|Army of the Guardians of
the Islamic Revolution
|Supreme Leader of Iran|
The Basij (Persian: بسيج; full name Sazmane Basij-e Mostaz'afin, literally "The Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed") is a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 by order of the Islamic Revolution's leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The original organization comprised the civilian volunteers whom the Ayatollah Khomeini urged to fight in the Iran–Iraq war. The force consists of young Iranians who have volunteered, often in exchange for official benefits. Currently Basij serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security as well as law enforcement auxiliary, the providing of social service, organizing of public religious ceremonies, and policing of morals and the suppression of dissident gatherings. Basij is the name of the force; a basiji is an individual member.
The Basij are set up as subordinate to, receiving their orders from, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to whom they are known for their loyalty. They have also been described as "a loosely allied group of organizations" including "many groups controlled by local clerics." They have a local organization in almost every city in Iran.
As of October 2009[update] Mohammad Reza Naqdi was the commander of the Basij. The force has often been present and reacting against the widespread protests which occurred immediately after the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in the months following.
- 1 History
- 2 Organization and membership
- 3 Human rights and political activism
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
During the Iranian revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a decree founding the Basij as "a large people's militia", in November 1979. He is reported to have stated that "a country with 20 million youths must have 20 million riflemen or a military with 20 million soldiers; such a country will never be destroyed."  This "people's militia" was established on April 30, 1980. The Basij was open to those above the age of 18 and below the age of 45, and all women in that age category. According to author Baqer Moin, the group "which was formed as a civil defence force, but in practice became a grass-roots intelligence organisation, was largely made up of young boys aged between ten and sixteen and, during the war, unemployed old men, some in their eighties."
During the Iran-Iraq War hundreds of thousands volunteered for the Basij, including children as young as 12 and unemployed old men, some in their eighties. These volunteers were swept up in Shi'i love of martyrdom and the atmosphere of patriotism of the war mobilization. They were encouraged through visits to the schools and an intensive media campaign. The Basij may best be known for their employment human wave attacks which cleared minefields or draw the enemy's fire. It is estimated that tens of thousands were killed in the process. Some reports have the Basiji marching into battle marking their expected entry to heaven by wearing plastic "keys to paradise" around their necks.
The typical human wave tactic was for Basijis (often very lightly armed and unsupported by artillery or air power) to march forward in straight rows. While casualties were high, the tactic often worked. "They come toward our positions in huge hordes with their fists swinging," an Iraqi officer complained in the summer of 1982. "You can shoot down the first wave and then the second. But at some point the corpses are piling up in front of you, and all you want to do is scream and throw away your weapon. Those are human beings, after all."
According to Dilip Hiro, by the spring of 1983 the Basij had trained 2.4 million Iranians in the use of arms and sent 450,000 to the front. Tehran Bureau estimates the peak number of Basijis at the front at 100,000 by December 1986. By the end of the war between 700,000-800,000 Basij volunteers were sent to the front. In 1985 the IRNA put the number of Basijis at 3 million.
Duties after the war
By the end of the war, most of the Basijis left the service and were reintegrated back into their lives, often after years of being in the front. After the war, the Basij was reorganized and gradually developed into one of the Islamic regime's "primary guarantors of domestic security." By 1988 the number of Basij checkpoints dramatically decreased, but the Basij were still active in monitoring the activities of citizens. They enforce hijab, arresting women for violating the dress code, arrest youths for attending mixed gender parties or being in public with unrelated members of the opposite sex, seized 'indecent' material and satellite dish antennae.
In 1988 college Basiji organizations were established on college campuses to fight "Westoxification" and potential student agitation against the government. Basij members played "a central role" in breaking up the student riots in Tehran in 1999. They were also instrumental in quelling several outbreaks of ethnic unrest in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which is home to the majority of Iran's ethnic-Arab population.
Basij also act as an emergency management service, being mobilized in case of earthquakes or other natural or human-made disasters. It may supplement law enforcement by setting up street inspection posts in urban areas to intercept drug smuggling and potential insurgency.
The Ashura Brigades are reported to have been created in 1993 after anti-government riots erupted in various Iranian cities. These Islamic brigades were made up of both Revolutionary Guards and the Basij and by 1998 numbered 17,000.
According to the New York Times, after the spontaneous celebrations following Iran winning a spot in the World Cup soccer championship in 1998, and the student protests in July 1999, the Islamic government felt that it had lost control of the streets, and "reinvented" the Basij to correct this problem. Giving a slightly different timeline, GlobalSecurity.org reports that it was under the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (elected in 2005) that the Basij appeared "to be undergoing something of a revival."
In late September 2005, the Basij staged a series of urban defense exercises across the country. Its first deputy commander announced the creation of 2,000 "Ashura battalions" within the Basij that will have "riot-control responsibilities." Some speculated the "revival" of the Basij was connected "with preparations for possible civil unrest."
The Iranian Government has drawn up a number of different plans to keep the Basij alive. Among these plans is the emphasis on ideas such as Development Basij (Basij-e-Sazandegi). Fars News Agency reported. "Among the most important tasks of the Basij are boosting everlasting security, strengthening development infrastructures, equipping resistance bases, [and] increasing employment," Hejazi added. He described the prohibition of vice and the promotion of virtue in society as the "divine policy" of the Basij.
Along with the Iranian riot police and the Ansar-e-Hezbollah, the Basij have been active in recent years in suppressing student demonstrations in Iran. The Basij are sometimes differentiated from the Ansar in being more "disciplined" and not beating, or at least not being as quick to beat demonstrators. Other sources describe the Ansar-e-Hezbollah as part of the "loosely allied group of organizations" that make up the Basij.
Some believe the change in focus of the Basij from its original mission of fighting to defend Iran in the Iran-Iraq War to its current internal security concerns has led to a loss in its prestige and morale. According to an unnamed "seasoned analyst" quoted by csmonitor.com, "You define yourself by your enemies, and those were the superpowers back then. ... But now they are fighting young people who put gel in their hair. That's the enemy. So it's demeaning, and not at all elevating for their self-image."
2009 election protests
Mir Hussein Moussavi, opposition presidential candidate in 2009, has "decried the violence carried out by the Basij" during protests following the disputed presidential election, complaining that the basij attack the demonstrations "with hoses, clubs, iron bars, truncheons and sometimes firearms," 'just before the police show up.'  The tactics used by the Basij against election demonstrators have been described as involving choosing "targets at the edges of the crowds, going for the vulnerable and unwary stragglers," attacking "surreptitiously ... jumping demonstrators as they return home on darkened streets at night," and also wielding "tiny knives or razor blades to use against protestors from behind their backs." There have also been reports of poor performance by basij after the 2009 election, with some basij failed to suppress demonstrations, "deserted their assignments", and being unwilling "to beat up neighbors who protested against the election result by chanting 'God is great' from their homes." According to Tehran Bureau, "from June 22 onward, the Basij constituted only a minority of the forces cracking down on protesters," after having had "trouble maintaining order in major urban centers" particularly Tehran. This was thought to be a reason for the replacement of commander Hossein Taeb and the Basij's formal integration into the Revolutionary Guards ground forces in October 2009.
Following the protests, Hojjatoleslam Hossein Taeb, commander of the Basij, "cautioned" Iranians that the US was "hiring agents and mercenaries in an effort to continue its plots for a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic," according to the Iranian Fars news agency. Taeb has also stated that the anti-government riots "killed eight members of the Basij and wounded 300 others."
Syrian Civil War, 2011–present
Syria's geopolitical importance to Iran and its role as one of Iran's crucial allies prompted the involvement of Basij militiamen in the ongoing Syrian Civil war. The Basij militia, similar to Hizballah fighters, has been working side by side with the Syrian army against rebel forces. Such involvement poses new foreign policy challenges for a number of countries across the region, particularly Israel and Turkey as Iran's influence becomes more than just ideological and monetary on the ground in the Syrian conflict. The Basij involvement in the Syrian Civil War reflects previous uses of the militia as a proxy force for Iranian foreign policy in an effort to assert Iranian dominance in the region and frightens Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army.
As of December 2013, thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij fighters were stationed in Syria.
Organization and membership
Subgroupings of the Basij include the Pupil Basij [Basij-e Danesh-Amouzi], the Student Basij [Basij-e Daneshjouyi], the University Basij, the Public Service Basij [Basij-e Edarii], and the Tribal Basij, (aka Basij-e Ashayer or the former tribal levies incorporated into the Basij). In the Student Basij, middle-school-aged members are called "Seekers" (Puyandegan), and high-school members are called the "Vanguard" (Pishgaman). Tehran Bureau also lists a "Basij of the Guilds" [Basij-e Asnaf], and a "Labor Basij" [Basij-e Karegaran].
Basij has been called "a quasi-decentralised network". Its organizational structure and training "varies from one province to another, according to the nature and severity of the potential threats identified by the IRGC and Basij commanders in different regions." The Basij have "branches in almost every Iranian mosque", with rooms marked Paygah-e-Basij or Basij base, "which serves as a kind of Islamic club where students study the Koran, organize sports teams and plan field trips." According to the Tehran Bureau, the Basij "statute distinguishes between three types of members":
- Regular members, "who are mobilized in wartime and engage in developmental activities in peacetime. Regular members are volunteers and are unpaid, unless they engage in war-time duty."
- Active Members, "who have had extensive ideological and political indoctrination, and who also receive payment for peacetime work." and
- Special Members, "who are paid dual members of the Basij and the IRGC and serve as the IRGC ground forces."
Basij form the fifth branch of the Army of the Revolutionary Guard, and the "three main armed wings" of the Basij are the Ashoura and Al-Zahra Brigades, the Imam Hossein Brigades (composed of Basij war veterans who cooperate closely with the IRGC ground forces) and the Imam Ali Brigades (which deal with security threats). According to Radio Free Europe, the "backbone" of the Basij comprises 2,500 Al-Zahra battalions (all women) and Ashura battalions (male), numbering 300–350 personnel each. The IRGC aims to arm 30 percent of these battalions with semi-heavy and heavy weapons. However, all members of the battalions are trained to use light arms and rifles. They are trained "in riot-control tactics and how to deal with domestic uprisings," and officially tasked with "defending the neighborhoods in case of emergencies."
In addition, since 2007 the Basij have established "30,000 new combat cells, each of them 15-20 members strong, named Karbala and Zolfaqar". The cells "cooperate closely" or in emergency situations are "controlled by" the Revolutionary Guard.
The first deputy commander General Mirahmadi was formally installed on 4 September 2005. The Tehran commander is Seyyed Mohammad Haj Aqamir. The deputy Basij commander for Tehran, General Ahmad Zolqadr, was formally installed on 5 September 2005; the new Basij commander in Tabrizi, Brigadier General Mohammad Yusef Shakeri, on 29 September 2005.
Estimates of the number of Basij vary, with its leadership giving higher figures than outside commentators. According to RFERL,
According to a former commander of the Basij, Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, the strength of the force in 2004 was 10.3 million. By 2007, its strength stood at 12.6 million. The current commander of the Basij, Hasan Taeb, told the semi-official Fars news agency on November 25 that the force now numbers 13.6 million, which is about 20 percent of the total population of Iran. Of this number, about 5 million are women and 4.7 million are schoolchildren. ... In fact the Basij may be able to mobilize no more than 1.5 million men and women of military age.
An earlier study in 2005 by a Washington think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put "the number of full-time, uniformed, and active members at 90,000, with another 300,000 reservists and some 1 million that could be mobilized when necessary."
Duties and activities
In their capacity of maintaining law and order, Basiji act as "morality police" in towns and cities by "enforcing the wearing of the hijab; arresting women for violating the dress code; prohibiting male-female fraternization; monitoring citizens' activities; confiscating satellite dishes and 'obscene' material; intelligence gathering; and even harassing government critics and intellectuals. Basij volunteers also act as bailiffs for local courts."
Duties may vary by province, with Basij deployed against drug traffickers in the eastern border regions, banned goods smugglers in Hormuzgan and Bushehr, and "carrying out border-guard duties" on the border with Iraq.
As of 2008, "government construction and economic projects can be contracted to the Basij", and in 2010, "thousands" of basiji "were educated in blogging and filtering of dissident websites" on the internet.
Benefits and profile of members
According to a 2006 report from Globalsecurity.org Basij membership is thought to comprise "mainly boys, old men, and those who recently finished their military service," while in 2009 the New York Times describes them as "ranging in age from high school to about 30 years old."
Benefits for members of the Basij reportedly include exemption from the 21 months of military service required for Iranian men, reserved spots in universities, and a small stipend. Members of Basij are more likely than non-members to obtain government positions, especially security related positions within government controlled institutions. Many Iranians reportedly join Basij only to take advantage of the benefits membership and to get admission to university or as a tool to get promotion in government jobs.
In past elections militia members have voted for both hardliners and reformists. President Ahmadinejad enjoys significant support from militia members, many of whom have benefited from his policies.
As the Basij is a volunteer paramilitary organisation, most Basiji are not permitted to carry a firearm except for special requirements. This means that only about 25% of Basij carry firearms, usually an AK-47. However there is no rule saying that they cannot use any other weaponry, an issue which has brought major controversy.
Human rights and political activism
Human rights controversies
- According to allegations received by the UNHCR "tens of thousands of Basijis had been ordered to prowl about every factory, office and school to ensure that everyone adhered to the Islamic code. [...] After the summer 1999 riots Basij units were revived, rearmed and sent out into the streets to help enforce Islamic law. The Basijis are reportedly under the control of local mosques. It was further said that the Basijis set up checkpoints around the cities and stopped cars to sniff their occupant's breath for alcohol and check for women wearing make-up or travelling with a man not their close relative or husband. It was reported that the Law of Judicial Support for the Basijis, published in the Official Gazette No. 13946 of 8.10.1371 (December 1992), provided no redress against arbitrary detention by the Basijis." Iran's permanent representative to the U.N. denied these charges.
- Amnesty International claims that "investigations by Parliament and the National Security Council indicated that actions by Revolutionary Guard officials and Basij (Mobilization) forces, among others, precipitated the unrest and injuries following the July 1999 students demonstrations".
- Human Rights Watch has reported that the Basij belong to the "Parallel institutions" (nahad-e movazi), "the quasi-official organs of repression that have become increasingly open in crushing student protests, detaining activists, writers, and journalists in secret prisons, and threatening pro-democracy speakers and audiences at public events." Under the control of the Office of the Supreme Leader these groups set up arbitrary checkpoints around Tehran, uniformed police often refraining from directly confronting these plainclothes agents. "Illegal prisons, which are outside of the oversight of the National Prisons Office, are sites where political prisoners are abused, intimidated, and tortured with impunity." 
- On 13 November 2006, Tohid Ghaffarzadeh, a student at Islamic Azad University of Sabzevar was reportedly killed by a Basij member at the University while Ghaffarzadeh was talking to his girlfriend. The killer reportedly approached Ghaffarzadeh and stabbed him with a knife explaining that what he did was according to his religious beliefs.
- On 15 June 2009, reports linked the Basij militia to murder of civilians in Azadi Square, Tehran, during the 2009 Iranian election protests. News agencies reported 7 dead and over 50 wounded.
- On 27 June 2009, Human Rights Watch said the Basij were raiding homes at night, destroying property, beating people, and confiscating satellite dishes. They said the raids were to stop anti-government chanting and to prevent people from watching foreign news broadcasts.
- During this same period, several Basij members have been filmed breaking into houses and shooting into crowds.
- During the 2009 election protests, the IRG and the Basij also attacked Universities and students' dorms at night, and destroyed property.
In theory the Basij are banned from involvement in politics by the Iranian constitution, but its leadership is considered active, particularly during and after the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to American state-sponsored broadcaster RFERL, "Basij support contributed to Ahmadinejad's victory in the 2005 presidential election". In the March 2008 parliamentary elections, the Basij and IRGC commanders
"openly backed Ahmadinejad's principalists (osulgarayan)". In February 2008, Major General Jafari was quoted as saying that "the principlists are in control of the executive and legislative branches and, God willing, the judiciary will soon follow suit." Hasan Taeb, then deputy commander of the Basij, similarly stressed that Basij members should have a "maximum presence" in the elections.
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