October 01, 2020

Iran’s security forces beef up local presence to deter dissent

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Iran’s security forces are expanding their local presence to deter public displays of dissent. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s provincial guard deployed new Basij patrol teams throughout Tehran and the historically restive Arab-majority Khuzestan province to preempt public gatherings in mid-September. The deployments followed the controversial execution of famous wrestler Navid Afkari for his participation in  CORRECTIONA previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Navid Afkari was arrested for his participation in the November 2019 protests. Afkari was arrested for his participation in the 2017-2018 Dey protests.nationwide protests. The provincial guard units, under the command and control of the IRGC Ground Forces, oversee conventional military units and a wide range of sociocultural efforts. The Basij is a paramilitary force that provides manpower to the provincial guards, among other things. The new Basij patrol teams’ deployments mark the latest stage in an ongoing campaign to expand Iran’s security forces’ reach into local communities.

The newly deployed special Basij patrol teams are part of an expanding neighborhood security strategy to heighten local force presence and increase surveillance capabilities. Basij patrol teams are mobile patrols created by a joint *initiative involving the Basij, Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), and the judiciary. The patrol teams are officially billed as a *response to petty crime and are intended to provide a 24-hour security presence. Years of sociocultural programs run by the IRGC provincial guard have embedded Basij social structures in local communities, facilitating recruitment and infrastructure to sustain a local security presence.

The 2017–18 Dey Protests were the likely impetus for the neighborhood security strategy. The IRGC’s Tehran Provincial Guard Commander Mohammad Yazdi first *announced that Basij neighborhood patrols would soon begin on January 6, 2018, while the Dey Protests were still simmering. The regime faced a new existential threat during the Dey Protests as the Islamic Republic’s key support base, religious and impoverished Iranians, led street protests nationwide for the first time. LEF Commander Hossein Ashtari *finalized a neighborhood security initiative over a year later, announcing an agreement between the LEF and the Basij on May 8 2019 to coordinate the “Razaviyoun patrol,” as a part of the neighborhood security strategy. Razaviyoun patrols have since been active nationwide.

Experienced riot control troops comprise at least part of the neighborhood patrols. Razaviyoun neighborhood patrols are at least partially *conducted by members of the Imam Ali Battalion, Basijis highly trained for anti-riot response.[1] The Razaviyoon patrols are thus designed to confront social unrest and protests, rather than simply theft, as Iranian *media *claims.

The new Basij strike teams mark the expansion of the neighborhood security patrol program and cooperation between the LEF and IRGC provincial guards. Tehran’s IRGC Provincial Guard Commander, Yazdi, met with Tehran Provincial LEF Commander Hossein Rahimi *to coordinate in July, and the two forces *conducted a joint exercise in August. Basij strike teams, under provincial guard command, began *deploying throughout Tehran in cooperation with the LEF and the judiciary on September 15.

Tehran’s IRGC Provincial Guard Commander Yazdi is playing a key role in implementing the neighborhood patrol programs in Iran. Khuzestan’s IRGC Provincial Guard announced it would *also deploy “special Razaviyoon patrols,” *likely akin to Tehran’s strike teams, on September 16, the day after Yazdi announced the deployments in Tehran. Yazdi was *visiting Khuzestan that same day. Yazdi was the first official to *announce the creation of the neighborhood patrols, over a year before LEF Commander Ashtari signed onto the agreement.

Iran’s leaders view Khuzestan and Tehran as top security priorities. Tehran’s importance as the capital is self-explanatory, while Arab-majority Khuzestan has historically been restive. Khuzestan’s capital city was also the first city where protests occurred in November 2019, preceding nationwide protests by days. Periodic protests have since persisted in Khuzestan.

The expanded local-level presence is part of a shift in the regime’s strategy to confront social unrest with preventative intimidation. Security forces used unprecedented force to crack down on protesters during the most recent round of nationwide protests in November 2019, killing as many as 1,500 Iranians. The Dey protests in 2017–18 had only dozens of casualties in comparison. The security response in November 2019 marked a shift in the regime’s strategy to confront social unrest with violence and intimidation. Iranian forces also made mass political arrests during and after the November 2019 protests culminating nearly a year later with Navid Afkari’s controversial execution. Iranian media reported that Afkari confessed to murder during a lengthy trial Amnesty International called “grossly unfair.” Iranian media has sensationalized trials of social dissidents before, drawing out a high-profile trial of opposition writer and French resident Rouhallah Zam after a novel arrest abroad in fall 2019. The regime’s campaign to draw out high-profile trials of civil dissidents is another prong in the larger strategy to intimidate citizens to deter dissent.

Neighborhood security initiatives will likely expand beyond the Razavioon patrols and the Basij strike teams as the regime embraces preventative force presence. The IRGC will increasingly capitalize on the social and cultural influence the Basij has been cultivating at the neighborhood level since the Islamic Republic’s inception possibly by expanding special patrol deployments, beyond the Razaviyoon patrols, to other provinces.

The provincial guards’ commitment of Imam Ali Battalions troops to small force operations could reduce the Imam Ali Battalion’s overall availability and effectiveness for undertakings that require larger concentrations of Imam Ali troops that are able to function as cohesive companies and battalions. A growing reliance on Basij units trained for riot suppression for everyday security initiatives could backfire, however, if young and highly equipped forces overstep and aggravate the population.

[1] A 19-year-old Basiji, *identified by Iranian media as part of Alborz Province Imam Ali Battalion, was killed while conducting a Razaviyoon patrol in Tehran’s outskirts days before nationwide protests broke out in November 2019.

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