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Iran's Basij -- Defending Against A 'Velvet Revolution'

Ready to defend the Islamic Revolution.
Ready to defend the Islamic Revolution.
Iran's mass street protests against the election results have been overwhelmingly peaceful since they began a week ago. But violence has surrounded them from the start.

Long before Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's demand on June 19 that the protests end, at least seven protesters had been shot dead. Some reformist groups tracking reports of other killings over the past days have put the number as high as 13.

The protesters were killed not by uniformed police officers trying to maintain public order. Instead, they were killed by members of a militia known as the Basij.

Several of the killings happened outside a Basij club along the route of a protest march. The militiamen, who maintain clubs in mosques around Tehran for meetings, say they shot at the unarmed protesters in self-defense.

Each night, the Basij -- dressed in plainclothes and riding motorcycles -- have singled out protesters as the crowds disperse after the rallies. The victims have been beaten on the spot or, according to some reports, hustled into the bathrooms of nearby mosques. The weapons were bludgeons, chains, and iron bars.

The violence was escalating so rapidly that Mir Hossein Musavi, the opposition candidate who is demanding a rerun of the election, published two letters on his website protesting the attacks on June 18.

In one he wrote that the militia members were also trying to infiltrate the crowds of protesters as armed provocateurs.

Now, as Khamenei has said that "struggling in the street after an election is not the right thing to do," the protesters can be sure no law enforcement body will help them against any further militia attacks or provocations.

And, the militiamen themselves have signaled -- even before Khamenei spoke -- their readiness to escalate.

The public relations office of the Ansar Hizbullah, one of several loosely allied militia groups that make up the Basij network, announced they were planning a public demonstration of their own on June 19 to expose the "seditious conspiracy" of the protesters.

Protecting The Revolution

Both the Basij, who have limited military training, and their godfather organization, the fully military Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, are the armed ideological wings of Iran's theocracy.

At least five students were said to have been killed when Basijis attacked Tehran University on June 15.
The Basiji, whose name roughly translates as "mass mobilization," was formed of young volunteers during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Some of those sent to the front died as waves of civilians advancing ahead of the troops to clear mine fields in the way.

The group found a new raison d'etre in the 1990s as part of the conservative backlash against reformist President Mohammad Khatami, including helping suppress reformist students protests in 1999.

Today, the Basiji are estimated to number anywhere from a several hundred thousand to several million. Many are from poor families and membership brings a small stipend, exemption from required military service, and the possibility of a reserved admission spot in a university.

By contrast the Revolutionary Guard, which is the country's best equipped and trained force, numbers only some 150,000. It helped consolidate the Islamic Revolution by crushing other groups that challenged its clerical leadership and they remain a "political army" independent and superior to Iran's regular army.

The most famous current alumnus of both the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard -- which have many ties -- is Mahmud Ahmadinejad. There is every indication that key leaders of both organizations fully backed his bid for a second term and were even ready to intervene against his rivals.

During the presidential campaign, the political chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Yadollah Javani, issued a statement warning Musavi's camp against a "Velvet Revolution" and vowing that it would be "nipped in the bud."

For many observers, that warning brought memories of a similar one sent to reformist President Khatami during the student unrest of 1999. Then, 24 senior Revolutionary Guard officials published an open letter to Khatami condemning the student unrest as "intolerable."

Growing Influence

The readiness of the Iran's ideological security forces to take part in the country's politics makes some analysts warn of a creeping "militarization" of the government.

Ahmadinejad has had the firm support of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij so far.
Ali Afoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, notes that 14 of the 21 cabinet ministers Ahmadinejad has appointed are former members of the Revolutionary Guard or Basij.

Afoneh says Khamenei is increasingly relying upon this power center to safeguard his own office against challenges from other parts of the clerical establishment -- such as its reformist camps.

"The Revolutionary Guards and its dependencies such as the Basij militia are rising powers who are replacing members of the clergy as the elite of the Islamic republic," Afoneh says.

"This is not only the case in the field of politics but also is true in the economy, culture, and social affairs, where members of the clergy are thrown out, pushed out, by former members of the Revolutionary Guards."

That would give Khamenei a strong lever for enforcing his order for street protests to stop. But Afoneh also thinks it may create a situation where one day, like a Praetorian Guard, the Revolutionary Guard takes power for itself. That is, a day when the Islamic republic's theocracy transforms into an ideological military dictatorship.

How Far Will Guard Back Khamenei?

Not every analyst is ready to see things going that far. Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Center in Washington, says the fact many former members of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij have come to power in Iran does not necessarily mean they form a rising bloc with a long-term goal.

"Because of the Iran-Iraq War, because so many people served in the guards, because it is a recruiting tool, it is a vehicle by which Iranians have risen to the surface, have gained skills, have gained expertise, and so in some ways it is natural that people who were in the guards are now older and they have developed their skills," Katzman says.

And Katzman says that while the supreme leader can count on the regime's security arms in a showdown with elements of the establishment today, there is no certainty the same would be true if the confrontation were to continue and escalate.

Because while the Revolutionary Guard is aligned with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the establishment, "that is not to say it is monolithic, that is not to say that guards members don't vote for Musavi, but it clearly is an instrument to keep regime control. But where the guard stands is going to be tested if these protests continue to spiral into an outright challenge to the system itself."

Now, as the protesters weigh Khamenei's order to stop against their own continuing demand for reforms, all sides are aware of the extraordinary crossroads they have reached.

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