Iran’s government is repressive at home and aggressive abroad

The Iranian regime is one of the most repressive in the world, ranking 162 out of 165 on the Human Freedom Index. Additionally, on the Human Rights and Rule of Law Index the Islamic Republic of Iran scored 9.8, where 10 is the lowest.

Iranian citizens do not have freedom of expression, religious or political freedom. The rights of women, as well as ethnic and religious minorities are suppressed. Same-sex relationships are criminalized. Capital and corporal punishment are common and due legal process is not guaranteed. Tehran also exports its repressive system beyond its borders, backing Shia militia in other countries and hunting down critics of the regime.

Much of the repression within and outside of Iran is carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an official paramilitary force formed shortly after the Islami Revolution in 1979. The IRGC is tasked with defending the country’s Islamic system and protecting the ideals of the revolution. The two major components of the IRGC are the internal security militia Basij-e Mostazafin (Mobilization Resistance Force), also called Basij, and the external operations force, the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), also called Qods. In total the IRGC has between 150,000 and 190,000 personnel, while the IRGC-QF has between 5,000 and 15,000 who were selected from the broader IRGC.

The IRGC reports directly to the country’s Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei. As such, the Corps lies beyond the powers of the nation’s laws and courts. Even the president Ebrahim Raisi has no authority over the IRGC. It is important to note that the Supreme Leader is the head of state, while the president is only the head of government. Consequently, the Supreme Leader is essentially all-powerful and can use the IRGC to carry out his wishes.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been accused of committing various human rights abuses within Iran. The government banned all independent political parties and civil society organizations. Independent trade unions are also prohibited, with striking workers subjected to reprisals. Enforcement of these laws falls to the IRGC who suppresses dissent, leading crackdowns on political opposition, activists, and protesters.

The IRGC helped rig the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who served as president from 2005-2013. When citizens turned out to protest the faulty election, the IRGC attacked them, detaining thousands. The Corps have been known to use live ammunition, birdshot, tear gas, and water cannons to put down protests and peaceful demonstrations.

Arrest and incarceration by the IRGC occur outside of the scope of the judiciary. Prisoners are often tortured, including physical abuse, psychological torment, and denial of access to medical care. Flogging and even blinding are frequent sentences imposed on dissenters. Amnesty International reported that hundreds of people are being held in arbitrary detention, deprived of due process, among them, are “human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, political dissidents, activists, conservationists, writers, artists, musicians, university students and schoolchildren.”

The US Department of State estimates that during 2022, internal security forces killed “more than 500 people, including at least 69 children, and arrested more than 19,000 protesters, including children.”

Basij-e Mostazafin is responsible for internal security, enforcing state control over society and acting as law enforcement auxiliary. Basij is also responsible for policing morals, and suppressing dissident gatherings. Last year, Basij was accused of suppressing, arresting, beating, and torturing protestors who took part in widespread antigovernment demonstrations. In September and October, they attacked Kurdish opposition groups in Iran’s Kurdistan Region, killing a dozen people, including a pregnant woman. Numerous civilians, both adults and children were injured.  

Beyond the borders of Iran, the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) serves as a tool of the Supreme Leader, exporting Islamic Revolution to other countries. The Qods have sent troops to actively fight or serve as advisors, providing training and equipment to state and non-state actors, in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine.

An additional role of the IRGC outside of Iran is targeting Iranian dissidents, exiles, and critics of the regime. Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi and three other Kurdish dissidents were assassinated by the IRGC in 1992, in Berlin, Germany. In 1994, the IRGC was tied to the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ahmad Mola Nissi, an Iranian-Arab opposition figure, was assassinated by the IRGC in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2017. The group was also responsible for the 2022 stabbing of author Salman Rushdie, in New York.

Since 2003, the IRGC has been supporting Shia militants in Iraq, providing them with roadside bombs that killed Americans. In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprising, the Qods, deployed to Syria. Initially, they claimed to be defending Shia shrines, but in the end, they became a tool of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suppressing those who opposed his regime. The Qods also fought on the frontlines, alongside Hezbollah and factions of Hamas. When the civil war broke out in Yemen, the IRGC provided Houthi rebels with intelligence support, training, and weapons.

IRGC personnel are suspected of having participated in the Russian annexation of Crimea. Recently, the EU has announced plans to sanction the IRGC Aerospace Force for drones sent to Moscow, to be used in the Ukraine War. Iran has admitted to selling drones to Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine, but claims that they have not done so since the war began. The United States, however, has evidence to the contrary. The US Department of State acknowledges that the assistance rendered by IRGC-Qods Forces to the Russian military in 2022 inflicted significant damage to non-combatants. Iran’s backing of Russia constitutes a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 resulting in the deaths of Ukrainian civilians.

The US has sanctioned the intelligence arm of the IRGC, as well as the IRGC leaders, for their roles in wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens. In 2007, The US Treasury Department designated the IRGC-QF as a foreign terrorist organization, designating former IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. The current IRGC-QF Commander Sardar Esmail Qaani was also labelled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2012.

In 2019, President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time that the US had ever designated a part of a foreign government as a terrorist organization. The designation is significant because entities doing business with, donating to, or otherwise supporting the IRGC can be subject to secondary sanctions for supporting terrorism.


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