Crucial role of Basij in Iran power play
London - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is rallying close supporters amid a heated debate over Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers. While Iran’s supreme leader is keen to keep a balance between pragmatists, including President Hassan Rohani, and hard-line opponents of the deal, he also wants to ensure his social base understands his position.
Saeid Golkar, lecturer at Northwestern University in the United States, said Khamenei has always grasped not just the enormity of an agreement with the United States but the importance of justifying it. After the publication of a photograph in Vienna in which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif walked along the river with US Secretary of State John Kerry, “many hardliners on social media asked: ‘What happened? We always said we were revolutionaries, not diplomats’,” Golkar said.
In rallying followers, often called “Hezbollahis”, Khamenei has a new weekly bulletin, Katte-e Hezbollah (The Line of Hezbollah), available on his website and explaining his views, including about the nuclear talks “This is printed and distributed proudly among the Basij bases,” said Golkar. “The leader doesn’t want to lose his core support.”
Golkar has written the first book, at least in English, that focuses on the Basij, the state-financed national militia whose full name is Organisation for the Mobilisation of the Oppressed. Golkar analysed its structure and functions, drawing on research done in Iran, especially while teaching at Tehran University after 2004 when he interviewed and surveyed Basij members and read articles in Basij journals. He also drew on knowledge of his extended family in the Basij.
Golkar’s argument — reflected in the book’s title, Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran — is that the Basij, little known outside Iran, is more effective than generally realised. While rejecting official claims that the Basij has 22 million members, he argues it has at least 4 million and perhaps more than 5 million. He cites reports that 33% of students and 65% of state employees are members. He says the Basij has 50,000 bases and offices.
The book portrays a pyramid with four levels of membership. Three million are “regular” Basij, with above them 1 million-2 million “active” members and then “cadre” and “special” Basij, who together number 200,000. The Basij is organised not just by neighbourhoods, but as students, professors, members of guilds, even of tribes. It carries out surveillance, supervises public behaviour, runs businesses and relays propaganda. In 2009, it helped curb street protests after the disputed presidential election.
Only cadre and special members are paid, although others receive benefits such as cash bonuses, loans and discounts on travel to holy cities. Young women from poorer backgrounds may join, Golkar argues, because the Basij can help them find a job or a husband. In theory, 40% of university places go to members.
The setting up of the Basij in 1980 was improvised, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s first leader, called for “20 million riflemen” to defend the revolution. According to Golkar, the Basij drew on several models, including the shah’s party, the Rastakhiz, communist societies and even the Ba’ath Party of Iraq, where Khomeini spent years in exile.
Since then, the Basij has changed in structure and name — it was originally Basij-e Melli (National Mobilisation). It has become part of Iran’s military, subordinate to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with special and cadre members receiving military training.
But the Basij also links directly to the leader’s office. Hence Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, its chief, was appointed in 2009 by Khamenei at the suggestion of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander.
Since completing Captive Society, Golkar has been researching the relationship between politicised clergy and soldiers in today’s Iran. “We can’t say the Islamic Republic is a clerical establishment, neither can we say it’s a security or military regime,” he told The Arab Weekly. “It’s a combination of both.”
He said a core group of clerics, loyal to the leader, is becoming more important. “They wear clerical clothes and have spent some years in the seminary but they’re working in the security and military, including the IRGC,” he said.
Golkar says there are 4,000- 5,000 such clergy, with 2,000 in the IRGC. “They work mainly for the military’s Ideological-Political Directorate or for its counter-intelligence. Their job could be compared to a communist political commissar. They’re influential and not just in ‘political education’: if you want to be promoted in the military or security, you should be approved by the ideological-political directorate, and by counter-intelligence, both of which include these clerics.”
And like the Basij leaders, they answer ultimately to Khamenei. “These counter-intelligence organisations and ideological-political directorates — in the IRGC, the army, police, the Basij — are all connected to the office of the supreme leader,” Golkar said.
Saeid Golkar, Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran, Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Columbia University Press, 2015.