In the last week of January, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) test-fired a new ballistic missile in violation of a United Nations ban imposed on the Iranian missile program.
In the same week, Harakat al Nujaba, an Iranian proxy-militia in Iraq staged a public event to test-fire its new long-range missile provided by Iran. Then, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked a Saudi warship in the Red sea killing several servicemen.
These acts by the Revolutionary Guards and its regional proxies are part of a larger campaign to project the Iranian military power and help Iran to energize its supporters across the region while intimidating its rivals.
As Iran was actively trying to demonstrate its power abroad, the Revolutionary Guards’ Mobilization Units or the “Bassij organization” held a large-scale drill in several cities across Iran to prepare its forces for urban warfare and increase its readiness to neutralize popular unrests. These kind of drills are more frequently organized by the Guards in Iran as social and political tensions continue to rise in the country.
Recently, the Deputy Interior Minister declared that public protests by workers, teachers or other factions of society had increased by 69 percent in the past three years. A cursory review of declarations made by the Iranian political and security leadership reveal that the regime considers domestic popular uprisings as the most fundamental threat to its survival.
In September 2007, the newly appointed commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari who continues to hold this position, declared that “the Guards’ primary mission is to fight against domestic threats.” He explained that the Iranian Supreme Leader had defined the new strategy and ordered a re-organization of the Guards and its Bassiji units to carry out this mission.
Combating domestic threats
This new strategy and emphasis on combating domestic threats helped the regime in overcoming the 2009 popular uprising that followed the rigged Presidential election that lasted almost a year and according to the regime’s own admission, brought the Islamic Republic to the edge of collapse.
In fact, the success of the Revolutionary Guards’ new strategy and the regime’s capacity to crush the Iranian uprising appears more revealing when compared to the fragility of Arab regimes that appeared unprepared to cope with the popular movements which erupted in 2011 during the Arab spring.
This comparison was well explained by General Hossein Hamedani, the commander of Bassij forces in Tehran during the 2009 uprising who later in 2011, was sent to Syria and played a pivotal role in the formation of the Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF).
Hamedani who was the highest ranking Guards commander in Syria and was killed in October 2015, gave an interview to an Iranian website that was published on April 20, 2015 and explained that it was Assad’s weakness in dealing with peaceful protests that led to a national armed uprising.
Hamedani declared: “In the beginning, the Syrian government’s reaction to the peaceful demonstrators was harsh and this created a new series of problems. Unlike Iran that has the Bassiji and other police forces to deal with popular unrests, Assad did not possess such an appropriate force and was forced to use the army.”
The Guard’s strategy
In his interview, Hamedani detailed the evolution of the Guards’ strategy and its reorganization to deal with domestic threats confirming that in Tehran alone, the Guards had deployed 45,000 Bassiji members in plain clothes or in uniform to combat the popular uprising.
While foreign observers are predominantly focused on examining the activities and influence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force and its vast network of proxy militias across the Middle East, less attention has been paid to the Guards’ sophisticated and modernized repressive apparatus in Iran that has considerably evolved during the past four decades.
By underestimating the Guards’ activities inside Iran, described as its primary mission, the observers could neglect the regime’s Achilles Heel and its vulnerability in regard to domestic social and political challenges that continue to rise and will continue to be the key threat to the regime’s survival.
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Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in Iranian regime activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.