The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As protests rock Iran, its most feared security force is lying in wait

In a photo shared on Twitter, an unveiled woman stands on top of a vehicle as thousands make their way toward Aichi cemetery in Saqez, Mahsa Amini's hometown in Iran, on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of people poured into the streets of Mahsa Amini’s hometown Wednesday and marched to her grave. Iranian security forces responded — as they have throughout the course of the nationwide protests inspired by her death — with violence and arrests.

The gathering in Saqez, in Iran’s western Kurdistan region, marked the 40th day since Amini’s death in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” a traditional moment of remembrance in Islam. As the night wore on, demonstrators came out in other cities, as they have every day since mid-September.

But with Iran’s uprising now in its sixth week, the country’s powerful security state and the protesters calling for its downfall have reached an uncertain stalemate.

Despite escalating violence by security forces and a rising death toll among protesters, the clerics who lead Iran have yet to fully unleash the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a parallel military force created to defend the state at any cost. So far, only the IRGC’s volunteer militia, the Basij, has been deployed in significant numbers to quell the demonstrations, alongside regular law enforcement, riot police and plainclothes officers.

“We are in a situation where the protesters are incapable of overthrowing the regime and the regime is incapable of forcing people to go home,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

But the longer the protests persist and the larger they become, analysts said, the more pressure will grow on the Revolutionary Guard to lead the crackdown.

Experts explain what exactly Iran's morality police do, and why women are risking their lives on the front lines to fight against it. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

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There is no sign that the IRGC’s loyalty to the government is wavering, as it derives its strength from the survival of the Islamic republic. For this ideologically driven and economically powerful fighting force, the unrest is an existential threat.

Despite decades of Western sanctions on the group — including new ones in recent weeks — its coffers and muscle have continued to grow. But each cycle of violence further erodes the legitimacy of the IRGC in the eyes of the Iranian public.

“Sure, they can show up with tanks tomorrow and kill enough people to put down protests for a while,” said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. “But they have lost this generation … With every violent act they are putting one more nail in their coffin.”

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The IRGC was founded as a counterweight to Iran’s other security forces — a way to prevent a revolution like the one that first brought the Islamic republic to power in 1979.

The Revolutionary Guard are “so synonymous with the regime they can’t be divorced from it,” Ostovar said. “They are both the front end of the spear as well as the figure holding that spear.”

After the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979, the Shiite revolutionaries who won out purged the existing military, called the Artesh, and the shah’s fearsome intelligence agency. In their place, they created their own security state undergirded by the IRGC.

Then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini constitutionally tasked the Revolutionary Guard with protecting the Islamic Republic and its ideals inside and outside the country. The IRGC, in turn, created the Basij, a volunteer force modeled on Scouting organizations. The goal was to indoctrinate young people and infiltrate communities, said Alfoneh, turning civilians into agents of the state.

The IRGC’s profile rose during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, as the guard took charge of training young soldiers to send to the front. As a reward for its service — and to prevent massive unemployment among decommissioned fighters — the guard was given control of Khatam al-Anbiya, the first of Iran’s many military-run economic enterprises.

The engineering firm was tasked with rebuilding the war-battered country, said Roya Izadi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. But the Revolutionary Guard profited mightily, diverting large amounts of money to its own banks and institutions.

“By giving it a role in the economy, they give it enough incentives to stay with the government if the army were to stage a coup or if there was a mass uprising as you see right now,” said Izadi.

Khatam al-Anbiya is now among Iran’s largest contractors, working in mining, gas, oil, petrochemicals and other industrial projects, Izadi said. The IRGC directly controls at least 275 firms, 54 of which are owned by the Basij, she said.

Over the years, Washington and its Western allies have imposed round after round of sanctions on the IRGC and Iran’s banking and financial institutions, efforts ramped up by President Donald Trump as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign.

But rather than punish and constrain the IRGC, critics say, sanctions have enabled the guard to dominate Iran’s isolated economy and its thriving black market, including the oil smuggling trade.

“The Revolutionary Guard has been sanctioned and stigmatized now for more than two decades, but in this period it has become more powerful, more enriched, more repressive at home and more aggressive in the region,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s Iran Project. “In the process, the middle class has been devastated and impoverished,” he added.

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The hollowing out of the middle class, as well as Iran’s growing isolation and entrenched corruption, have added to the fury of the protests now sweeping the country, which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has blamed on “thugs” and foreign instigators.

More than 200 protesters have been killed and thousands more injured and arrested in the government crackdown, though reporting restrictions and communication cuts make the true toll impossible to verify. More than 30 members of the security forces have died in the unrest, including 18 members of the Basij and six members of the full-time Revolutionary Guard, according to Alfoneh, who cited media reports on funerals.

In cities, towns and universities across the country, protesters have been squaring off with volunteers from the Basij, often lower-class Iranians who see membership and its financial benefits as a ticket to social advancement, Alfoneh said.

IRGC offices and headquarters have also been a target of protesters, in particular in minority areas such as Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchestan province, where the guards are often brought out as a first resort and have taken part in military-style occupations of some cities.

This uprising “is definitely the longest social movement” in recent times, Azadi said, but the Basij, along with regular law enforcement, have largely been able to contain the protests because demonstrators have avoided congregating in large numbers in a single location. By contrast, millions of people took to the streets in 2009 to support the Green Movement, sparking a more rapid deployment of the full-time IRGC troops.

So far this time, Iran’s leaders appear to be using “brute force deliberately” — including the use of live ammunition and the targeting of children — to coerce protesters back home, Ostovar said. “They have no problem doing it on a small scale,” he said. “The political risks of doing that [on a larger scale] are more severe and could be unpredictable.”

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