Claims have surfaced in recent days that pro-Iranian regime Arab militiamen are to be found among the forces currently being used by the Iranian regime to crush protests.
Demonstrations protesting the alleged murder of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, by the Iranian authorities have now entered their second week. Amini died after being arrested for wearing her hijab in an "immodest" way.
Around 80 people have been killed in the protests, which have spread from Kurdistan province across Iran's 31 governorates. The protests have expanded in scope and are now focused not only on Amini's killing, but on the broader issues of repressive dress codes for women in Iran and the dire state of the economy.
As the protests continue and intensify, a growing number of participants are claiming that among the forces seeking to crush the demonstrations are members of pro-Iranian regime Arab militias.
These allegations have surfaced on a number of widely followed online accounts associated with the protests and have been repeated by Iranians in conversation with this author. Similar claims, it is worth noting, surfaced during the last major wave of protests in Iran, in 2019.
Who is Iran bringing in to crush protests?
According to an Iranian source hailing from Sanandaj, capital city of Iran's Kurdistan Province, "Witnesses in Rasht, Lahijan, Qazvin, and Sanandaj claim the presence of Arab forces among the riot police and among the forces mounted on motorbikes. There is speculation that they may have been brought to Iran from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Some say there were also Palestinians.
"Sources suggest that these forces were brought into the country by the government from the borders of Iran and Iraq during Arbaeen. They have entered Iran with Iranian pilgrimage convoys."
Arbaeen is a yearly pilgrimage undertaken by Shia Muslims to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala, in Iraq. Each year, large convoys of Iranian pilgrims make their way to Karbala in southern Iraq, as part of this observance.
Some Iranian oppositionists suspect that pro-regime Arab militiamen may have made their way into the country accompanying these convoys. One online account claims to have identified flights to Najaf in Iraq from Syria and Lebanon bringing militia personnel.
The allegations regarding the Arab presence among the security forces are more concrete and specific. According to one Sanandaj based Farsi-language Twitter account: "Tonight, the agents I saw were not Iranian at all, I swear, they were not Iranian, they spoke Arabic in Qazvin, on Sabze-meydan Street, they were standing and they had guns in their hands. May God curse them."
Ali Zahedi, another Iran-based Farsi Twitter account, wrote, "The repression force spoke in Arabic. They came from Iraq and Lebanon. One of them stayed behind from the others... People went towards him... He shouted in Arabic to the rest of the forces to ask for help. Those who ride the motorbikes, all those who are silent and don't speak, they are the Lebanese ones."
"Tired Phantom," a popular and anonymous Iranian pro-opposition account, meanwhile, advised Iranians not to worry too much about the pro-Iran Arab militiamen, who the account suggested had troubles of their own: "Don't worry about Hashd al-Wahshi [the 'mobilization of wild beasts' – a play on the name of the Iraqi Shia militias – the Popular Mobilization] and Lebanon's Hezbollah," Tired Phantom suggested. "They're under Israeli shelling in Syria and Lebanon. Their situation in Iraq is precarious too."
Additional sources hailing from Iranian Kurdistan told this author that conversations with relatives confirmed the presence of Arabic speakers among the forces suppressing the protests.
Iran uses Arab allies to put down protests
The use by the Iranian authorities of their loyal Arab allies to put down protests is in line with the broader pattern of behavior of the Iranian regime. Tehran routinely moves its various regional assets across its area of domain, based on where they can be useful. Thus, Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are long confirmed to be active in Yemen and Iraq. Afghani Shia fighters form an important part of Tehran's war effort in Syria, and so on. It now appears that the regime is making use of its most loyal cohorts to crush the latest challenge to its authority, in Iran itself.
Alongside this, Tehran is also seeking to depict the protesters as representing foreign or ethnic separatist interests. Mahsa Amini was from Iran's Kurdistan province, and the protests have been at their strongest in this area. Tehran is trying to attribute Kurdish nationalist motivations to the protests, in an apparent effort at divide and rule.
On September 24, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched artillery attacks on Iranian Kurdish guerrilla bases across the border in northern Iraq. In a statement published at the Quds Force Telegram channel, the IRGC said, "IRGC Ground Forces, using the operational units of Hamza Seyyed al-Shohada (AS), today destroyed the headquarters and establishment centers of the terrorist and anti-revolutionary aggressor groups on the other side of the country's borders in the northern region of Iraq with fire operations and attacks.
"The operation of Islamic warriors will continue in the direction of ensuring stable border security and punishing the aggressor criminal terrorists and making regional authorities responsible for their international regulations and legal duties."
These attacks have continued in subsequent days, with missile launches on bases of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), the PKK-associated Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Komala party in both Sulaymaniyah and Erbil provinces. The Iranian regime has employed "Fateh-360 missiles and suicide drones" in the attacks, according to IRGC media. A number of fatalities have resulted.
No actions by the Kurdish groups targeted preceded these attacks. The Iranian Kurdish guerrilla groups, while determined and passionately committed to their cause, are severely limited in their resources and military capacities. This targeting, given its timing, seems to be a clear attempt to divert the focus of the current protests, and to change their dynamic.
The tactics undertaken by the Iranian regime might give the impression of an authority caught unawares by the sudden outburst of wide-reaching protest, and improvising its response. Undoubtedly the protests spread fast and remain currently undiminished. Still, it remains highly questionable as to whether the regime at present faces anything close to a real threat to its continued rule.
This is not because of any inherent efficacy to its divide and rule tactics and its use of proxies. Rather, it is because while the protesters despise the regime, for many of them the preferred solution is to seek a way out of Iran, rather than to challenge the present authorities for the rule of it.
Perhaps for this reason, while periodic large scale protests have been a feature of Iranian life for more than a decade now, nothing resembling a coherent revolutionary political leadership with widespread popular support has yet emerged in the country, or in exile.
For as long as this absence remains, the Iranian regime is likely to continue to succeed in its strategy of divide and rule, and brutal but targeted repression. The presence of hired proxies among the forces of repression is testimony to the unrepresentative nature of the regime in Tehran.
But an effective challenge to its future now depends on the emergence of a coherent alternative leadership and structure from among the growing ranks of the protesters.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.