Who is leading the crackdown on the Iranian protests?


They show up at the first sign of protest in Iran – men in black, on motorcycles, often with guns or batons.

They are members of the so-called Basij, paramilitary volunteers loyal to the Islamic Republic. The ayatollahs’ shock troops have played a leading role in suppressing dissent for more than two decades.

While the recent protestswhich erupted after a young woman died in custody of the country’s vice squad last month, the Basij (ba-SEEJ’) have been stationed in major cities and have attacked and arrested protesters, who in many cases have resisted.

A widely circulated video appears to show dozens of schoolgirls removing their obligatory Islamic headscarves, known as hijab, and yelling at a visiting Basij official to get lost.

It remains to be seen whether the latest round of unrest will eventually peter out, but much could depend on how the Basij and other security forces respond to further protests.

Here’s a look at the Basij:



The Basij, whose official name translates as “Organization for Mobilizing the Oppressed,” was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to Islamize Iranian society and fight enemies from within.

During the devastating Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Basij led infamous “human waves” attacks against Saddam Hussein’s army, in which large numbers of poorly armed fighters died as they sped over minefields and into artillery fire.

Beginning with the student revolts of the late 1990s, the Basij assumed a domestic political role somewhat akin to the ruling party of an authoritarian state. Commanded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, it is loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who regularly lauds the Basij as a pillar of the Islamic Republic.

They have established branches across the country, as well as student organizations, professional associations, and medical schools. The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions What it means is a multi-billion dollar network of corporations run covertly by the Basij.

The Basij’s security apparatus includes armed brigades, anti-riot police, and a vast network of informants who spy on their neighbors.

Saeid Golkar, an Iranian scholar at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga who has written a book on the Basij, estimates their total membership at about 1 million, with security forces numbering in the tens of thousands.

“Because they are ordinary Iranians without uniforms, the Islamic Republic bills them as supporters of the regime,” he said, referring to those who opposed the protesters. “At the same time, most of these people receive salaries from the Islamic Republic.”



Experts say many of those who join the Basij do so because of economic opportunity, as membership offers an advantage in university admissions and public sector employment.

But recruits also undergo severe indoctrination, including an initial 45 days of military and ideological training. They are taught that the Islamic revolution is a divine struggle against injustice, a struggle threatened by myriad enemies – from the United States and Israel to exiled Iranian opposition groups and even Western culture itself.

Although new recruits are initially driven by personal gain, Golkar says, “indoctrination can help modify those motivations.”

In the eyes of the Basijis, the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, is a bulwark against gender mixing, adultery and corruption – its removal a sign of decadent Western culture. Iranian leaders have viewed the recent protests as part of a foreign plot to foment unrest.

Protesters reject this characterization, saying the demonstrations are a spontaneous outburst of anger over decades of repressive rule, bad governance and international isolation.



Policing dissent in Iran begins with tight policing of the citizenry, largely conducted by basijis, who have a presence in almost every public institution. Iran also restricts internet access, particularly during times of protests, and the Basij have a cyber department dedicated to hacking perceived enemies.

“There are different strategies. Of course, the more visible is the violent one,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

When protests break out, black-clad Basijis ride in on motorcycles, sometimes charging straight into protesters to disperse them. They operate side by side with the regular police and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which are also involved in the crackdown.

“They have been chasing protesters, beating them with clubs, shooting at them, trying to round them up, beating them, throwing them in vans to take them to detention centers where protesters are beaten and pressured,” Vakil said.

Basijis can also be found among the protesters themselves, as whistleblowers trying to identify ringleaders. Amnesty International said in a report last month that four people identified by Iranian authorities as Basijis were apparently shot dead by security forces while mingling with protesters.


Will Iran succeed in crushing the protests?

Iran is eradicated several waves of protests over the years, including the so-called Green Revolution of 2009, when millions took to the streets after a disputed presidential election. Hundreds were killed in 2019 when Iran cracked down on demonstrations over the heavily sanctioned country’s ongoing economic crisis.

But recent protests have a different feel, which could make them harder to put out.

They are led by young women who are fed up with the country’s increasingly brutal enforcement conservative Islamic dress code. But they are supported by a much broader segment of society, including ethnic minorities and even some workers in Iran’s important oil industry.

The protesters accuse the Iranian vice squad of beating 22-year-old Mahsa Amini to death for wearing his hijab too loosely. Authorities deny she was mistreated and said she died of a heart attack related to underlying health conditions, a report disputed by her family.

Videos from recent protests show young women twirling their hijabs in the air and cutting their hair as protesters chant “death to the dictator” and other slogans.

When the Basij arrive, the protesters can often be seen fighting back and sometimes succeed in driving them off.

But nobody expects the Iranian authorities to back down any time soon.

“It’s a bit early to tell from the outside what exactly is happening given the level of internet censorship,” Vakil said. “But I think the hope (of the government) in the beginning was that the protests would fizzle out and now the repressive capacities are being stepped up.”


About Author

Comments are closed.