Men dressed in black, riding motorcycles, often carrying guns or clubs, have appeared since the start of the protests in Iran. They are members of what are known as the Basij (ba-SEEJ’), paramilitary volunteers who are fiercely loyal to the Islamic Republic. The Ayatollah’s troops have taken a leading role in suppressing dissidents for more than two decades.
Following recent protests, which erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in moral police custody last month, these troops have been deployed in major cities, attacking and detaining protesters, who in many cases have fought back.
A widely circulated video shows dozens of schoolgirls removing the obligatory Islamic head covering, known as the hijab, and shouting at a Basij leader to leave.
It remains to be seen whether the protests will subside, but how the Basij and other security forces respond to them is expected to play a big role.
When was the Basij of Iran established?
The Basij, whose official name translates to the Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed, was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution to Islamize Iranian society and fight internal enemies.
During the devastating Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Basij led the infamous attacks against Saddam Hussein’s army, lining up against the army poorly armed fighters, many of them teenagers, who died running through minefields and amid artillery fire.
With the start of the recent student revolts of the 1990s, the Basij took on a role more or less akin to the ruling party of an authoritarian state. The Basij troops are under the command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and staunchly loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has repeatedly boasted that they are a pillar of the Islamic Republic.
They have established branches across the country, as well as student organizations, unions and medical entities. The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on what it says is a multibillion-dollar network of businesses run in secret by Basij. The Basij’s security apparatus includes armed brigades, anti-riot forces and a vast network of informants who spy on their neighbors.
Saeid Golkar, an Iran scholar at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga who has written a book about the Basij, says the organization has about 1 million members, tens of thousands of whom are security forces.
“Because they are ordinary Iranians without a uniform, the Islamic Republic labels them as pro-regime supporters,” he said. “But at the same time, most of these people are paid by the Islamic Republic.”
Why are Iranian forces attacking protesters?
Experts say that many of those who join Basij do so because of economic needs, as through membership they secure support for admission to universities and employment in the public sector.
Membership is preceded by a strong indoctrination, for 45 days they receive ideological and military lessons.
They are taught that the Islamic revolution is a divine war against injustice, a war that is threatened by many enemies, from the United States and Israel to Iranian opposition groups in exile and even Western culture itself.
“Even if new recruits are initially motivated by personal gain,” says Golkar, “indoctrination can help strengthen the reasons.”
According to the Organization, the Islamic veil, or hijab, is a shield against gender mixing, adultery and corruption, its removal is a sign of depraved Western culture. Iran’s leaders have accused the recent protests of being part of a foreign plot to foment unrest.
Charges that have been denied by protesters themselves who say the demonstrations are a spontaneous outburst of anger at decades of oppressive rule, bad governance and international isolation.
How can the protests be blocked by Iran’s forces?
The politics of control in Iran begins with the massive surveillance of citizens, which is carried out by the Basijites, who are present in almost every public institution. Iran also restricts internet access, especially during the period of protests, and the organization has a special cyber unit to hack into enemies. “There are different strategies. Of course the most obvious is the violence,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.
When protests break out, Basijites dress in black, ride motorcycles, sometimes marching towards demonstrators to disperse them. They operate alongside the police and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
“They chase them, beat them and shoot them. They surround the protestors and put them in vans to take them to detention centers to severely abuse them,” said Vakil.
Members of the Basijis organization can also infiltrate among the protesters, in order to identify the leaders of the protest. Amnesty International said in a report last month that four individuals identified by Iranian authorities as part of the Basij were shot and killed by security forces after being among the protesters.
Will Iran manage to curb the protests?
Iran has cracked down on a series of protests over the years, including the 2009 Green Movement, when millions took to the streets after disputed presidential elections. Hundreds were killed in 2019 as Iran cracked down on demonstrations over the country’s long-running economic crisis, which faces heavy sanctions.
But the recent protests have a different feel, which may make them harder to quell.
They are led by young women angry about the ever-stricter enforcement of the conservative Islamic dress code. But the protests are gaining support from a much wider section of society, including ethnic minorities and even some workers in Iran’s main oil industry.
Protesters accuse Iran’s moral police of beating 22-year-old Mahsa Amini to death for not wearing a full hijab. Authorities deny she was abused, saying she died of a heart attack, a claim disputed by her family.
Videos of recent protests show young women cutting their hair while demonstrators chant “death to the dictator” and other slogans.
Basij members manage to push back and sometimes even chase away the protesters.
But no one expects the Iranian authorities to back down anytime soon.
“With the high censorship of the Internet, it’s a little early to conclude from afar what exactly is going on there,” Vakil said. “But I think that the government hoped at the beginning that the protests would die down and now the repression is coming and getting stronger”./VOA
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