Iran Mobilizes Half a Million Paramilitary Fighters to Suppress Protests

Iranian Arabs who are members of the paramilitary Basij force march in a military parade marking the 35th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. President Rouhani lauded his country's military …
AP/Vahid Salemi

Iran on Tuesday claimed “calm has been restored in the country” following protests triggered by a massive hike in gasoline prices, but the Internet remained down and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced it was mobilizing half a million members of a brutal paramilitary force known as the Basij to control the streets.

Reuters noted that even as a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary declared the protests were “eighty percent” over with only “minor problems” remaining, social media posts smuggled past the government’s Internet blockade showed demonstrations continuing in several cities.

“State news agency IRNA said handouts to the poor, the most consistent supporters of the clerical establishment, had started on Tuesday,” Reuters added. The Iranian government claims it hiked gas prices primarily to raise more money for welfare programs.

The Internet blackout made it difficult for outside observers to obtain solid information about the state of unrest across Iran since only a relatively small number of tech-savvy Iranians know how to get past the blockade.

Director Alp Tolker of the London-based NetBlocks analysis firm told Voice of America News (VOA) that the Internet blackout could make the Iranian people even more restless.

“The internet is an outlet for people to democratically express their views, and if they can’t do this, there’s actually a risk that these protests could become more violent,” Tolker said.

“We also see economic harms, with tens of millions of dollars of losses to Iran’s developed information and communications technology (ICT) industry. People are going to start losing their businesses because they rely on connectivity,” he warned.

VOA was one of several global media outlets to cite evidence that the number of protesters killed by government forces is much higher than Tehran wants to admit. The United Nations called for restraint and said it believes the extent of civilian casualties is “clearly very serious.” Iranian news reports have so far admitted to 11 casualties, including five security troops and six civilians.

Iranian state media downplayed the demonstrations and denounced the protesters as thugs, extremists, or puppets of foreign governments. Media coverage focused on security troops killed by the “rioters,” including three who were allegedly stabbed to death in Tehran. One of the three was a commander in the IRGC, while the other two were members of the Basij militia.

The IRGC said on Tuesday that it will deploy half a million members of the Basij, a volunteer militia that has been employed to suppress previous protest movements and stage propaganda events for the theocratic regime. The IRGC has threatened to take “decisive” and “revolutionary” action against demonstrators if the protests continue.

Basij officials said the Iranian trade ministry requested their deployment and claimed their mission would be primarily to “monitor” markets and prevent traders from unfairly raising their prices.

“The authorities are trying to bring down the problems faced by the people to the minimum and most of the guilds assist the authorities but there is a small number that only take their own interests into account, and if there is no monitoring, they could take advantage of this opportunity,” the head of the paramilitary organization explained in an interview with state media.

Iranian human rights groups and representatives of the Kurdish areas in Iran said the death toll has been almost ten times as high as the government admits, with nearly a hundred fatalities and over a thousand arrests. The Kurds said they were hit especially hard by the gasoline price increase because they already live in desperate poverty.

“I just cannot understand what made officials make such a decision. They want to deceive us into believing that with the increased fuel price, they can pay an amount of money to the people. We were poor already, and this decision will make us poorer,” said a Kurdish taxi driver who participated in blocking a road in the western city of Sanandaj over the weekend.

Other Kurdish citizens said the increased price of gasoline will ripple through their entire economy, forcing them to pay more for everything from food to rent. The Iranian government is trying to use a class-warfare angle to defuse the protests, arguing that wealthy Iranians benefit much more from subsidized gasoline than the poor, who desperately need the benefits which are supposed to be funded by higher fuel prices.

A hardline pro-theocracy Iranian newspaper called Kayhan on Tuesday quoted judiciary officials who said ringleaders of the protest movement will be hunted down and the “hangman’s noose” is waiting for them because they will be charged with insurrection.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “monitoring the ongoing protests in Iran closely.”

“We condemn strongly any acts of violence committed by this regime against the Iranian people and are deeply concerned by reports of several fatalities,” he said.

“The Islamic Republic must cease violence against its own people and should immediately restore the ability of all Iranians to access a free and open Internet.  The world is watching,” Pompeo warned.

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