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.
The next president of the United States faces a world on edge, and America confronts a more complex and less controllable world than at any time in history. Dealing with these challenges will require a refocused grand strategy, one that better aligns America's capabilities with its interests and prioritizes what is truly important.
What’s behind this year’s populist explosion? In the latest episode of Deep Dish, we put the year’s political movements—from Brexit to Trumpism—in historic context and discuss their implications for the established world order.
The rise of populism is one of the most important global developments in recent memory. This week’s reads explore some of the reasons why populists are gaining more prominence and what this means for America and the world.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is engaging the public and thought leaders in dialogue critical to the 2016 presidential election. In part two of our “Election 2016: America in the World” video series, find out what the public thinks America's role in the world should be.
Rosana Schaack, founder and executive director of the NGO Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness (THINK), spoke at the Council on September 22. She sat down with us one-on-one to talk about what drives her work.
With the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal unlikely to pass Congress and both candidates calling for it to be renegotiated, what is happening with the politics of trade this year? Iain Whitaker breaks down Council programs and polling to find out.
Core supporters of Donald Trump are most opposed to immigrants and least likely to support free trade, but Americans overall favor continued immigration and support globalization, according to the 2016 Chicago Council Survey. Council senior fellow Dina Smeltz breaks down the report findings in a new video.
This week’s reads provide some insight into the major threats to the liberal world order, as well as some perspectives on how it can be strengthened through US leadership.
In the latest episode of Deep Dish, resident global economy expert Phil Levy sat down with Brian Hanson to discuss one of this election’s biggest issues: the TPP and trade deals like it.
Fanning the flames of nationalism appears to have won short-term traction with populists on both sides of the Atlantic—but will this strategy of marginalization and alienation eventually backfire? Sara McElmurry explores the link between immigration and populism.
Foreign Affairs magazine managing editor Jonathan Tepperman visited the Council on September 27 to discuss foreign policy lessons for the next president. He sat down with us one-on-one to describe the biggest foreign policy issue challenge on the horizon.
In advance of our October 24 conference on populism, Council President Ivo H. Daalder addresses the question of what populism is and why it is becoming such a growing force around the world.
With immigration and national security set for discussion in the third debate, vice president of studies Brian Hanson sat down with Council immigration expert Sara McElmurry and polling expert Craig Kafura to discuss common-sense immigration reforms that could find consensus during the next administration.
Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra discussed progress toward gender equality around the world with a Council audience last month. We sat down one-on-one with her to inquire what question she hoped the audience would ask. Find out what she said.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump will not be the next president of the United States. This week’s reads provide some insight into what happens when a nation turns inward and offer a picture of what America may be avoiding by rejecting the politics of Trump.