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.
Chicago's property tax assessment system has been a serious source of risk, uncertainty, and global reputational concern.
President Trump has signed an executive order to formally recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Ambassador Dennis Ross joins Deep Dish to explain what's behind the decision.
Over 70 years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has seen its share of successes and failures. Council President Ivo Daalder explains both on the latest episode of #AskIvo.
The world's population is expected to peak and then decline this century, reshaping everything from economic growth and immigration to government spending and climate change.
The US president and the North Korean leader have met twice now, but more is needed than a good relationship between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un to reach a deal on denuclearization.
Five years after Russia annexed Crimea and on the eve of an important election, is Ukraine turning more toward the European Union and Brussels or toward Putin and Moscow?
The US military has intensified its campaign against al Shabaab in Somalia in recent weeks and months. But what is the US goal in Somalia and why is al Shabaab a target?
Prime Minister Netanyahu faces corruption charges ahead of Israel’s election and the subsequent rollout of President Trump’s Mideast peace plan. Douglas J. Feith and Aaron David Miller join Deep Dish to discuss what it all means for US-Israel relations.
Tensions between two nuclear powers have escalated in recent days. Former US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution explain the brinkmanship.
Today, there are nearly 8 billion people on the planet, meaning nearly 8 billion people in need of daily nutritional sustenance. This presents new challenges that threaten our fragile global food system.
The Midwest was America’s first frontier, then the foundation of the country’s agricultural and industrial might. It was the birthplace of great industries and a mecca for migrants seeking a better life and new economic opportunity. As the region forged America’s middle class, much of its success resulted from robust global engagement through trade, immigration, and partnerships.
In our this episode, architect and novelist Lesley Lokko explains urbanism, the importance of culture in cities, and how architecture contributes to a city's culture.
There isn't enough data about women and girls, which is why the data we do have is widely used and influential. It’s also why the revelation that one of the most often cited statistics about women is fabricated shook scholars and practitioners alike.
The 91st Academy Awards take place on Sunday in Los Angeles, but international markets, led by China, have eclipsed the domestic market in importance for the US movie industry, rewriting the rules about what kinds of films get made.
Returning from the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, Council President Ivo Daalder concludes that both sides of the transatlantic relationship have given up even pretending that the relationship is strong.