TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader has replaced the head of the feared militia at the center of the postelection crackdown with a senior military officer under U.N. sanctions for links to the country’s ballistic missile program, state media reported today.
The Basij militia — who operate in plain clothes and often armed with sticks and other crude weapons — were blamed for much of the violence against crowds protesting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 12 re-election.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced commander Hossein Taeb on Sunday and announced two other new military appointments, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Taeb was replaced with Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, a prominent figure in the elite Revolutionary Guard military force who is close to Khamenei.
Naqdi is one of Iran’s top military figures and is among those subject to U.N. Security Council sanctions. A Security Council resolution passed in March 2008 says he worked to get around U.N. sanctions. It also identifies him as a person linked to Iran’s alleged proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities or development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.
Naqdi, as a former head of intelligence at the national police, worked against former President Mohammad Khatami’s democratic reform program. He backed vigilante attacks against gatherings of reformist students and political activists supporting Khatami during the former president’s 1997-2005 rule.
Reformists have accused him of being behind the torture in custody of several municipality officials in the ’90s. Naqdi was convicted of disobeying military orders and insulting city officials but was acquitted of torturing them while they were detained on graft charges.
The Basij, which is a unit of the Revolutionary Guard, was first formed after the 1979 revolution. It has grown into a militia force that military officials now say has some 10 million members, giving it the widest security network in the country.
Its forces also were unleashed on dissidents in the 1990s. During this year’s unrest, some of its members beat demonstrators with batons and even drove into crowds on motorcycles at high speed.
Opposition groups say at least 72 protesters were killed in the unrest, while government officials insist only 36 people died. Hundreds were detained in sweeps and there were accusations that people were abused and even raped in custody.
The accusations prompted Iranian authorities in August to say that they would bring charges against officials — including security forces and judicial members — accused of abusing civilians during the unrest.
A Basij member also was accused in one of the most shocking episodes of the unrest — the death of a 27-year-old music student Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot June 20. Her dying moments were filmed and circulated widely on the Internet, making her name a rallying cry for the opposition and sparking international outrage at the harsh response of security forces.
Witnesses said she was shot by a Basij member. But Taeb, the outgoing commander, said at the time that armed impostors were posing as militia members, suggesting an attempt by opposition forces to tarnish the government’s image.
Some Iranian media reports have said in recent days that the Basij may be merged with the ground force of the Guard, but no officials have confirmed that publicly.
The other new appointments announced by Khamenei were for deputy Revolutionary Guard commander and deputy chief of staff.