MESOP REPORT : With War at Doorstep, Iran Sees Its Revolutionary Guards in a Kinder Light

By THOMAS ERDBRINKJUNE 17, 2014 – New York Times – TEHRAN — They came to celebrate the short life of Ali Reza Moshajjari, a local boy from a south Tehran neighborhood and apparently the latest Iranian victim of the escalating sectarian conflict in neighboring Iraq and in Syria.He was a member of Tehran’s 209 battalion of the Imam Ali garrison of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian news media said, and representatives of elite units of the corps stood solemnly in a line, as men clad in black entered the mosque.

As the service got underway, a chanter’s voice boomed through the mosque, echoing in the lofty dome, lined with blue and green tiles. “Our godless enemies behead our soldiers,” he said. From the women’s quarters, behind a panel segregating them from the men, a loud wailing commenced. Men shook their heads, and some clenched their fists.

 “Our youth was a special martyr,” the chanter said of Mr. Moshajjari, whose portrait on a stage showed him in a forest wearing a pair of shooting glasses and a jungle vest. “Where others were found by martyrdom, he looked for it. Praise be to God as he will have the fragrance of Imam Hussein.”

Since seizing Mosul on June 10, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been attacking towns along the main highway heading south, coming closer and closer to the capital. Related Maps and Multimedia »

War and conflict in the Middle East have been a distant nightmare as seen from Iran’s safe capital, the seat of power of the Shiite world. But the successes of the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, have brought the dead to its doorstep.

And as the reality of war is brought home, the attitude of many here toward the Revolutionary Guards Corps is changing. In 2009, when millions took to the streets to protest the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was the Guards, or Sepah, as they are known here, who attacked many of those on the streets.

But the well-documented mass killings by ISIS, which makes a point of producing graphic videos of its fighters executing Iraqi soldiers as they lie, hands bound and face down, in a ditch, have caused ordinary Iranians to rethink their views.

On websites such as the reformist Entekhab news site, where in the past anonymous commentators rarely missed an opportunity to criticize the Guards, the group is now regularly lauded.“Why doesn’t our army and Sepah destroy these wild groups?” a user named Dehdashti wrote as a comment under an article describing how ISIS men allegedly killed a man for watching a World Cup soccer game. “Just one unit of our Sepah or our army is enough to destroy these beasts forever.”An English teacher said: “Such news makes us forget what the Sepah did to us. We are nationalistic and religious. If our shrines are threatened, Iranians will demand that our forces intervene.”

In one comment on the Entekhab site, an anonymous person cheered for Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, which is said to be active in Iraq.

“Shiites of the world are waiting for you to defeat these atheists,” the respondent said. “May God help you.”

A huge banner with a portrait of Mr. Moshajjari, who leaves behind his wife and 2-year-old daughter, hung outside the Shahid Bahonar mosque. His fellow Revolutionary Guards members listened stone-faced as the chanter recalled how one of their commanders, Abdollah Eskandari, was beheaded in May.

“They placed his decapitated head on a pole and paraded it around,” he said. “They treated him the way they treated the corpse of our holy Imam Hussein.”For many here, Syria is a distant country, known only for the Shiite shrine to Sayyida Zeinab, the granddaughter of the prophet, near Damascus. Iraq, on the contrary, is the heartland of the Shiite faith, a place where Imam Hussein in 680 won a battle by losing it, and where the most revered saints are laid to rest in golden domed shrines.

It is unclear where Mr. Moshajjari lost his life. The conservative Tasnim News Agency said he had died somewhat ingloriously in a car accident in western Iran. One relatively unknown website, Hengamnews, cited a Lebanese news agency for a less-than-credible report that he had been killed in the Iraqi city of Karbala, “defending the shrines.” Little fighting has been reported around Karbala or Najaf, the sites of the holiest shrines.

Banners in the mosque said he had died in Syria “defending the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab,” though there is little or no fighting around that shrine, either.The line has nevertheless become the standard explanation for the dozens of Iranians who have died in Syria. And even while Iranian officials acknowledge that they have sent military advisers to Syria to help the troops of their ally President Bashar al-Assad, those returning home dead are always called “volunteers” or “pensioners.”

Whatever happened to Mr. Moshajjari, whose age is unknown, his farewell was grand, with hard-line Parliament members attending, together with Revolutionary Guards commanders and a famous ideologue and former militia leader, Hossein Allahkaram.

Mr. Moshajjari’s service was definitely Shiite, with a stream of references by the chanter to the “household of the prophet,” the inheritable lineage of saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, which sets them apart from Sunni Muslims, who do not believe in such family bonds.But the chanter also continued the narrative that whatever is happening in the region is not a war between Sunnis and Shiites, but a conflict between the forces of good and evil.

“Behold how they kill and rape!” the chanter said. “Are these the actions of humans? Many Sunnis are disgusted by this, too. In Syria, 1,700 Sunnis were martyred fighting these terrorists. In Iraq, they are fighting them, too.”Of course, not everyone was about to sing the praises of the Revolutionary Guards. “If the Sepah decides to fight in Iraq, it is in order to defend their own interests, not ours,” said Aria, a 25-year-old musician, who asked not to be fully identified, for her safety. “Sometimes these interests align with ours, but we will not forget what they did to us.”