Knuckling Down Under Maximum Pressure: Iran’s Basij in Transition
As tension builds between Washington and Tehran, the Islamic Republic of Iran is under a lot of pressure. And, in the wake of considerable domestic unrest in 2018 and sporadic unrest this year, we should not be surprised to see leadership changes across Iran’s security agencies — especially the Basij. After the police, the Basij is the frontline force relied upon by Tehran to combat domestic unrest. And with a U.S.-led pressure campaign aimed possibly at regime change, the Basij is more relevant than ever. Two days before Iran’s greatest enemy, the United States, celebrated its independence, Brig. Gen. Gholam Hossein Gheibparvar was replaced by Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Soleimani. This change indicates how the regime’s threat perceptions are changing — especially regarding Iran’s concern over a new wave of mass unrest and its relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy.
Since its inception, the Basij (Farsi for ‘mobilization’) Organization has been one of the most effective forces in the clerical regime’s tool kit for combating domestic unrest. The Basij was created in 1980 by the order of Ayatollah Khomeini to defend the newly established regime. It became subordinate to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1981, and, as one of its ten units, provided Iranian volunteers to the front in the war against Iraq. During this time, regular and active Basij members came from the same socio-economic background as the rest of the Guard Corps but they were adolescents or older people who were not eligible for service elsewhere in the Corps. The combination of its members’ piety and commitment to sacrifice made the Basij a popular force. By end of Iran-Iraq war, the Basij was promoted as one of the five main branches of the Guard alongside the Land Force, Air Force, Navy, and Quds Force. In 1991, the Basij transformed to become a predominantly anti-riots force with the creation of security battalions for men and women. The Basij has since been used several times to suppress social and political unrests including in Qazvin and Islamshahr in 1993 and 1994, during the 1999 and 2003 student protests, and in 2007 during social protests over rising gas prices. After the suppression of the 2009 mass protests, the Basij was rebranded to implement the regime’s policies and maintain political order while enforcing social control.
In October 2009, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi was appointed as the head of the reformed Basij to expand its presence in society as a civilian organization alongside its military functions. Under his leadership, the Basij created more than 21 different branches for recruiting and organizing Iranians among different social strata and professions, including the Workers Basij Organization, Employees Basij Organization, and Engineers Basij Organization. With this change, the Basij adopted a double identity: a civilian identity, described here, and a military identity as a force under the direct control of the Guard Corps. After 2009, the Basij could be involved in politics more freely and attract those who may have been reluctant to be involved in military or security missions.
While the Basij witnessed a rapid expansion after 2009, leaders in Tehran raised questions over the quality of the organization’s activities. Hence, Brig. Gen. Gheibparvar replaced Naqdi at the end of 2016. In his decree appointing Brig. Gen Gheibparvar as head of the Basij Organization, Ayatollah Khamenei highlighted Gheibparvar’s commitment, competency, and valuable experience, ordering him to focus his efforts on increasing participation of the Iranian people, particularly younger Iranians, in the Basij Organization. Khamenei emphasized the Basij’s active engagement in scientific, cultural, defensive, and public service arenas. He also urged the organization to ramp up efforts to monitor and foil enemy infiltration, improve its cooperation with different governmental bodies (civilian and military) , coordinate with appropriate authorities, and establish think tanks and centers to observe the enemy’s activities and prevent its infiltration.
To improve the Basij’s engagement in scientific, cultural, defensive, and public service arenas, Gheibparvar implemented the “Basij Transcendence Plan,” a series of programs to enact Khamenei’s vision. Through these policies, he attempted to recast the Basij as a force for social services, so younger Iranians would be more drawn to join. This new plan consisted of five main projects: educational, security, cultural, developmental, and health. For example, the Basij shaped more than 11,000 small groups to be deployed in poor and undeveloped areas for developmental projects. The Basij also deployed medical practitioners to similar neighborhoods and rural areas to visit impoverished people and provide them with medication. The most visible plan, however, was the creation of morality patrolling in each neighborhood. These mobile patrols are organized by neighborhood, with volunteers patrolling all day. Before these reforms, the Basij would only have a few checkpoints in a given city. Under this plan, Basij members patrol their designated neighborhoods, impose control, and fight theft, narcotics, and hooliganism.
Now, 30 months later, Khamenei has replaced Gheibparvar with Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Soleimani. In his decree of appointment, Khamenei instructed the new head of the Basij to make every effort to “strengthen the culture of resistance,” “protect the values of the Islamic Revolution,” expand developmental groups, and “foster creativity and innovation among Basij forces.”
In his investiture ceremony, Brig. Gen. Soleimani mentioned that the Basij is not limited to Iran’s territory, and today Basij exits on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, and in Yemen. In making this statement, Soleimani drew attention to the exportability of the Basij model, and the presence of Basij members in these regions. Soleimani emphasized enhancing and strengthening the Basij security and defense missions, which are seen to have been weakened since 2009, and working in close alignment with the supreme leader and the new commander of the Guard Corps.
This development signals a change in the regime’s threat perceptions. The appointment of Soleimani as the new head of the Basij was mainly a response to the deterioration of the political and socio-economic situation in Iran. Since becoming president, Donald Trump has implemented a “maximum pressure” strategy consisting of withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the imposition of pervasive economic sanctions, designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, and hostile rhetoric.
The strategy has led to a rapid decline of Iran’s economy, stagflation, and deep recession. Accompanied by social and political repression, Iranian society is like dynamite, ready to explode. Learning from the past, the Islamic Republic has reshuffled the Guard Cops and the Basij leadership to better anticipate and prepare for suppressing another wave of a mass uprising. Since the Basij is one of the most effective forces in the clerical regime’s tool-kit and is the main force to stifle unrest at home, this change will boost the Basij to prepare it for confronting its enemies and suppress the opposition.
This is not to say that Gheibparvar’s tenure was a total disappointment. He bolstered the Basij’s image mainly by providing social services to the poor and in undeveloped areas. These activities helped the regime to propagate a positive picture of the Basij, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the regime in general. But now, the threats to the regime have shifted. That is why Soleimani emphasizes the strengthening of the Basij’s security and defense missions.
Learning from the transformation of the Basij, the appointment of Soleimani as the new head of the Basij will possibly lead to the militia’s expansion and closer coordination with the Guard’s commander at a time when the Islamic Republic is under existential threat. The Islamic Republic of Iran will expand its support of the Basij as one of the crucial pillars of the regime’s survival to confront its enemies and suppress the opposition.
Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You can find him on Twitter at @saeidgolkar.