Iran's supreme leader has replaced the head of the feared Basij militia with a highly controversial figure from the elite Revolutionary Guards, prompting fears that he intends to make the closely affiliated forces more effective in cracking down on the opposition.
The move was part of a shuffle of several Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders decreed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday. Officials gave no reason for the changes. The key one involved two men notorious for their harsh treatment of dissenters. Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who is close to Ayatollah Khamenei, replaced Hossein Taeb, a mid-ranking cleric, as commander of the Basij (Mobilisation) force. Mr Taeb in turn is reported to have been appointed director of intelligence at the IRGC.
"Most ruthless generals in charge of institutions of suppression," read the headline in yesterday's Rooz Online, an Iranian news website critical of the regime. Analysts are still considering the shuffle's ramifications. Some regard Mr Taeb's new job as an effective demotion and suspect that his removal as Basij commander may be an attempt to appease public opinion. The paramilitary force, a unit of the IRGC, was blamed for much of the violence against the huge crowds protesting against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president in June.
Others do not see Mr Taeb as a scapegoat, arguing that his new posting is a powerful one and that the fearsome reputation of his replacement as Basij commander signals the regime's determination to be tougher than ever. As a former head of intelligence at the national police, Mr Naqdi backed vigilante attacks against gatherings of reformist students and political activists during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who was attempting to liberalise the Iranian system.
In one infamous outburst in 1999, Mr Naqdi threatened to kill by his own hands a group of students who were accused of blasphemy in a campus play. Drewery Dyke, an Iran expert at Amnesty International, said: "His reputation precedes him. Human rights groups and civil rights groups would have considerable concern that Mr Naqdi is being appointed to that position at this time." In 1999 Mr Naqdi was tried by a military court on charges of ordering the torture in custody of several Tehran district mayors. They said they were forced to sign confessions that were later used in the politically motivated conviction on corruption charges of Tehran's then mayor and close Khatami ally, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi.
Mr Naqdi was convicted of disobeying military orders and insulting city officials but acquitted of torturing them. He was sentenced to eight months in prison - which he never served - and sacked from the police force. He soon regained influential military positions. Mr Naqdi is also one of Iran's top military figures, subject to UN Security Council sanctions. A resolution passed by the Security Council in March last year said he had worked to skirt previous UN sanctions and that he was linked to Iran's alleged proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities or development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.
The shuffle follows some unconfirmed Iranian media reports that the Basij may be merged with the IRGC's ground force "for better co-ordination". The command systems of the two forces were merged last year. The IRGC has its own ground force, navy, air force and "aerospace force". Some suspect a further merger between the IRGC and Basij may be designed to better prevent any internal challenge to the regime of the kind that shook it to the core in the aftermath of June's presidential election. The Basij is thought to have about 10 million members, giving it the widest security network in Iran.
Optimists, however, hope that a grass-roots merger, if it happens, will end the Basij's irregular nature and make its members accountable under Iran's criminal code: the paramilitary force has so far operated with immunity and impunity. During the post-election turmoil, plainclothes Basij members, often on powerful motorcycles, used batons and knives against demonstrators. Opposition groups say at least 72 protesters were killed, while hundreds were detained in sweeps. There have been accusations that people were abused and even raped in custody.
The authorities ipromised n August to bring charges against officials, including security forces and judicial members, accused of abusing civilians during the unrest. Mr Naqdi's appointment, however, suggests the regime is not serious about pursuing such cases, some experts say. His posting seems to "be intended to send a clear message to the opposition that the leadership will not pursue real accountability for these abuses, beyond the punishment of a few low-level functionaries, and in fact will continue to use the harshest means to assure the hardliners' hold on power", said Farideh Farhi, a leading Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.
Ms Farhi argued that Mr Taeb's new appointment is a significant one. He had been touted as a possible candidate for intelligence minister in Mr Ahmadinejad's new cabinet but eventually was not nominated, probably because of concerns that he would not win parliamentary approval. However, Mr Taeb's new role as head of IRGC intelligence will enable him to perform the same task, but without public scrutiny, Ms Farhi said.
The IRGC's intelligence unit has served in parallel to the intelligence ministry for several years, a role that became even more prominent during the post-election period, she sais. "During the protests there was talk that the intelligence ministry did not perform well," Ms Farhi said. "Hossein Taeb's appointment suggests the office of the leader's [Ayatollah Khamenei] desire to promote intelligence work against opponents outside the framework of the intelligence ministry and under the direct control of Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC."