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The remilitarization of Iran's Basij

The Iranian supreme leader’s recent string of new appointments in the upper echelons of the country’s military suggests an impending remilitarization of the Basij.

At the Dec. 11 ceremony to introduce Gholamhossein Gheybparvar as the new head of Iran’s paramilitary Basij, Gen. Mohammad Shirazi, the head of military affairs at the office of the supreme leader, recounted that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei realized that a number of “ill-tempered” individuals were angry with Gheybparvar when he visited the southern city of Shiraz. In Shirazi’s telling, rather than being upset, Khamenei saw this as showing Gheybparvar’s “perseverance and [being on the] correct path.” While this story at first glance seems inconsequential, the supreme leader has presented it in Iranian media as a ringing endorsement.

According to biographies circulated in Iranian media, Brig. Gen. Gheybparvar was born in Shiraz. He was expelled from school for writing anti-shah slogans before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After the revolution, he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and fought in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. He received his doctorate in Strategic Studies at Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Imam Hussein University. In 2000, he was put in charge of training the Revolutionary Guards’ ground forces. In October 2015, after the death of Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani in Syria, Gheybparvar was appointed as the head of Imam Hussein Headquarters, which is tasked with organizing IRGC brigades. In this role, he traveled to Syria to “prepare the people-based divisions and brigades.”

Gheybparvar’s most significant role, however — in the eyes of his superiors — was as IRGC commander for his home province of Fars. This position, which he held for years, can shed light on how his leadership may influence the Basij’s future. Of note, the Basij is formally under the authority of the IRGC and was incorporated into the latter’s ground forces in 2008.

When Khamenei appointed Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi to head the Basij in October 2009, the country had for months been rocked by massive protests in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election. Khamenei, who viewed the protests as a foreign conspiracy to topple the Islamic Republic, needed a commander to maintain the Basij as an ideological bulwark against Western and especially American influence. With his background in media and cultural affairs as well as a penchant for dramatic statements — once claiming that Europeans would become extinct like dinosaurs due to homosexuality and living with animals — Naghdi was ideologically and temperamentally well-suited to head the Basij through this era.

While Naghdi was leading the charge against American influence, in Shiraz, Gheybparvar was making a name for himself as an effective commander in clamping down on dissidents in Fars province. While Tehran in 2009 witnessed its biggest protests since the revolution, the streets of Shiraz — the capital of Fars — remained comparatively calm. Gheybparvar also issued a rare public statement in December 2014 in which he called the leaders of the Green Movement, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and ex-parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, “politically impure” — impure being a harsh religious term in Persian. Some also believe Gheybparvar had a role in the assault by hard-liners on outspoken parliament member Ali Motahari — who has defended Mousavi and Karroubi — when Motahari visited Shiraz in March 2015.

Seven years after the 2009 protests, Khamenei may now be seeking to take the Basij back to its original mission: as a military force, albeit without necessarily eliminating its cultural objectives. When Khamenei appointed Gheybparvar, he asked him to focus on a number of crucial areas: organization of the youth, promotion of Basij culturally, creation of think tanks, monitoring and creation of strategies to prevent the penetration of enemies, and strengthening cooperation and coordination with other state institutions. Few are better suited for this job description than Gheybparvar, who not only shares Khamenei’s disdain for the Green Movement, but also has a strong military background in organization and operations.

While it is difficult to make predictions about the future policies of Iranian military organizations based on the current wave of new appointments, Khamenei’s recent string of decisions appears to show a preference for generals with operational and intelligence backgrounds over those with cultural and ideological backgrounds. In June, Khamenei appointed Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri as the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. Bagheri was previously the deputy of intelligence and operations of the armed forces. He replaced Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, who had held the position for 27 years, and like Naghdi, was better known for making statements to the media than his military achievements.

With the appointments of Bagheri and Gheybparvar, Khamenei not only chose generals who are each a decade younger than their predecessors (both men are in their 50s), but he also chose commanders known for their organizational expertise. Moreover, unlike their predecessors, they have overall both tended to shun the media limelight.

With Iran currently deeply involved in wars in Syria and Iraq, it seems that Khamenei and the IRGC plan to maintain the commitment in the region for the foreseeable future. With the Basij’s membership already in the millions, having a leader whose strength is in messaging, such as Naghdi, may be deemed unnecessary. Rather, to forge better cohesion between the IRGC and the Basij, and to maintain a vigilant and revolutionary force, a general with a military background in organization is required.

In such a scenario, the heads of the Basij and the IRGC must be in sync — and this seems to be the case with Gheybparvar and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari. Indeed, it was Jafari who recommended Gheybparvar for the promotion. Jafari had also appointed Gheybparvar to head the Imam Hussein Headquarters. At the introduction ceremony for Gheybparvar, Jafari lamented that the revolutionary fervor of some had declined, and that this was not something that he’d have to worry about when it comes to Gheybparvar. After his appointment, Gheybparvar insisted to reporters that his views on the Green Movement leaders has not changed since calling them “politically impure,” adding that the only path forward for them is to repent.

There are also other and perhaps more practical benefits for Khamenei in reassigning Naghdi, who now serves as the IRGC’s cultural and social deputy. The supreme leader typically keeps top military commanders for around a decade, with the exception of Firouzabadi. This preference for fresh blood shows that “Khamenei is adept at preventing fiefdoms in the IRGC,” Afshon Ostovar, author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,” told Al-Monitor. Change also prevents bureaucratic fatigue.

Moreover, given the Basij’s size and political and economic influence, it has become an increasingly lucrative career move for members to climb the ladder of the organization. A trend toward careerism rather than ideology driving fervor within the organization could hollow out the organization from core believers, thus constituting a threat to one of the key pillars of the Islamic Republic. If anything, Gheybparvar is well-suited to prevent such threats to a state he has served dutifully for 37 years.

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