Crucial role of Basij in Iran power play

Friday 30/10/2015
Iranian members of the Basij militia take part in a training during a two-day exercise in the capital Tehran, on September 3, 2015.

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.