As an Iranian woman in exile, I worry about my safety every single day
- Masih Alinejad
- Tuesday 9 April 2019
My childhood was spent learning about the exploits of “Shahid Bakeri” and “Shahid Hemmat”, Revolutionary Guard martyrs in the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Every year, from primary school onwards, I cried for their heroic and selfless sacrifices.
Looking back, I now realise that I, and millions of children like me, were brainwashed to admire the Sepah — as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is often referred — for their war efforts.
When I was growing up, the street walls were covered with murals depicting fallen Guards soldiers. In the mythology of the Islamic Republic, the true warriors are the IRGC. The Revolutionary Guards are the storm troopers created not just to protect Iran but the entire Islamic Revolution.
Today, Iranians no longer look back warmly on the sacrifices made by the Guards during the war with Iraq, but instead remember how for past three decades, the IRGC have been operating like a mafia with extra benefits. They are more than a purely criminal organisation, with the sort of political muscle that no mafia hoodlum could ever dream of.
In July 1999, just 10 years after the end of the war, 24 IRGC senior commanders denounced former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in a public letter and said his moves toward “greater democracy” were leading the Islamic Republic to anarchy. The group, which included Qassem Soleimiani, the famed commander of the Quds Force, called on Khatami to crack down on student movements and end his reform plans. If Khatami wouldn’t do it, they said, the Guards were ready to crack down.
Khatami backed down and the Guards continued to exert pressure on his administration.
By then, the Guards were already a military-industrial conglomerate benefiting from post-war reconstruction contracts and dwarfing all other companies. As the years passed, the IRGC owned its own newspapers, media and advertising companies, banks, a mobile phone network, shopping malls, the nation’s biggest construction company and much more.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed a number of former Guards commanders to his cabinet and worked closely with the IRGC.
In 2007, I was a journalist working for a number of Iranian publications and it was understood then that Sepah and its economic empire were off-limits. One brave member of parliament estimated that the Guards were involved in smuggling operations worth $12bn a year, but such criticism was vanishingly rare.
It’s a problem that exists to this day. Last August, when President Hassan Rouhani was called before parliament to explain the problem of smuggling, he claimed that his government had succeeded in reducing the total value of illicit trade from $22bn to $12.5bn since the beginning of his term.
But the Guards are much more than smugglers. They are cold-hearted killers and torturers. In 2009, it was the Revolutionary Guards and their Basij affiliate that crushed the pro-democracy movement which took to the streets after the presidential “election” which returned Mahmoud Ahmaidnejad to power.
As a journalist, I have been picked up and questioned a number of times in Iran. I was even warned that I should leave the country if I knew what was good for me. So, from my exile in the US, I have chronicled the lives and deaths of 57 of the protestors who were killed in 2009-2010 protests. Many of the victims of the crackdown suffered at the hands of the Guards.
As a human rights and women’s rights activist, I’ve received death threats from IRGC affiliates, while my family inside Iran has come under intense pressure to disown me publicly. My sister gave in, but my parents have refused.
I don’t kid myself. The IRGC kills dissidents like me who live outside Iran and every day I worry about an assassin’s bullet.
The IRGC are the power ensuring the survival of Iran’s theocratic regime, taking direct orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader. And they exercise undue influence over the conduct of Iran’s foreign policy, with Major General Soleimani in charge of relationships with countries critical to national security, such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and even Russia. In fact, he was a key figure in persuading Vladimir Putin to send his jets to bomb forces opposed to Assad in the Syrian civil war.
For four decades, the IRGC have terrorised the Iranian people, taken the economy hostage, and waged secret wars overseas with no accountability.
The Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure has wrong-footed Islamic Republic leadership in the past. Despite Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s rhetorical flourishes, the IRGC have limited their hostile moves in the Persian Gulf and not even retaliated against Isreali attacks on their supply lines in Syria.
Truth be told, many Iranian people want to be rid of the IRGC and their reformists and hardliner apologists. Every day, I get dozens of videos from inside Iran, from ordinary citizens engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Anything which weakens the IRGC is a step in the right direction.
Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist and activist in exile