Iran Supreme Leader has recently called for restructuring the Basij paramilitary force as a more mobile, omnipresent militia similar to the Islamic Revolution Committees of the 1980s. This is clearly a response to November’s widespread protests and shows the Iranian establishment perceiving a more serious threat.
In an address to Basij members on the occasion of "Basij Week" on November 27, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told them to be prepared "for hard, semi-hard and soft defense in all areas" and devise appropriate strategies and tactics to deal with different situations ". He warned the Basijis not "to be caught off-guard and try to be present in all neighborhoods."
"The Islamic Revolution committees…were present in different neighborhoods and places. They were present everywhere and at all times. Whenever an incident took place, one would find the brothers in committees [responding to the situation]" and added: "This constant presence is very important".
The Islamic Revolution committees were the first paramilitary bodies created after the Revolution of 1979. They initially consisted of volunteers under the command of a cleric from the local mosque and mainly dealt with "anti-revolutionaries". In 1991 the committees were merged with the Police and Gendarmerie to form the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic.
By "hard defense" Khamenei means military defense and war. He classifies semi-hard war mainly as civil war and coups. His emphasis on being prepared for fighting and suppression following the methodss used by the revolutionary committees in the 80s has a two-fold significance.
Throughout these years he has occasionally pointed at the military aspect of the Basij but his recent reference to the role of the Basij in "semi-hard defense" by which he means suppression of dissent in urban areas or in unrest in provinces similar to the 80s is unprecedented in his speeches of the past ten years.
The Organization for Mobilization (Basij) of the Oppressed which is usually referred to as the Basij was established as a paramilitary volunteer militia in 1980 by the order of Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, to form a "20-million strong army".
In 1981 the Basij was incorporated into the Revolutionary Guards to train and organize volunteers for fighting in the Iran-Iraq (1980-1988). Young Basij members enjoyed special benefits such as preferential admittance in universities. Since the late 90s the Basij volunteers have been used for various urban tasks including controlling protests.
In the 2017 and in November this year the regime faced a new crisis, namely, intense protests that spread throughout the country. Speaking about these incidents Khamenei has praised the IRGC, Basij and law enforcement for success in "hard confrontation", a term he usually uses to refer to full-scale military encounters. This somehow reflects his belief of being in a state of war. Not surprisingly, the IRGC commander Hossein Salami has referred to the protests on the streets as "a world war".
The creation of Basij "neighborhood patrols" in December 2017 is a point worthy noting. At the time the IRGC announced that groups of three or five armed Basij patrols on foot or bikes were going to carry out preventative patrolling in neighborhoods. Gholam-Hossein Gheybparvar, the Commander of the Basij Organization at the time, said IRGC intends to "reduce the checkpoints of the Basij and turn them into neighborhood patrols".
The timing of Khamenei's guidance which coincides with unrest in Iranian cities and towns in November is significant. These protests very quickly spread both geographically and in intensity and occurred less than two years from the widespread protests of December 2017 and January 2018. The political Deputy of Guards Yadollah Javani called these protests "unprecedented in the past 40 years".
This can be enough reason for the regime to consider all neighborhoods in the country as security threats.
Moreover, the fast-spreading and intensive protests have shown that in some areas the Islamic Republic's suppression machine is not sufficiently prepared. The casualty toll of the recent protests has been high in areas near the capital such as Qods township, Malard and Eslamshahr where the police had to call for IRGC’s help to supress the protests.
For instance, the Governor of Qods township in Tehran Province with a population of more than 420,000 complained that the town has only three under-staffed police stations. "From day one the IRGC came to our assistance but their numbers were not enough either," Layla Vaseqi, the Governor of Qods township who admitted ordering police to shoot the protesters, confessed on December 2.
These instances of incapability in quick suppression of protests can justify the creation of a deterrence and suppression machine to operate in all neighborhoods, a quick-acting nationwide network of forces that are constantly prepared for dealing with protests and unrest.
The development of Basij security patrols in neighborhoods and instilling fear, and if needed suppressing dissent, can boost the ability of the leaders of the Islamic Republic to control the population. Khamenei's guidance to follow the example of the revolutionary committees in neighborhoods can be understood in this context. It seems that he is preparing himself for more serious and more extensive encounters with protesting Iranians.