Devouring their Own: The Basij in the Islamlic Republic

Amir Hosseini* heeded Ayatollah Khomeini's call to defend nation and revolution when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. He found his way to the neighborhood Basij headquarters and volunteered to head to the war front as a seventeen-year-old. The Basij was created shortly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, as a "large people's militia," in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, who became the Supreme Leader of the newly established Islamic Republic. This paramilitary group was placed under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guards, and both played a large role during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Amir Hosseini joined their ranks in 1980 and quickly headed to the front lines.

He fought for five years, both at the bloody front lines in Khorramshahr - where trench warfare was used for the first time since World War I - and later in the mountainous border towns of Iranian Kurdistan. He only went home once during this time: when his insides began burning after exposure to the nerve and chemical agents the Iraqis dropped from their warplanes on Iranian soldiers and civilians. As a dedicated Basiji, however, who had become a skilled fighter, Amir quickly returned to the battlefields in 1986. One year later, in a minefield in the south of the country, he lost both of his legs, resigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, as the chemicals slowly burn his lungs.

Amir is one of those men who is fiercely proud of his years at the front. He had spent his youth in those trenches fighting the Iraqis (who were equipped with sophisticated weaponry provided by the Europeans and Americans) with nothing more than machine guns and Molotov cocktails during those gruesome first battles to oust the Iraqis from Iranian territory. He is a veteran of the longest war of the 20th century, which claimed over one million lives in both Iran and Iraq.

As the reconstruction period in Iran began following the war, however, Amir became increasingly disillusioned by those in power. He realized that what he had fought for had nothing to do with what was being done in the name of the war by the political elite. He saw lucrative business deals given to "war veterans" who had spent their entire service in offices far from the front lines; he witnessed as murals of his dead friends began to adorn the billboards across Tehran, serving as advertisement: selling their righteous battle like a bottle of miracle detergent that would wipe out all the stains and blemishes, all the corruption of the government.

With the war over and efforts underway to reconstruct the country, the Revolutionary Guards was no longer an institution to protect the nation and the revolution; it became the largest independent economic empire within the regime. Through a combination of the economic policies of the Rafsanjani presidency (1989-1997) and the political maneuverings of the new Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, the Islamic Republic has become a militarized state, despite the warnings from Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, Khomeini had publicly stated during the 1980s that the military and Revolutionary Guards should stay away from politics. In his will, which serves as a manifesto for the post-Khomeini Islamic Republic, Khomeini wrote:

"My firm advice to the armed forces is to follow the regulation of non-interference of the military in the affairs of political parties. The armed forces, including the army, police, the [Revolutionary] Guard, Basij, and others, must not enter any political party and must keep themselves away from political games. Since the Revolution belongs to the people and its protection is the duty of all, it is the patriotic and Islamic obligation of the government, the people, the Defense Council, and the Majles, that if the armed forces, whether the commanders and higher ranks or the lower ranks, act against the interest of Islam and the country or if they want to enter political parties or political games, which undoubtedly will ruin them, they must be opposed from the very beginning. It is the duty of the leader and the Guardian Council to forcefully prevent this sort of action so that the country will be safe from harm" (1989: 45).

Nonetheless, Rafsanjani's economic policies to rebuild the country led him to make it a priority for all government agencies to increase their revenues. During the war itself, the Revolutionary Guards increased its economic clout over Iranian society. Its large budget was not accountable to the Majles (Iranian Parliament), and there was no oversight of its partnerships with the influential and powerful Martyr's Foundation (Bonyad-e Shaheed) and the Foundation for the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mustazafen) that were created right after the revolution. These foundations are among the most liberally endowed organizations in the state.

Since the end of the war, the Revolutionary Guards continued to expand its economic empire by launching numerous companies and receiving lucrative government contracts. Unlike other enterprises, the Revolutionary Guards does not report its income to the Central Bank, and thus its net value is unknown. These Revolutionary Guards owned-and-operated businesses are active in such industries as oil, agriculture, road and dam constructions, and automobile manufacturing, among others. In July 2007, the Ministry of Energy stated that Revolutionary Guards contractors would operate all public infrastructure projects involving water, electricity, and bridges in western Iran for the time being. Many of these contracts were (and continue to be) awarded on a no-bid basis, in violation of Iranian law, which mandates for open bidding processes. In addition to their contracts, the Revolutionary Guards also operates its own 'free-trade ports' where the average Iranian businessman who wants to import or export items is subject to heavy tariffs. The Revolutionary Guards itself, because it runs the ports, is not subject to these high tariffs.
Through a mixture of economic policies and political maneuverings, the Revolutionary Guards and Basij have entered all spheres of public life in post-war Iran.

Yet not all of its members adhere to the ultra-conservative elements of the Islamic Republic that have caught the world's attention in the past two months. Many, like Amir, are strong supporters of the reformists, who have been slowly sidelined by the more hardline factions within their ranks. In 1997, Amir, like many in his cohort who still believed in the ideals of the revolution, became enamored by Mohammad Khatami who as a presidential candidate called for reform within the system. Amir worked ardently for Khatami's presidential campaign that year and his reelection in 2001. Despite Khatami's widespread popular support, the conservative factions within the regime, led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, soon began their crackdown on the reformists. In order to fully counter the reformist movement during this time, the Supreme Leader appointed more conservative Revolutionary Guards members and Basijis to political positions who began to quickly turn on the reformists. In a letter addressed to Khatami in the conservative newspaper, Jomhuri-e Eslami, after the student protests in 1999 at Tehran University, twenty-four senior Revolutionary Guards officers stated that the Revolutionary Guards "cannot tolerate the situation anymore" and would take action if Khatami did not change his policies. As Khatami's presidency drew to an end, the reformist Revolutionary Guards members were sidelined while their conservative counterparts were well positioned within the political and economic realms to increase their power.

In the 2005 presidential elections, of the seven candidates running for office, five were either members of the Revolutionary Guards, or had commanded the Revolutionary Guards at one point. The 2005 election was the turning point in which the conservative members of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij claimed the major political offices throughout the country. Upon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's (himself a former member of the Revolutionary Guards) victory in 2005, many of his cabinet members and nearly 80 members of parliament were formally in the Revolutionary Guards.

Thus, when the elections approached this year in Iran, Amir knew exactly who he and his family would vote for on June 12, 2009. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and those who surrounded him, represented just the people Amir had tried to stay away from: those who used their connections to the war as a front for money, power, and control.

On June 13th, after the announcement that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected as president with a large majority of the vote, Amir, his wife, and their twenty-five year old son took to the streets to join the millions of Iranians protesting the election results.

On the second day, they again joined the millions of peaceful protesters, who marched in a sea of silence to have their voices heard. Buoyed by the incredible energy of those streets, Amir and his family left their home on the third afternoon, his son pushing Amir's wheelchair to join the crowds. It was that day that the Basij (the same group that Amir had once so proudly joined) attacked his son with their batons and venom. Amir yelled at them from his wheelchair, pleading for their sense of mercy. To shut him up, they turned on him, beating him, with his wrists covered in the green ribbons of Mir Hossein Moussavi, until they knocked him out of his wheelchair. Bloody and bruised, his neighbors carried him back home. Though nothing in comparison to the wounds he had experienced at the war front, Amir sobbed uncontrollably that night. He was unable to believe that the system he had fought for throughout his youth, the system he had proudly and without complaint lost his two legs for, had turned on him. He had lived twenty years without his legs and had to spend the evenings on a respirator because his lungs could not breath on their own any longer. And now they beat him.

Amir had a heart attack the following day.

He is still in the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in Tehran, with his family and wartime friends surrounding his bedside. "This isn't what we fought for," they tell me with anger in their voices. "These kids out there with the batons in their hands, they're a cancer for our society," one says, through eyes red with disbelief and disgust.

* The name has been changed to protect his identity.

Narges Bajoghli is a PhD student in socio-cultural Anthropology at New York University, where she is a MacCracken Fellow, focusing on the production of media in revolutionary societies, more specifically on the role of the Basij in media production in Iran.