Iran’s loyal security forces protect ruling system that protesters want to topple
By Ben Hubbard and Farnaz Fassihi
The intensity of protests that have swept Iran over the past month, with calls to topple the Islamic Republic, have shaken the state. But in some ways, the country’s authoritarian clerical rulers have been preparing for this moment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which established a conservative theocracy that has held firm until today.
The revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the creation of the Revolutionary Guard force that same year to defend against coups or defections by the regular army.
With hundreds of thousands of members today, the Guard is Iran’s most powerful military force as well as a major player in its economy. Many analysts argue that Iran is no longer a theocracy ruled by Shiite clerics, but a military state ruled by the Guard.
Along with the domestic police forces, a plainclothes militia known as the Basij, a volunteer force under the umbrella of the Revolutionary Guard, has been on the front lines for weeks, using brutal tactics to try to quash the protests, as it has done in past revolts.
But they have failed, and last week, a different breed of defenders began to show up on the streets of Tehran, the capital, and other cities — tough men in tan camouflage uniforms whom witnesses identified as members of an elite Revolutionary Guard commando unit known as Saberin.
Outside of the Basij, the Guard intervenes in domestic policing only during episodes of extreme crisis. In effect, the regime has turned to its most loyal soldiers to retake control of the streets.
The fate of this protest movement — the biggest challenge to Iran’s ruling system since 2009 — rests largely on the cohesion and loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard and the rest of the country’s multilayered security forces. These forces have remained a formidable roadblock to toppling the country’s hard-line clerical rulers.
The Guard is separate from and parallel to the national army — charged with protecting Iran’s borders, the supreme leader and other top officials. Experts say they have become so deeply woven into Iran’s economy and power structure that they have everything to lose if the system falls.
“They don’t really care as an organization about losing the people, or unrest here or there,” Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, said of the Revolutionary Guard. “They care about preserving the system, not preserving Iran.”
Iran’s armed forces consist of parallel layers that include the army, the security forces in charge of domestic policing and the Guard and its plainclothes Basij militia.
Until now, there have been almost no reports of any of the security forces defecting. But there have been indications that some of those who have been facing the protesters are worn down from weeks on the streets and uneasy about the level of violence, especially against young women, according to a person familiar with security discussions.
To prevent defections, military and police commanders have been warning the rank and file that if the ruling system collapses, the opposition will execute them, according to this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
But even if some officers do defect, the Guard and paramilitary Basij force will most likely keep up the fight to preserve the ruling system.
This month, the Basij opened fire on students and beat professors during a crackdown at Sharif University of Technology, a prestigious Tehran institution, according to witnesses and video. The militia was also sent in to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison Saturday night when an enormous fire broke out there, started during clashes in one of the wings. The prison holds hundreds of dissidents and political prisoners.
The Revolutionary Guard boasts a formidable arsenal that includes ballistic missile and drone programs. Their senior commanders hold key political positions, including the speaker of parliament, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf. Their much-feared intelligence branch arrests and intimidates dissidents and opposition political activists. Their overseas arm, the Quds Force, has recruited, trained and armed a network of proxy militias, including from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that could come to their aid.
They own factories and corporations and subsidiaries in banking, infrastructure, housing, airlines, tourism and other sectors. They help Iran circumvent sanctions through a web of smuggling operations. They are not accountable to the government, even when corruption dealings become public. Although Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the commander in chief of all armed forces in the country, the Guard operates much like a regular military with its own hierarchy of command.
“There is no oversight of where their money comes from and what they spend it on, and you are talking about a huge portion of the Iranian state,” said Roham Alvandi, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics.
The power and wealth of the Guard depend on the survival of the system, which is why they see the protests as such a threat.
“At the top, those people have a lot to lose if this turns violent or goes against them,” Alvandi said.
The protests were set off last month by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the morality police. They arrested her for what they deemed as improperly covering her hair. Her family said she died from blows to the head, but the Iranian government claimed she had a sudden heart attack while in detention.
Rights group estimate that at least 240 people have been killed over the month of unrest, including 28 children. Iranian officials say 24 security forces have also been killed.
The demonstrations across Iran have been led by women who burned the headscarves that they are required by law to wear and chanted, “Death to the dictator” and “Women, life, freedom.” They vented their outrage at Iran’s leaders over decades of oppression, mismanagement and corruption, and demanded more social freedoms, better economic prospects and the wholesale overthrow of the ruling system.
But so far, their rulers have not given an inch.
The supreme leader, who has the last say in all state matters, has told officials to ignore the protests and pursue business as usual in both domestic and foreign policy. In a speech Friday, Khamenei insisted that the Islamic Revolution had given birth to an unshakable state.
“That seedling has today turned into a mighty tree, and no one should dare to think they can uproot it,” he said.
The Middle East’s recent history provides multiple examples of similar popular movements quashed by repressive states. Successful pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were diverted by strongman presidents, Yemen collapsed into civil war and Syria illustrated the vast carnage that a regime can inflict on its people to ensure its survival.
Iran’s security services could also resort to even more force if they fear that their existence is threatened. But that prospect makes some inside the ruling system uneasy.
“We are telling officials in meetings that if you don’t change course and realize that the legitimacy of the system is at stake, the only way the Islamic Republic can remain in power is to kill several hundred people every few months,” Gheis Ghoreishi, an analyst who has advised the government, told The New York Times.
“It is becoming very difficult and even impossible to defend the domestic policies,” he added.
In the last major wave of nationwide protests, in November 2019, security forces killed more than 400 people, according to rights groups, which say the actual numbers are probably much higher than that. Most were shot at close range in the head and neck over less than one week, according to these groups.
But this time, women and young Iranians are leading the protests, and the scenes of violence — sometime lethal — against them have prompted calls for the armed forces to put down their guns and stop the killing.
“I don’t think that Iran’s military and security forces, as brutal as they can be, are prepared to be ready to be known as the murderers of Iran’s daughters,” said Ostovar, the history professor. “They have to kill a lot of women to get this extinguished, and they can’t kill them all.”