The coming months will be crucial for the Iranian regime, which does not want to divert its focus from the long-term goal, namely the US withdrawal from Iraq that will allow it to establish its influence in the country, and according to its belief, extend control from there across the entire Gulf Region. However, domestic unrest, alongside developments within the security, or rather repression apparatus, has begun to divert Iran’s focus, and cause concern for the Iranian leadership.
The Iranian regime is closely watching developments in Syria, where the harshest measures have been taken against Syrian soldiers who refused to fire at demonstrators in Baniyas last week. The Iranian leadership is currently considering ways to deal with its own military officers, who refused to obey orders to fire at demonstrators. This “phenomenon” has caused panic amongst the political elite, and members of the Revolutionary Guard.
Over the past days, seven members of the Basij forces have been sacked, because they refused to execute their commanders’ orders. They belonged to a group of military personnel who disobeyed their commanders’ orders to fire at demonstrators in the streets of Tehran, on the 1st of March.
Those who refused to carry out the orders were placed in Evin Prison, where they were tortured. According to reliable sources, when they were investigated in ward number 209 (a location infamous amongst political prisoners for the mistreatment to which they are exposed to inside), the investigators asked them to reveal the names of their “commanders” (who urged them to rebel), and provide information on others “who were disloyal to the Basij orders.”
The investigators were joined by senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard, which in practice has authority over the Basij. They wanted to find out whether their refusal to execute the orders had any connection with a letter that was sent in February, by a group of Revolutionary Guard officers, to the Revolutionary Guard commander, General Mohammad Ali Jaafari. In the letter, which was recently circulated on Persian websites, the officers declared their refusal to use violence against demonstrators.
In the prison, the Basij members denied any knowledge of the letter. Thus, they were dismissed from their posts.
Now, however, Iranian military leaders are considering stricter measures, and there is a debate among the most senior officials, regarding ways to deal with those who disobey. The need to put an end to such a behavior has now become more important, especially if it recurs as a result of the Revolutionary Guard officers’ letter, refusing to obey orders to fire at unarmed Iranians.
Because of this incident, and for fear that it might happen again and spread, General Jaafari called a meeting of the Revolutionary Guard commanders last week, to decide what to do. He said there was a need to dismiss any personnel who do not execute orders, but some of his aides held the view that such rebels must be executed, firstly as a punishment to them and secondly, to send a message to all military ranks that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.
During the meeting, Basij Commander Mohammad Najidi proposed the option of arresting the wives and children (over the age of 12 years) of those who might rebel in the future, as a means of deterrence. Yet the rest of the officers present said that the act of reprimanding the Basij fighters would be sufficient, in order to ensure that these people did not attract unnecessary attention, and to deprive the opposition of an opportunity to rally around their case, and turn them to symbols of “opposition to the Islamic Republic.”
At the meeting, General Jaafari held a firm view that refusal to obey orders constitutes an unacceptable violation of one of the most prominent principles of the protection of the Islamic Republic of Iran. From his point of view, these principles are sacred. He said that the incident on the 1st of March in Tehran happened in front of a large crowd of demonstrators and, therefore, he feels that he must send out a message indicating that disloyalty cannot be tolerated.
In addition, and with permission from the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Jaafari ordered the Quds Force to set up a special unit to deal with defectors. The main aim of this unit is to secretly infiltrate the Revolutionary Guard divisions and Basij branches across Iran, in order to root out defection and provide “field reports” on traitors, so that they may be arrested and immediately tried.
Above all, Jaafari and other members of the Iranian leadership believe that any manifestation of rebellion within the army ranks, which might spread and get out of control, must be prevented.
According to the reliable sources, Jaafari secretly expressed to Khamenei his fear of the domino effect, as events in the region might motivate personnel under his command to resist the regime.
In this respect, he referred to some Libyan Army commanders who had abandoned Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He feared that if news of the Basij rebels leaked out, it might lead to splits within the army and the Revolutionary Guard.
This fear proved to be valid after the incidents that followed the publication of the Revolutionary Guard officers’ letter, who pledged not to fire at demonstrators. The officers said verbatim: “We promise our people that we will not kill or beat our brothers.” It seems that they were inspired by the Egyptian Army’s stand shortly before the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak, and they stated this explicitly.
The letter that was distributed in February was signed by officers from the Rasulallah Branch in Tehran, some officers of the main headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard Command in Tehran, and officers from Isfahan, Qom, Tabriz, and Sanandaj.
The cause of the current panic within the Iranian regime is the possibility of large-scale disobedience that might lead to internal revolutions, starting from various military units in an uncontrollable manner.
The increasing concern within the Iranian leadership ranks in the past weeks has prompted a response to the demonstrations in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, where the regime has deployed thousands of plainclothes and uniformed security men. Furthermore, the leadership allowed security officials to make immediate arrests and resort to the use of force without hesitation. The Iranian leadership also cut off communication services, and imposed a blackout to block the opposition’s activities.
In light of these developments, a potential rebellion within the armed forces (the army, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij) poses a clear threat to the stability of the Iranian regime. Yet Iran is currently attempting the impossible, trying to appear as one of the most powerful regimes in the region, and showing that its 32 year-old roots cannot be shaken. Yet the Egyptian regime that ruled for 30 years was overthrown by the army, at a time when both the Syrian and Libyan regimes are trembling, even though they have ran autocratic governments for more than 40 years.
The domestic events in Iran might coincide with the resumption of terrorist attacks in Iraq, and a movement in Kurdistan against the two ruling parties there (where demonstrations began on Monday). These two parties are allies of the Iranian regime, just as [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nuri al-Maliki is.
The events may also coincide with Iran’s attempt to unsettle Saudi Arabia, through a bizarre threat to invade the kingdom. General Yahya Rahim Safawi told journalists on Monday that the presence of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain sets the wrong precedent, and that it might recur in the future. He said that Saudi Arabia itself might be invaded for the same reason for which it entered Bahrain.
This threat, even though it is not a genuine one, reveals the Iranian leadership’s hidden intentions. It also reveals that the bold Saudi step has placed Iran in a difficult position.