After floods smashed through Iran last month, a flock of emerald green shirts with handsome red shoulder patches descended on the country’s southern region of Khuzestan.
The same week that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were relegated to the lowly US terror list, they were pictured ferrying newly homeless families across rivers, handing out care packages, and teaching schoolless kids in makeshift tent classrooms.
To the untrained eye, one would almost suspect a hint of benevolence in the IRGC.
Along with the Guard; Hezbollah, the Iraqi Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) and even the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia have shown up on tanks “carrying aid”.
Why a ragtag bunch of war hardened militia men are needed in a humanitarian crisis is a mystery. Iran has reassured those who might jump to conclusions that they’re there at Tehran’s request, kindly assisting the public in their time of need.
Yet, these benevolent actions from the IRGC are nothing more than a show of smoke and mirrors. Rather than making a concerted turn away from their regional meddling, they’re bringing it much closer to home and closing in on the enemy within their own borders.
Guardians of the Revolution
The IRGC was formed by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution to keep a check on the regular military, which was once loyal to the Shah.
The newly formed wing was tasked to uphold the Islamic morals of the country and to act as the eyes, ears, and at times, the punishing fist of the clerical establishment.
“It consolidated and became more embedded in the Iranian Armed forces,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a political analyst at the RAND Corporation. “It’s a powerhouse in all areas of public life in Iran: Politics, economy, and ,of course, security and military.”
The guard is split into two parts, the Basij, responsible for domestic issues, and the Al-Quds Force, who deal with Iran’s regional interests.
The Basij are known as the most religiously hardline of the two. During “Project Ramadan”, one of the Iranian offensives of the Iraq-Iran war, it was Basij child soldiers who volunteered to skip through the minefields, clearing the battlefield for the Revolutionary Guard to advance.
The Basij, with their fundamentally hardline stance on most things, ensure that the public adhere to the state’s interpretation of Islam.
“If I was to teach a lecture at a university, you can bet there would be at least two Basij members in the audience, checking that what I was saying didn’t divert from the approved state syllabus,” Tabatabai said.
The Quds Force are best known for their involvement training, funding and arming Shia militias in the region, propping up Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and for their charismatic white bearded Commander, Qassem Soleimani.
Specialists to Syria
The IRGC has a history in covering their own intents with a facade of helping others.
Syria’s key strategic ally since the war broke out, the IRGC have been integral in providing an all-encompassing “war package” to Al-Assad’s government.
“In Syria, the IRGC were on hand to train the regime to crush the [revolutionary] movement,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former member of the Syrian Foreign Service.
While they gifted actual IRGC and Hezbollah soldiers on the ground, they’ve also supported Al-Assad financially. According to the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, Iran spends at least $6 billion a year keeping Al-Assad in the top spot.
Six billion dollars is a lot of money to spend on an ally and the IRGC aren’t sending their own troops to battle.
“The Free Syrian Army (FSA) gained more area on the ground and Tehran sent in more IRGC experts. The more unstable, the more experts they could send and the more control they could have,” said Barabandi.
Barabandi says the IRGC’s commitment to keep Al-Assad in power is a purely selfish endeavour, an attempt to bring to fruition Tehran’s dream of a “New Persian Empire”.
In order to achieve such a lofty dream, there needs to be a lot less Sunnis and a lot more Shia in the region. As it stands, the Sunnis in Syria would not submit to Tehran’s interpretation of Islam.
The IRGC, with the Syrian regime, have scattered potential dissenters from Syria’s major cities. Whether Al-Assad knows he’s just a means to Tehran’s end is unknown.
What is known, however, is that throughout the crisis, the regime used a campaign of barrel bombs; crude oil drums filled with explosives and shrapnel.
One of the heaviest barrages hit Aleppo, a majority Sunni city in northern Syria.
If Iran feels they can gain control they will literally empty Syria. They will make sure that it has less Sunnis to make the population more manageable
Flooding first hit the two northern Iranian provinces of Golestan and Mazandaran on 17 March and damage is now estimated at over $2.5 billion. At least 77 people have died from drowning and a further two million are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
Pockets of IRGC members have been sent across the country, most have descended on Khuzestan in the southwest.
Once known as Arabistan or Ahwaz, names bestowed on it by the British during their involvement in the Gulf, the region was renamed Khuzestan in 1923 by Reza Shah.
It was brought under central government control and lost its degree of autonomy. Like many other separate communities, the region was subjected to “Persianification” which included the ban of Arabic in school and the media.
Ahwazi activists say that they’re discriminated against in education and employment.
In September last year, 11 IRGC guards were shot dead by suspected Ahwazi separatist gunmen. The region holds 70 per cent of the country’s oil, 30 per cent of its surface water and generates one third of its hydroelectricity, making it the last place the IRGC want to see erupt with civil unrest.
In a recent visit to the flood stricken region, Khamenei’s military aide, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commented that the internal stability of the Khuzestan region was more important than any external threats.
“They don’t want to see any destabilisation in this region so they turned Ahwaz ([Khuzestan] into a military garrison, dominated by IRGC personnel,” said Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi activist now living as a refugee in the US.
“They kill two birds with one stone as we say in English. One of them is not letting the water to enter its natural course, its natural flow. This allows them to prospect for oil.”
Dams are built around the Ahwazi residential areas and when they’re full, Hamid says the IRGC release them, submerging flood lands which is preventing the Ahwazi from farming their land.
“The second is that they’ve weaponised the dams against the Ahwazi. We call it the Arab killer dam because the dams are built very close to Ahwazi residential areas,” he said.
Tehran has offered them compensation and relocation packages, yet, they’re prevented from resettling in the Khuzestan region, instead being offered locations across the country. Hamid believes this is an attempt to disperse them, preventing the separatists from organising civil unrest.
A show of force
A convoy of 50 combat ready vehicles brought a platoon of Iraqi Al-Nojaba and Hashd Al-Shaabi militants to Khuzestan last Sunday.
According to the hardline daily, Kayhan, which is closely linked to the Supreme Leader, the foreign militias have been cordially invited at the request of the IRGC’s Quds Force.
Qassem Soleimani penned the invitations himself.
As one would expect, the influx of foreign militias has caused quite a stir on social media, with activists maintaining that their presence in Khuzestan is anything but humanitarian.
“There are two possible scenarios for why the IRGC and these militias are in Ahwaz,” said Hamid. “I think the IRGC are using the Iraqi militia to bring in sanctioned goods under the cover of the floods.”
On 5 November 2018, the US reinstated all sanctions against Iran. This included a complete restriction on arms being sent to the country, along with an embargo on foreign companies doing business with Iran.
The Iraqi militia would provide adequate cover in the guise of humanitarian aid to import items through Iraq, to Iran.
“The second, is that they will use the Iraqi militias who are Arabs, to send a message from the IRGC. If another Arab group suppress them, it will frustrate their national struggle.”
Calling the IRGC a terrorist organisation is way out of my remit and it’s a dangerous position to take with such an unstable relationship already. Yet, the guard’s actions in Ahwaz aren’t helping their image problem at home or abroad. Claims that they are just another part of the army fall on deaf ears when terms like “engineered disaster”, “demographic change” and “regional destabilisation” are flying over their heads. Just as tensions have risen in Iran’s rebellious region, it appears the guards have employed the Iraqi militias to pick the Ahwazi shaped thorn from their side.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.