Members of the Iraqi state-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi, otherwise known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have again been making their presence felt in Qom since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran. Most have been photographed working to disinfect the streets of the holy city wearing camouflage and headbands bearing the legend “Defenders of the Shrine”.

The publication of images of these forces by Iran’s Fars and Tasnim News Agencies caused a sensation – and mixed reactions – on social networks, with critics and proponents of the paramilitary group squaring up to one another online. In the main, supporters of the incumbent regime in Iran defend their presence, while critics consider it unconstitutional.

Twelve Months of Unanswered Questions

The PMF is not only controversial but has a nexus of ties to Iran. The force has been said to be organized and controlled by the Islamic Republic and is involved in an array of political and decision-making arenas in Iraq. It has also been making news in Iran for a year; last March, when floods devastated Khuzestan province, the PMF were sighted in the country for the first time supporting those affected by the disaster.

During that period the newspaper Kayhan reported that Hashd al-Shaabi had come to Iran on the invitation of Ghasem Soleimani, the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC]’s Quds force. At the time, Soleimani was also present in the flood-hit zones. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, himself a former commander of Hashd al-Shaabi who was killed along with Soleimani in January 2020, said at the time: “The defenders of the Khuzestan shrine were with us in the fight against ISIS and in defending the Ahl Al-Bayt shrine, and today it is our duty to help them.” He added that the PMF had brought “food, health and medical stuff” to the inhabitants of the flooded areas.

Abu Musa, commander of the Iraqi group’s Sarollah Division, also stated in April 2019 that the purpose of their presence was to provide relief and crisis management, and to help control the floods in Khuzestan. “We will stay with our Muslim and Iranian brothers and sisters as long as we are needed,” he said. Fars News Agency also welcomed the group’s presence, saying it had “brought 20 trucks of Iraqi donations including food, clothing, carpets, and electricity generators to Iran.”

But the deluge of conservative-backed media reports in defense of Hashd al-Shaabi’s presence did not deter scepticism. A number of Persian-speaking social media users openly criticized the presence of these para-military forces in Iran. Some detractors believed that the presence of a foreign military force on the country’s soil was against the law. In response, Fars News Agency published a report attempting to explain that the presence of these forces in Iran was not against the Iranian constitution.

Nemat Ahmadi, a lawyer and university lecturer, was among those who opposed the presence of Hashad al-Shaabi in Iran at the time. He told the news agency that in his view, the group’s arrival was indeed contrary to Articles 125 and 146 of the constitution.

Article 125 states: “The signing of pacts, treaties, agreements, and contracts between the government of Iran and other states, as well as the signing of treaties of international unions are only allowed after the approval of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) and the President or his legal representative.” Meanwhile, Article 146 prohibits the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, even for peaceful use.

Bahram Parsaei and Abdul Karim Hosseinzadeh were two MPs who protested at the time, calling the PMF’s presence unconstitutional. Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shiite leader, also raised concerns – albeit for a different reason. He wrote on Twitter: “Iraqis have the highest priority and any aid should first be given to the affected people of Iraq, and then to other countries.”

The second wave of PMF presence in Iran in 2019 was signalled by news and pictures of a meeting between PMF members and the directors of the Tehran University Institute of Social Studies and Research. These images, in which the faces of elite members of the PMF had been blurred, were published by Mehr News Agency in October 2019. The outlet wrote that the guests had been “a high-level specialized delegation of representatives of Hashd al-Shaabi” who had “visited Tehran University Institute of Social Studies and Research to discuss and consult about scientific cooperation.”

The organizer of the meeting was Ahmad Naderi, director of the Institute, who later stood in the Iranian parliamentary elections and won a seat along with other conservatives.

Naderi never commented on what the need for the meeting had been, nor on what was discussed. Then in November 2019, when mass demonstrations and unrest rocked cities across Iran, unverified reports surfaced on social media of PMF involvement in suppressing the protesters.

“If we do not support the Revolution, Hashd al-Shaabi will come and support the Revolution”

The presence of this paramilitary force in Iran has now yet again made news: this time apparently disinfecting the streets of Qom. “These people are not members of Hashd al-Shaabi,” said Mehdi Kabiri-Pour, the IRGC’s coordinating deputy, in response to the headlines and ensuing protests. Kabiripour claimed the new arrivals were members of Shabab al-Maqawma, a group made up of Iraqi and Lebanese citizens living in Qom, who work and collaborate on cultural issues and during crises. The military commander added that “the disinfection of Qom’s streets by this group was coordinated by the Qom Basij force.”

Meanwhile, Tasnim News Agency and Fars News Agency had already reported that these people were members of the Iraqi PMF who were studying at the seminary in Qom. These explanations have not prevented a fresh wave of denunciation of the presence of foreign military and paramilitary forces in Iran, which continues even now.

According to the Iranian constitution, the Iranian parliament or Majlis must decide whether or not to admit foreign troops inside the country, and officially announce the decision. In certain cases, though, the Supreme National Security Council may decide on the admittance of foreign troops instead, and this may go unreported. It is not yet known which Iranian institution has permitted the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi members in Iran.

Concern about the presence of these forces is also linked to an ominous earlier statement by the Tehran Revolutionary Court chief Musa Ghazanfari Abadi: “If we do not support the Revolution, the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi, the Afghan Fatimids, the Liwa Zainebiyoun of Pakistan, and the Yemeni Houthis will come and support the Revolution.”

These comments have led some analysts to view the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi and other paramilitary forces of neighboring countries as a precursor to suppressing future protests in the country.

Source » iranwire