By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, Reuters issued a report discussing some of the effects that last Saturday’s Ahvaz terrorist attack could have on Iranian politics and society.
The incident reportedly involved four gunmen posing as soldiers, who opened fire on a military parade killing at least 25 people, including a dozen members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to Reuters, the prominence of the IRGC in the targeted event could produce a greater amount of sympathy for the hardline paramilitary group among casual supporters of the Islamic Republic while also silencing dissent by those who oppose the clerical regime.
On the other hand, the same report indicates that some of those who responded to the incident on Iranian social media did so in an effort to discourage any outpouring of sympathy by the IRGC, by highlighting the organization’s role in the repression and killing of Iranian activists and political dissenters during times of unrest such as the 2009 Green Movement and the anti-government uprising of December 2017 and January 2018.
And while Reuters finds that this sort of reaction comprises only a minority of public comments in the wake of Saturday’s attack, it also characterizes that attack as a blow to the IRGC’s public image, which may help to prompt more repressive activities by the paramilitary.
The report notes that since soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the IRGC has “sought to project an image of invincibility.” This is evident, for instance, in the hardline rhetoric that IRGC officers have perpetuated against the backdrop of tensions with the United States and other traditional “enemies” of the Islamic Republic.
And that rhetoric, in turn, has been evident in the responses issued by the IRGC and other hardline entities to the Ahvaz terror attack. At a funeral for victims of the attack, the IRGC’s acting commander, General Hossein Salami, declared without evidence that a “triangle” of enemies comprised of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel was responsible for backing the terrorists.
He then vowed “revenge”, implying readiness on the part of the IRGC to confront and defeat multiple foreign entities including the world’s foremost military superpower.
To the extent that the terror attack highlights cracks in the IRGC’s supposedly all-encompassing armor, it may be expected to prompt the Guards to compensate by cracking down on domestic detractors and perceived opponents of their mission of defending and principles of the Islamic revolution.
Certainly, some prominent figures within the Iranian activist and expatriate communities have been quick to raise alarms about the likelihood of this outcome. For instance, the Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted the Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi as saying of last Saturday’s attack, “Such actions lead to the justification of state violence and the arrest of many opponents in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Meanwhile activists echoed the sentiment, saying, “Terrorism and violence in any form should be condemned in the strongest terms [but] such acts of violence should not become an excuse for state violence to suppress peaceful opposition.”
The concerns voiced by these and other human rights defenders are firmly grounded in the past behaviors of the IRGC and the Islamic Republic as a whole. The above-mentioned Reuters report notes that increases in domestic repression and attacks on foreign targets have both been employed in response to perceived threats to the IRGC’s public image or social dominance.
Sometimes, these two approaches are utilized in tandem to showcase the Guards’ domestic strength while also distracting tension away from local Iranian affairs. As an example of this dual approach, Reuters cited the recent missile strike carried out against a Kurdish separatist group in Iraq, which coincided with the summary execution of Iranian Kurds who were accused of armed opposition to the clerical regime.
Of course, such clashes with Kurdish individuals and groups are a perennial feature of the Islamic Republic, as well as being indicative of the tension that exists between the government and various minority groups.
An Arab separatist organization was one of two groups to claim responsibility for Saturday’s attack, and the site of that attack, Khuzestan Province, had previously been the site of a number of largely peaceful protests motivated by Arab rights issues.
Many of those protests were made the subject of familiar repression by security forces and the IRGC, while government officials reportedly gave no public consideration to the participants’ demands.
On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic announced that nearly two dozen ethnic Arabs had been arrested in the wake of Saturday’s attack – a fact that will no doubt fuel concerns about expanded repression unless officials are able to demonstrate that the arrests are credibly linked to the attack.
Otherwise, the security sweep may be regarded as another incidence of the regime declaring targets guilty by association. That phenomenon was one feature of the details that were released on Saturday by the IHR website, regarding the August 2016 execution of Kurdish political prisoner Mohammad Abdollahi.
According to the newly acquired information about that case, Abdollahi steadfastly professed his innocence after being shot and arrested by the IRGC and accused of involvement in a shootout that killed three police officers.
According to a relative of the accused, “The Revolutionary Guards beat him badly while he was already injured and bleeding. His right hand, left leg, and three of his teeth broke under torture.
Mohammad was interrogated and tortured in the solitary confinement for three months until he had internal bleeding and was transferred to Mahabad Prison.”
Despite a lack of evidence and the failure of interrogators to elicit a confession by these means, Abdollahi was sentenced to death solely on the basis of his membership in the Kurdish group known as Komala, which was sufficient to declare him guilty of “enmity against God.”
The judge in his case rejected all appeals and explicitly declared that he would do everything in his power to see that Abdollahi’s death sentence was implemented, which it was along with four others, roughly two years later.
The principle of guilt by association is not only a danger to members of ethnic minorities, but also to members of specific types of activist groups. And in those cases, the principle may also lead to the death of the accused, either through execution or through extrajudicial means.
What’s more, recent history has shown that such groups may be targeted not only on the basis of supposed direct threats to the IRGC such as the Ahvaz terror attack, but also on the basis of purely political conflicts between the paramilitary and the activist community.
All of these phenomenon were on display in January in the midst of a wave of arrests targeting environmental activists. One of several detainees, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances though security forces insisted that he committed suicide in his cell.
The others have reportedly remained in detention ever since, and the crackdown on environmental activists has continued ever since, with six more being arrested on September 15 and 16.
The original wave of arrests came at a time when Iranian security forces were already contending with the nationwide mass uprising and chants of “death to the dictator.”
But it has variously been alleged that the proximate cause of those particular arrests was an effort by the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation to prevent the IRGC from building missile facilities on environmentally sensitive land.
This explanation for the crackdown goes a long way toward explaining some of the peculiarities of the case, which were briefly detailed by CHRI on Tuesday in the context of a report on efforts by the families of environmental activists to appeal directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for action in the case.
Khamenei reportedly rebuffed those requests, repeating a line frequently used by President Hassan Rouhani to explain the refusal to exert pressure on an “independent judiciary” that is often seen as a functionary of the IRGC.
Some other government officials have been warned against intervening on behalf of the environmental activists, after they acknowledged that there is no evidence to support the accusations of espionage that have been levied against them.
In reporting on the latest environmentalist arrests, I W explained that Rouhani ordered the creation of a four-person panel to investigate the initial arrests at the beginning of the year, but even after finding that there was no cause of those arrests, it took no action other than assuring the public that the situation would be resolved quickly.
Cases like these hint at the great quantities of power wielded by the IRGC, and they also point to the possibility of the Guards using actual and purported security threats, such as the Ahvaz terror attack, as a pretense for enacting crackdowns that serve its own interests and agenda.
Meanwhile, Reuters and IW both point to the potential for broader collaboration between the IRGC and other Iranian security forces in carrying out those crackdowns in the wake of that attack.
While Reuters notes that public expressions of sympathy may be burying much of the ordinary criticism of the IRGC and further erasing the differences between the Rouhani administration and its traditional, hardline adversaries, IranWire points out that some of the most recently arrested environmentalists were targeted not by the IRGC directly by rather by the Intelligence Ministry because the targets in question also happened to be members of the Baha’i religious minority.
The Intelligence Ministry is directly overseen the president, but the supposedly moderate Rouhani has made no effort to rein it in at a time of increased domestic repression.
Neither has the president spoken critically of the IRGC’s contribution to that same repression. And if analysis like that which was provided by Reuters is correct, he is all the more unlikely to do so in the wake of the recent attack.