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.
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Council President Ivo H. Daalder hit the road with Tom Bevan, executive editor of RealClearPolitics, for the video series Changing Lanes.