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.
A president's ability to enact a vision is constrained by international laws and by the willingness of allies and partners to go along with what the White House wants.
President Donald Trump's recent decisions have added new urgency to an old debate: Should the European Union have its own army?
Three reports in the WPS space released in late-2018 underscore the need to rethink gender and conflict by challenging dominant understandings of genocide, jihadist groups, and gang violence.
The second largest Ebola outbreak in history is raging on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and international response has been comparatively quiet. Given the DRC’s recent historical similarities to Sierra Leone, the country that suffered the most cases and deaths during the 2014 outbreak, it is imperative that the world take notice and provide a rapid and holistic response.
German Marshall Fund president and former member of the National Security Council, Karen Donfried answers questions on a post-Merkel Germany, if Russia can be contained without the United States, and why Americans should care about European affairs.
Lost amid the fallout from President Trump’s Syria decision were reports that the commander in chief had also decided to withdraw half of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Against the advice of his entire national security team, President Donald Trump has ordered the full withdrawal of 2,000 US ground troops from Syria within 30 days.
The massive Marriott records breach was the latest in a series of economic espionage cases attributed to China. Top cybersecurity experts Lesley Carhart and Adam Segal join this week's Deep Dish podcast to discuss the evolving tactical and policy challenges involved in managing international cyber space.
David Sanger, national security correspondent and senior writer for the New York Times, answers questions on cyberattacks: why they've become the new weapon of choice for foreign adversaries, the most likely suspects behind the next cyberattack, and who he'd most like to interview on the subject.
Test your 2018 Council program knowledge!
As 2018 comes to a close, we invite you to look back at the most watched Council programs of 2018.
The Global Compact for Migration: International Cooperation Amidst a Nationalist Disinformation Campaign
This week, more than 160 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. But in the process turned into an extremely divisive political issue due in part to a disinformation campaign.
A recent incident between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait may seem minor, but the stakes are real. If this action by Russia goes unpunished, it could pave the way for Russia to take more territory in eastern Ukraine to establish a land-bridge between Russia and Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed in 2014.
The war in Yemen has created one of the greatest unseen humanitarian tragedies in the world. It finally drew public attention after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which triggered a debate about US involvement in the war.
Trade wars, false missile warnings, "babble fish earbuds", and Germany's World Cup whimper: 2018 was a year that sometimes defined description, at least in words. But the numbers tell a story of their own, so here's a smattering of startling stats mentioned on the Council's stage in 2018. To view the full clip, click on the numbers! (These figures were stated by guest speakers and have not been verified by the Council)