Any optimistic hopes of a post-nuclear deal rapprochement between Iran and the United States have begun evaporating fast, after Iran’s supreme leader last month banned any further negotiation between Iran and the United States. Following his speech, regime hardliners—including Iran’s civil militia, the Basij—have intensified their anti-American policies. Members of the Basij widely demonstrated against US “cultural penetration or invasion” on November 4, the 36 anniversary of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
But who are the Basij? Not very well-known outside Iran, the Basij are the largest civil militia on the planet, which for more than three decades has been a lethal tool of the Iranian state—disseminating propaganda, conducting internal surveillance, policing society, and suppressing dissidents.
The Basij, which means “mobilization,” came to life as a subordinate offspring to the more well-known enforcer apparatus, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As an early, essential adjunct of sweeping measures aimed at internal security and citizen subjugation in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, the Basij quickly stepped up to become the morality police helping to impose fealty to the new regime, its theocracy, and its geopolitical views and aims.
By 1980, steeped in the Iran-Iraq war, the Basij was the main source for recruiting and deploying Iranian youth, mainly from poor and conservative families, to the war fronts—where militia members proved to be committed combatants and malleable martyrs, clearing mines, and absorbing enemy fire as part of Iran’s “human wave” tactic.
Inside Iran, the Basij continued in the decades that followed to ingratiate and align itself with the prevailing winds and wills of Iranian leadership of the time, proving to be an important catalyst in Iran’s social order by enforcing doctrine and beating back attempts to reform. Boasting 22 branches touching every tentacle of Iranian society as part of a systematic scheme, the Basij became an efficient instrument in recruiting, indoctrinating, and firmly conjoining four to five million Iranian citizens to the aims, ambitions, and ideology of Iran’s clerical leadership. Members enjoy preferential educational opportunities or treatment in securing government and other jobs controlled by the state, including almost exclusive access to jobs with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as well as national police forces.
The Basij’s involvements in Iran’s economy and politics reached chilling new levels after the victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a member of the Basij, in the 2005 presidential election. Four years later, the Basij was one of the Islamic regime’s effective apparatus in suppressing the Green Movement that arose in protest Ahmadinejad’s highly disputed reelection.
Worryingly, Iran’s leadership has cynically leveraged the Basij to do its bidding in quieting the social and political unrests stemming from the election while simultaneously denying responsibility for any human rights violations by alleging the Basij militia represented ordinary citizens acting independently of Iran’s official security forces.
All of this is troubling enough to those who want to see democracy take root in Iran, yet something even more troubling is happening: Consistent with other Iranian incursions and influence peddling, the Basij model is being actively promoted and exported to other nations. Militia forces in both Iraq and Syria are modeled on the Basij. Like the Basij, these forces are encouraged by the state but are just far enough outside the official structures to allow the state some degree of disingenuous deniability of the abuses and human rights violations they commit. Given the levels of violence and chaos in both Iraq and Syria, the expansion of civil militias in the Middle East will make it ever harder for peaceful solutions to emerge in those conflicts.
And further afield, Iran’s clerical leaders are even fomenting the Basij models in places as far away as Venezuela, where the regime has used militant grassroots groups known as colectivos to suppress the opposition. In 2009 the Iranian Basij commander, General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, visited Venezuela to aid them training and organizing these homegrown militias.
While the nuclear deal has been reached, US policymakers and their allies should not overlook the power of the Basij—both to work with regime elements to undermine the more progressive part of Iran’s society, and as an unchecked tool for power projection outside the country. Moreover, the US State Department also needs to make clear to their Iranian counterparts that encouraging the rise of civil militias in the region or elsewhere is unworthy of a country that wants global respect—not to mention a force that once unleashed may have unforeseen consequences.
Though entities such as the Revolutionary Guard may have a higher profile, even in Iran, the Basij should not go unexamined and unchecked.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.
In this episode, historian and author Michael Beschloss answers questions on presidential history, the system of checks and balances, and offers advice for President Trump and Congress.
The conventional wisdom is that Americans prefer to stay out of world affairs. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Both the United States and Germany are seeing evolving economies in their respective “rust belts,” formerly robust engines of the industrial era. Both are developing strategies to address these challenges but, unlike President Trump's approach, Germany is focused on accelerating change so the region will thrive in the future.
Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidency with a far-right populism that drew comparisons to President Donald Trump.
It has been a month since journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But answers about his murder have not been forthcoming.
Will ties stay strong between Washington and Riyadh? Find out what Council President Ivo Daalder thinks in the latest #AskIvo.
Britain is slated to exit the European Union in March 2019. No one yet knows whether a deal will be reached or what happens if negotiations fail.
The burgeoning US-China trade war has dominated headlines. But the larger story of China’s economy is just as intriguing—and is the subject of this week's Deep Dish podcast.
With midterm elections fast-approaching, professor and author Francis Fukuyama answers questions on the rise in identity politics, its effects on democracy, and how countries can build inclusive identities.
Since its creation, the Women, Peace, and Sercurity agenda has driven the UN to be increasingly concerned with women’s empowerment as well as inclusive policymaking and implementation. Grasping the agenda’s scope can shed light on ways that different stakeholders can work to advance the agenda.
If you attended the unveiling of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s new On To 2050 plan earlier this month, you might think it an audacious effort to solve the region’s extraordinary problems in transformational fashion. The plan itself tells a more modest story.
America is abdicating its global leadership role, as Ivo Daalder and James M. Lindsay explain in a new book out this week.
This often overlooked but important geopolitical trio, Iran, Russia, and China, is the subject of a new book by this week's Deep Dish podcast guests.
Two distinguished public opinion surveys reveal how American foreign policy is perceived at home and abroad.
In this episode, Time's Up leader and former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama, Tina Tchen, shares her favorite thing about working with the former First Lady, the challenges of building Time's Up, and advice for young women starting their careers.