(Persia Digest) - In the week that the Trump administration labelled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, volunteers from the elite force showed a different side as they pitched up in rural Khuzestan province to provide aid to victims of the recent floods.
The Financial Times writes that Abbas Parsaei, who runs a medical facility in the city of Mashhad, travelled more than 1,000km across Iran to the stricken village of Dehlavieh, joining dozens of other volunteers from the guards to dig trenches and deliver supplies to families in need.
“We prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for 600 people and take it by boat to villages that are under water,” Mr Parsaei told the Financial Times as he assembled food parcels. Like more than 10m others volunteer members of the guards, his efforts are unpaid.
“What Trump doesn’t understand is that money isn’t part of my ideology,” Mr Parsaei said. “The revolution survives because of the dedication of its supporters.”
The guards’ lead role in the relief efforts following devastating floods that claimed 76 lives and caused more than $8bn worth of damage shines a spotlight on the group’s widening role in Iranian society.
Branding the guards as a foreign terrorist group was part of Washington’s continuing efforts to hurt Tehran by depriving the organisation of vital funding. Donald Trump’s administration views the guards, and in particular the expeditionary Quds force led by General Qasem Soleimani, as instrumental in sowing instability in the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen.
But in Iran, the role of the guards in public life is more complex. The organisation was established after the 1979 revolution in parallel to the conventional army to protect the Islamic establishment from domestic and foreign threats.
The 120,000-strong force, and its millions of devoted volunteers, has used its mandate to turn itself into a commercial powerhouse, building a significant presence in the energy and construction industries and the importation of consumer goods.
Their role following natural disasters is also well established — even if their efforts this time have been more high-profile. When a massive earthquake hit the western province of Kermanshah last year, a group of Iranian film stars and sporting celebrities came to the fore to raise money for the relief efforts. This time it was the guards who took the lead, which also meant sidelining the government of Hassan Rouhani with which they are often at odds.
“Solidifying the social role of the Revolutionary Guards is a guarantee of our national security,” said one regime insider close to hardliners who are critics of Mr Rouhani. “If we wake up tomorrow and face a crisis, the guards needs to be able to rely on a strong network. They are the only organised force which enjoys a top-down military command.”
Mr Rouhani and his team gambled on the 2015 nuclear accord — which in return for abandoning the country’s nuclear ambitions led to a lifting of many sanctions — to lure much needed investment and tentatively open the country to the outside world. But the decision by the US last year to withdraw from the landmark agreement and reimpose crippling sanctions was a severe blow.
The new restrictions rolled back the economic achievements of the Rouhani government, pushed inflation above 25 per cent and led to an economic contraction of 3.8 per cent from March to November, according to official figures.
The US’s belligerence also emboldened the hardliners, including the guards, that have long claimed that the west could not be trusted and that Mr Rouhani had signed up to a bad deal that offered few benefits to the Islamic republic. And for the guards, the recent floods provided an opportunity to bolster its social role and strengthen its network of supporters.
In Hamidiyeh, a village in Khuzestan where both the Dez and Karkheh rivers burst their banks, the volunteers were joined by a group of young clerics as they prepared dishes of rice and chicken to be delivered by boat, along with ladders and spades to aid the relief effort.
Men stood on a nearby bridge taking water measures, as others joined locals filling sandbags to build flood barriers as they sought to prevent further damage to farmland and houses.
A few days before the FT visited, General Soleimani had himself arrived to inspect the work and rally volunteers in their humanitarian mission. Iraqi paramilitary forces also crossed the border to join in the relief efforts.
Some Iranians dismiss the guards’ social role as politically motivated, and say they only want to manipulate public sentiment or even seize control of the country’s affairs.
However, Naji, a 26-year-old mother of two, said she was grateful for their assistance, even as she refused orders to leave her home. “Our cattle and crops are gone. Let the flood wash us away too,” she said. “Only the guards have helped us.”
Reza Abedini Sohi, a Tehran-based activist who also travelled to the affected region, said there was no doubt that the guards were helping to alleviate suffering. “We had to work shoulder-by-shoulder with them,” he said. “When a whole village is at risk, this is not something that activists like us can do much about.”
Ali Salek, who led the engineering efforts in Hamidiyeh, also praised his fellow volunteer guards, while insisting that his county would not be cowed by threats from the US president.
“The young people who have come here know this is part of the plan that Ayatollah Khamenei has outlined to build an Islamic civilisation,” he said, his sleeves rolled up and boots muddied, referring to Iran’s supreme leader.
“Trump has made a mistake by challenging us. Confrontation with the US means we will either be martyred or we will defeat the US. Both are our dreams.”
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