December 13, 2016 | Policy Brief

Pick for Basij Chief is Versed in Repression

December 13, 2016 | Policy Brief

Pick for Basij Chief is Versed in Repression

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a decree last Wednesday appointing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Qolam-Hossein Qeibparvar as commander of the country’s Basij paramilitary force. The appointment signals a desire to strengthen the Basij, but also offers insight into Khamenei’s threat perception. Despite Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq under the pretense of fighting the Islamic State, political and military elites in Tehran persist in their long-held belief that the greatest threat to their survival ultimately comes from within.

Like the IRGC, the Basij has been a key pillar of the regime since the 1979 revolution. Unlike the regular military or the IRGC – under whose authority the Basij operates – the Basij is an all-volunteer force. Basijis undergo political and religious indoctrination to ensure they zealously obey the official ideological line.

Over the past three decades, the Basij has spawned a number of sub-groups, penetrating all aspects of civil society from labor unions to student organizations. And in recent years, Khamenei has increasingly marshaled the Basij against the so-called “soft war” that Tehran accuses the West of waging to change Iranian society’s political, cultural, and religious values.

The Basij has consistently proven its dedication to Iran’s ruling clerics and to the values of the Islamic revolution – both at home and abroad. It participated in significant numbers in “human wave” attacks during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and more recently in IRGC-led deployments to Syria and Iraq. At home, it has acted as a vigilante group enforcing public morality laws, and was instrumental in cracking down on student demonstrations in 1999 and post-election protests in 2009.

The 2009 protests shook Iran’s hardliners, who denounced them as “sedition” and part of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic from within. In the rallies’ aftermath, under outgoing Basij chief Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, the organization rebranded itself to emphasize social and cultural activism and the transfer of revolutionary values to the next generation, while all the while maintaining close military ties to the IRGC.

Qeibparvar’s appointment as Basij commander illustrates the trust he enjoys from regime elites. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, he was later appointed supervisor of IRGC Ground Forces training and the head of provincial Guard units. Last December, after the top IRGC field operative in Syria was killed near Aleppo, Qeibparavar was selected to replace him as commander of the Imam Hossein Central Base, an IRGC hub for subduing unrest at home. Under Qeibparvar’s watch, this base has expanded training programs for deployments to Syria as well.

Khamenei’s appointment letter calls upon Qeibparvar to continue his predecessor’s work and expand the organization’s socio-cultural and military activities. The Basij will continue serving as the bulwark against any repetitions of the 2009 protests, and against any political, social, and cultural changes that would challenge the hardline-dominated system. Ultimately, Qeibparvar’s appointment is yet another sign that the Islamic Republic has no intention of easing its grip on internal dissent or scaling back its military adventures abroad.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Amir Toumaj is a research analyst


Iran Iran Human Rights Syria