder Sazagara says the command shuffle could be intended to strengthen the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the IRGC against dissidents and opposition members.

The IRGC's intelligence unit has reportedly worked for years in parallel with the Intelligence Ministry.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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