On the Basij militia in Iran
Authoritarian states depend on a number of political and structural elements to retain and perpetuate power. Of these, loyal security and military forces are perhaps the most significant in keeping such states afloat. As the Arab Spring has shown, armed forces can play a crucial role in either preventing popular upheaval from toppling a regime or in assisting such action. Bahrain for instance relied on its armed forces (and those provided by its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council) to systematically crush a growing popular protest movement. Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, lost favor with senior military officers who ultimately deposed him in response to a mass demonstrations—a role the military revisited just over two years later in overthrowing Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president.
Iran has experienced its own protest movements. As recently as 2009, protestors flooded the streets of Iran’s major cities voicing their rejection of the contested reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinjead. Security forces violently clashed with protestors, ultimately crushing the demonstrations and regaining control of public spaces. Although several branches of Iranian security forces were involved counter-protest operations, the Basij militia gained the most notoriety for its spirited use of violence against civilians.
The Basij is an all-volunteer popular militia that is strongly supportive of Iran’s ruling regime and a stalwart of its governing Islamic system. They are also the subject of my new article in The Middle East Journal. The Basij is a security organization that engages in social and political activism, particularly in support of hard-line conservative interests. Despite its prominence in Iranian society, however, the organization has drawn only limited critical attention by scholars and analysts. My study focuses on the group’s rank-and-file members and looks at the organization’s mechanisms for recruitment, participation, and training. Based in part based on interviews with current and former Basij members, the article concludes with general observations about the organization and its internal practices.
Afshon Ostovar is a Project Director and Research Scientist at the Center for Strategic Studies at CNA, a not-for-profit federally-funded research organization.