Internationalizing the Basij


Members of Iran's Basij militia march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • The Basij, a volunteer militia during Iran-Iraq war, has been institutionalized by regime as tool for indoctrination

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  • The Basij, a paramilitary group loyal to Khamenei and IRGC, is hoping to expand in beyond Iran's borders

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  • All Iran’s revolutionary outreach has ever achieved is bad blood between Tehran and regional capitals

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The Basij-e Mostaz’afin, literally “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” is a uniquely Iranian institution. The Basij began as a volunteer militia operating in defense of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary principles. The iconic image of the Basij in its early years was of unarmed 14-year-olds with headbands singing Imam Hussein’s praises, running across minefields with plastic keys to heaven dangling from their necks.

With the Iran-Iraq War over, the paramilitary Basij transformed itself into the chief mechanism for Iranian authorities to indoctrinate a new generation of revolutionary youth who would not receive their education at the front. This led to the Basij’s institutionalization: today, Basij chapters exist at most secondary schools, universities, and factories. Professionals, whether they are teachers, craftsmen, or doctors, have their own Basij chapters. Special units exist for women and even nomads. The paramilitary group, merged formally into the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2007, even operates summer camps and youth centers.

An article detailing the announcement— an excerpt of which is translated—states that the Basij hopes to expand beyond the borders of Iran. If implemented, this would add a new chapter to Iran’s desire to export its revolution. “Export of Revolution” is the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. It is enshrined in the Islamic Republic’s constitution and, on 25 July 25 1981, Payam-e Enghelab defined “the principle of jihad” as, along with defending the revolution, one of the two main tasks of the Guards.

In the Islamic Republic’s early years, the IRGC sought to export revolution to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Iraq and, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, to Azerbaijan. Beyond Lebanon, where Hezbollah took root, all Iran’s revolutionary outreach has achieved was bad blood between Tehran and regional capitals. Where Iran hopes to sponsor Basij units is unclear. Iranian officials have said they will found the Basij chapters in “allied countries.” Iran, however, has few allies in the Middle East or, for that matter, the Muslim world.

With its traditional ally Syria teetering, which makes establishment of “youth camps” there unlikely, Tehran might instead be refocusing it attention on Lebanon. Should President Bashar al-Assad fall in Syria, Iranian officials would have a harder time exerting influence in Lebanon. Creation of a Basij in Lebanon might be a mechanism for Iranian officials to check growing Hezbollah autonomy. Basij units might also bestow privilege upon dispossessed Iraqi Shi‘ites, who might overlook the Arab-Persian ethnic divide if the price is right.

As firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr both loses influence and seeks to cast his lot with Kurds and Iraqi Sunni Arab parties skeptical of Iran, Iraqi Basij chapters might help compensate for the decline of the Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. While neither Bahrain nor Kuwait is an Iranian ally, Iranian officials might utilize a new Basij outreach strategy to help the Islamic Republic take its sympathy toward the Gulf emirates’ sectarian opposition to a new level. Kuwaiti security officials already warn of sectarian “children’s camps” replete with weapons training operating during school holidays in Western Kuwait. Regardless, a grand plan to expand the Basij—even if to nowhere approaching a 100 million member mark—suggests that the trajectory of Iran is to redouble upon ideological indoctrination rather than moderate in order to live in peace with its neighbors.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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