The world must not look away as Iranian militias stand ready to kill protesters

The world must not look away as Iranian militias stand ready to kill protesters

The world must not look away as Iranian militias stand ready to kill protesters
People gather during a protest in Tehran. (AFP/File)
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The Iranian state had hoped it could outlast the protests that began in mid-September following the death of a young woman while in the custody of the morality police. Their bet has not paid off. The protests have only become more numerous and courageous than ever. They are growing, not shrinking.

Iran’s young people, and its women in particular, are beginning to see the contours of a possible new world. They have faced down threats and hundreds of their number have been killed by the authorities — but they remain undaunted.

It appears that Iran’s elderly clerical elite, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, believe the time has come to become significantly more brutal. This process began with a warning.

Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the IRGC, said last Saturday that it would be the “last day” of what he described as “riots.” Separately, photographs began to circulate of IRGC officers on rooftops in key cities, armed with sniper rifles, ready to pick off “enemies of the state.”

The parallels with the past were unmistakable. What will come next is almost certainly inevitable.

In the past decade, the Iranian regime has deployed snipers, and ordinary thugs, to kill protesters across the Middle East.

It did so at home during the 2009 protests that followed the stolen presidential election that year. It did so again in 2019 when major demonstrations broke out in protest against harsh economic conditions.

And it has done so abroad, most notably in Iraq, where an abashed Iraqi prime minister once had to admit that the snipers who had shot Iraqi youths while they demonstrated in Baghdad and Basra were known to the Iraqi state but were not its own soldiers. They were members of Iranian militias.

What is likely to come next will be awful but it is nothing compared to the courage of the protesters.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

New reports reveal the continuum in policy between these incidents to be even more stark. News website Iran International reported that Iran’s Iraqi militias have begun to move into Iran itself, with the intention of helping to suppress the protesting youths. Up to 150 armed men, it said, have flown to Tehran from Baghdad.

It said they are members of Hashd Al-Shaabi, otherwise known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, a network of militias raised to fight Daesh that is dominated by Iranian-controlled, IRGC-led armed groups, and Kataib Hezbollah, an especially prominent and violent Iranian militia inside Iraq. The origins of these militias lie in the regional policy of the IRGC. They are commanded by Iranian officers and employ Iranian regime assets on the battlefield.

The movement of such forces to Iran proper is a potent signal of what is happening: The regime’s foreign assets are being brought in to aid the state that sponsors them and underwrites their history of violence.

These groups have been involved in the repression of protests before. They perfected their cruel tactics in Iraq and Syria. They intimidate those they can scare off and target civil society leaders for assassination.

Many young Iraqis did not imagine they might be murdered when they took to the barricades in Basra and Baghdad in 2020 but the militias had other ideas. Their men are primed to kill dissenters and demonstrators who oppose the Iranian regime’s wider regional policy. Inside Iran, they will not hesitate to do the same at the behest of the supreme leader.

The protests in Iran stand at the edge of a precipice. The regime has begun to see them not as a mere phase but as an existential threat to its survival. It has made the necessary threats; now the violence will come.

This will not be easy to endure. Hundreds of demonstrators have already been killed but more death is sadly on its way. The militiamen are not being deployed in Iran to intimidate; they were likely brought to the country to kill.

The world must understand this before it begins to happen. There will be violence and in the chaos and haze of mass protest it might be easy to ignore or forget it. It will take time for the stories of events to be disentangled and the facts to be established. But we outside of Iran must prepare ourselves to see through the regime’s propaganda and lies.

It is gearing up for significant violence. It is the duty of observers not to look away — and to ensure that when the time comes, Iran’s leaders pay for the crimes they are preparing to commit in what might be a doomed bid to remain in power.

This is what the protesters in Iran are up against: The violent nature of a regime they wish to defy. What is likely to come next will be awful but it is nothing compared to the courage of the protesters. The rest of the world should try to show more of the same.

• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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