"The Wagner group of Khamenei" in Iranian universities

Photo par AP

By *Rasoul Asghari

As Iranian universities prepare to welcome the first wave of protests on the anniversary of last year's bloody uprising, regime officials announce the mass registration of Iraqi militia forces Hashd al- Chaabi as students at the University of Tehran.

The entry of these forces into the universities must be analyzed in a context where not only is Iranian society eagerly awaiting renewed protests, but the regime is also sinking into the nightmare of a much more intense future uprising.

In this article, we will attempt to examine the establishment of mercenary militias in universities, a new element in the complex layers of repression used against the student uprising over the past 10 months. Can the recourse to these foreign militias be seen as an acknowledgment of the inefficiency of past methods, and a little beyond that, as a paradigm shift in the resistance/repression equation? And finally, let's see if the presence of these forces will be limited to the university?

"Dismissal of students, recruitment of fighters"

On July 9, 2023, the anniversary of the bloody suppression of the student uprising of July 9, 1999, Hossein Mousavi Bekhati, Hashd al-Shaabi's deputy for education and training, announced that in an agreement with the Iranian universities, including the University of Tehran, members of this group, will be sent to Iran as students.

The news was first reflected in a wave of disbelief and was as indigestible as hearing the news of Wagner's mercenaries being accepted as students in universities in some undemocratic countries, bringing them into course to control student protest. Certainly the possibility of providing such a service never occurred to Yevgueni Prigogine!

But very quickly astonishment and concern give way to disbelief. These statements were immediately confirmed by the president of Tehran University, Mohammad Moghimi. The University of Tehran Students' Telegram channel wrote that 95 members of this group have already arrived in Iran.

In response to this development, student activists from the University of Tehran announced on July 13, in a widely circulated statement titled "Dismissal of students, recruitment of fighters", that they would not tolerate the presence of military forces. in college, whether in combat uniform or school uniform, and will resist it.

The students specify that "the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi's forces as students" is "an offensive against the universities" and in a clear analysis of the days to come, they write: "Today we do not We have no choice but to get up and move forward because when faced with the dilemma between elimination or survival, inaction is tantamount to disappearing."

Currently, the total number of students in the country, including public and private universities, is 3 million 173 thousand people.

What are the Hashd al-Shaabi?

The Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units is a collection of around 40 Islamic Republic of Iran-influenced Shiite militia groups in Iraq, brought together in 2014 under the guise of confronting ISIS (or Daesh). The Hachd al-Shaabi benefited from the Iranian regime's armaments, funding and military support, and its command was clearly in the hands of Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi members of the Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ( IRGC).

Some components of this group, such as Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaïb Ahl al-Haq, appear on the terrorist lists of the United States and certain Western and Arab countries, and they have left behind them a terrible record of serious violations of human rights. human rights, especially during the civil wars in Iraq, and are particularly notorious for their cruelty. Their ideology is the same as that of the established regime in Iran, and the mainstream within it obeys Khamenei as Supreme Leader.

On November 26, 2016, the Iraqi parliament, the majority of which was in the hands of supporters of the Iranian regime - modeled on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - recognized the Hashd al-Shaabi as a military force affiliated with the Iranian regime. Iraqi security establishment and a separate body from the military. In 2017, the Iraqi parliament estimated the number of these forces at 110,000.

A year later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called them Iranian militias and demanded that they be disbanded or integrated into the Iraqi army.

Abu Mehdi al-Mouhandis was the main field commander of this force, who was killed along with Qassem Soleimani, the commander-in-chief of the terrorist Quds Force, on January 3, 2020, in a US drone attack near Baghdad.

Khomeini and the thorny question of the university

The university has always been the source of evil for the Islamic Republic. From day one, Khomeini (the founder of the regime) warned of the danger of the university and of what he called modern science: "All these calamities that have befallen mankind have their roots in the university..." (the book Sahifa-ye Imam Khomeini, vol.13, page 413)

The mullahs, who by their social origin and their reactionary character are poles apart from the university as a symbol of knowledge and modern thought, have relentlessly attacked this institution of knowledge the day after the overthrow of the monarchist dictatorship and the establishment of their power.

While the face of the new government was gradually exposed from the first months of the victory of the revolution, the university became the main social bastion of opponents of the Islamic Republic, in particular the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) and the Iranian People's Fedayeen Organization. Khomeini could not stand such a situation and finally, at the end of April 1980, only 14 months after the revolution, he ordered an attack on the universities followed by their closure under the pretext of a cultural revolution decreed by Khomeini himself.

"It gives the tendency of the repression machine to make heavy use of proxy militia forces, if the protests spread"

It was then that hundreds of teachers were fired as well as thousands of students, many of whom were imprisoned or even executed a year later. Universities remained closed until the second half of 1983. After that, a selection plan with quotas was applied, which prompted the Ministry of Higher Education to prevent opponents of the regime from entering the university and to allocate at least 45% of university seats to militias. of the Bassidj and to the families of the members of the regime. In the following years, under the slogan of the "Islamization" of universities, more restrictions were imposed on this institution.

But after each blow inflicted by the regime in place, the university regained its spirit of protest. Students have been instigating or leading and actively participating in five major uprisings in 1999, 2009, 2017, 2019-20 and 2022-2023.

Thus, the university in Iran has once again become a place where the regime has not been able to advance its proselytism, despite the enormous expenses incurred and the presence of thousands of Basij militiamen and Hezbollah thugs.

Removal in five steps

During the uprising which began last mid-September and which spread to more than 200 cities in Iran for several months, according to human rights organizations, 750 Iranian citizens, including 70 children, were been killed and thousands injured, including dozens of people who lost their sight due to direct pellet shots. Tens of thousands of people have also been arrested and sent to prisons which are in reality torture camps.

The university has been particularly at the heart of this uprising, and it is estimated that in the first week, 137 universities across Iran engaged in an unequal struggle with the forces of repression. Students are boycotting classrooms and going on strike, and almost until early December, the university grounds are the scene of heated rallies.

Of course, there was a very important division of labour: the students fought with the security forces during the day inside the university, and other social groups of the people opposed the security forces at the sunset. A tactic that keeps the police and the Revolutionary Guards breathless.

But after a moment of hesitation and indecision due to its surprise, the regime also implemented its multi-layered security strategy to control the university, and unleashed the widespread wave of arrests almost from the beginning of November 2022. .

At first, the gaze of the repressive apparatus was on itself and it tried to close its internal breaches, as the unprecedented scale and continuity of the protests and its growing radicalism caused a drop in crisis management capacities. and control of universities. In addition, some elements of the forces responsible for repression showed hesitation and insubordination, weakening the forces of the regime.

At this point, officials who failed to cooperate sufficiently with the security apparatus or prevent the arrest of students were removed from their posts or replaced with more reliable elements. In this stage, personalities very loyal to the regime assumed responsibility for order and Harassat (security - body responsible for repression and representing the Ministry of Intelligence within the institutions).

The second step was to transfer the responsibility for repression from outside to inside the universities. To that end, regime officials, alongside the widespread installation of surveillance cameras to record protests and uncover the identities of protesting students, have changed universities' disciplinary regulations to provide legal justification for their growing violence.

Then, with these new regulations, they began to bar entry to active students, depriving others of university services. Thus they largely raised the blow of participation in the disputes.

Convene students massively to disciplinary commissions and interrogate them and have them insulted by security forces from outside the university in the offices of Harassat, create severe restrictions for female students living in dormitories in university dormitories in across the country, limiting the hours of entering and leaving dormitories, controlling the clothing of female students when entering and leaving universities and dormitories, and preventing the entry of female students who were not covered by the rules imposed. One of the measures was to expel a large number of female students from the university dormitories, which caused serious disruption for them and economic costs beyond their capacity and that of their families, depriving them in practice of their right to education. Thus a long list of deprivations of social and educational rights was imposed on a wide range of students throughout the country.

In the third stage and contrary to the first days, the apparatus of repression carried out targeted arrests which resulted from extensive measures of espionage and above all monitoring of social networks.

The dominant aspect and the difference between the methods of repression used in this period and the uprisings of 2017 and 2019, was the widespread wave of arrests. A practice continued strongly from early November to early February 2023. The arrest of students suspected of being organizers, as well as student protesters previously unknown to Harassat officials, continued uninterrupted.

As the process of street protests slowed, the regime's fourth step was the temporary or conditional release or announcement of an amnesty for some imprisoned students. These freedoms took place with heavy bail imposed on the families. But these released students had to appear before disciplinary commissions, which often sentenced them to permanent or temporary exclusion from teaching, which kept them away from the university environment.

But with all these tricks, the government is still afraid of the universities to such an extent that Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, declares: "...the war is not over, [in] 1402 (year 2023), the enemy has changed its formation and changed its field "… From this point of view, the university is the central point of the enemy's efforts" (Tasnim News Agency, July 15, 2023). That is why the call of Iraqi mercenary proxy forces to the university, while a clear sign of this fear, is an acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of the current system of repression in the face of students' desire for change and demonstrates the need for the regime to enter the fifth stage of suppression.

What prospect?

The forces of Hachd al-Shaabi demonstrated their cruelty and brutality during the suppression of demonstrations by the Iraqi people as well as during the years of civil wars in that country. The entry of these forces into the university has no other meaning than the manifest militarization of the university environment. But calling in these foreign mercenaries at this point probably has a broader meaning: "Leaving the task of repression to the forces inside the university."

The arrest, torture, deprivation of education and banning of students from entering university and the identification of the leaders of the protests - which have continued continuously in recent months - are intended to make the passive university and to cut its link with society and neutralize its vanguard role.

Changes in regulations and laws and the use of new methods of control, as well as the call for proxy mercenary forces from outside the borders, show that the regime has decided to suppress student protesters in the university. same, either with the leverage of draconian regulations or with overt violence. Therefore, as a next step, it is not far to expect temporary detention centers to be established inside universities for detention, interrogation and torture in the same university environment.

However, in the debate on the establishment of Iraqi militias in Iranian universities, it is still too early to speak of a paradigm shift in the macro policies of repression. But it does give the suppressive machine a tendency to make heavy use of proxy militia forces, if the protests spread. The formalization of the employment of mercenaries at the university is the prelude to their wider introduction into the apparatus of repression and their overt recruitment. Let us know that the number of these forces in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen reaches tens of thousands, which gives a reserve in which the regime intends to draw.

But such recourse to this reserve demonstrates above all the awareness of the authorities of the regime of the inability of its own forces inside to face the uprisings to come. These successive uprisings have each time shown bigger and wider waves and increasing longevity, an astonishingly deepened radicalism from one uprising to the next. It is not obvious that in the face of such an announced deluge, foreign militias can be of great help to the power in place.

While the caliphate of the mullahs had stretched like a centipede octopus these tentacles to terrorize the Middle East region and the whole world, it now calls on its foreign mercenaries to suppress the Iranian people in the heart of its own capital. In such a context, the international community must seize this moment to strike the head of the octopus, namely the IRGC, by placing it on the list of terrorist organizations and recognize the right of self-defense to the Iranian people and their students, in order to to be able to resist tyranny and advance their democratic demands.

*Rasoul Asghari, an analyst at FEMO, is an Iranian journalist in exile, a specialist in political economy.