Iran exports violence and repression

Young soldiers marching (© Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Images)
Young members of the Iranian Basij forces train in northeastern Tehran on April 24, 2015. (© Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Images)

Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has rapidly expanded its citizens army model — the Basij Resistance Force, a volunteer paramilitary force — inside and outside Iran.

“If a dictator could ask a genie for one wish, it would be for one organization to neutralize all threats and not be expensive,” said Saeid Golkar, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee. “The Basij is this organization.”

What is the Basij Resistance Force?

In Iranian schools, businesses, factories and neighborhoods — in nearly every sphere of day-to-day Iranian life — more than 5 million Basij members (known as Basiji) stand ready to defend the regime’s Islamic ideology from internal dissent and foreign threats.

Two women walking, one holding flag (© Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)
Members of the Basij militia attend a parade in Tehran on April 18, 2009. (© Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

In return, they receive government perquisites, such as medical or housing discounts, job opportunities, and acceptance into universities.

Golkar calls Iran’s Basij force a “militarized administrative mass organization [that] anybody can join, from students to doctors.” It is rooted in “every corner of Iranian society.”

Members volunteer to indoctrinate locals with the regime’s norms and values, said Golkar. Basiji act as morality police, roaming the streets to enforce a strict dress code for women.

As a paramilitary force, Basiji are frequently called upon to do the government’s internal dirty work. They attacked protesters in the popular uprisings of 2009, 2018 and again in 2019.

Exporting the model

The Basij recruits schoolchildren as young as 12 years old. They are groomed to become fighters for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force and deployed to Syria. In 2012, Golkar said, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps organized a National Defense Force in Syria of more than 14,000 Basij-like leaders, a number that grew to 100,000 by 2014 and is much higher now.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps “has also emulated the success of the Basij to mobilize Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites to fight for Iran’s interests in the Arab world,” according to Ahmad Majidyar, a policy expert at the Middle East Institute.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps has also provided training on creating a similar force to several Latin American countries, Majidyar writes.

A version of this article was previously published October 18, 2018.