Rebuilding the Image of Basij

Mohammad-Ali Tofighi

The remarks of general Ezatollah Zarghami, the head of Iran’s state-run radio and television network on Sunday during a ceremony to introduce the head of the Basij center at the broadcasting network are noteworthy. Pointing to the activities of the Basij during the widespread peaceful protests against the electoral fraud committed during the tenth presidential elections in Iran in June 2009, Zarghami said, “The Basij was fully present during the sedition period and used everything at its disposal.  It was present even during the street fighting and was forced to battle with sticks and batons.” Sedition is the term Iranian officials and leaders use to describe the widespread public protests that erupted after the announcement of the results of the fraudulent presidential elections in 2009. Images of those event that have been published in fact do demonstrate uniformed Basij militia personnel facing ordinary people. “After the 2009 events, one of the policies of the Basij has been to rebuild its public image, he revealed.

This should be viewed as the first time officials of the Islamic republic have formally presented the nature and extent of the presence of the Basij militia in the violent suppression of demonstrators after the presidential election, thus confirming its active intervention in the turmoil. In the past, officials had made vague remarks about the effective role of the Basij in “confronting” the protests which had also been acknowledged and praised by Iran’s supreme leader and most military commanders, but the words that were used to describe the role of the force were very general such as impromptu role, attentive heroism, etc.  The pro-government  media has been presenting the Basij as innocent volunteers who put their life on line to defend the Islamic revolution and who were attacked by mobs, some of whom were even martyred. There has never been any talk or writing of specifically how the Basij intervened in the events, a situation that was justified on security grounds.

While Mr. Zarghami’s remarks certainly do not arise out of his desire to expose the Basij, it appears that his words are really a faux pas in communications. But whatever the reason, his remarks reveal the true aggressive actions of the militia force in suppressing the massive protests, using both lethal and non-lethal weapons against defenseless people, something that until today had been denied by officials.

Of course the other key question that comes up after the descriptions offered by Zarghami are why does the Basij need to rebuild its public image in the first place? If, as the government claims, the Basij was in fact a popular force that came to the streets to confront a diverted force, it would have certainly been welcomed and loved by the public, not require any rebuilding efforts.

What has been happening to the voluntary Basij force which during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s attracted masses of people who voluntarily joined it to defend the homeland against invasion, and whose members remained respected and even revered after the war, while today the group needs a facelift to improve its public image?

One must admit that the two Basij’s have no resemblance to each other. Starting from the end of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency around 2000, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which had set its eyes on increasing its role in Iranian politics, restructured and expanded the Basij force into every aspect of Iranian social life ranging from the bazaar to the universities, schools, villages, etc and turned this organization which was the primary recruiter of combatants for the war into a military party. Today Basij bases are present in all neighborhoods, offices, universities,  government and private institutions of the country, in contrast to once being present only in the mosques where they signed up volunteers for the war. Today, in addition to being places where clerical Islam is taught, Basij bases are also feverishly active in publicizing the ruling ideology and presenting a dictatorial narrative of the religious leader, thus fully turning into a political party. And because of its centralized and para-military hierarchy, its profit motif, possessing a truly nation-wide network, and a rapid mobilization capability – particularly in the absence of other powerful parties in the country, it is now used operationally for different purposes that range from supporting elections, suppressing popular protests, or other government programs and goals.

Until the recent post-2009-election events, the transformation of this organization from a popular and pro-people group to a government entity was not apparent to the public because the change was gradual in pace, its operations were never transparent and it had no clear and specific mission after the war. This changed with the 2009 elections, after which it was given the role of suppressing peaceful marchers who were demanding to know what had happened to their votes. The change in its mission and nature was so swift and unexpected that for a long time it was rumored that it was foreign forces who engaged in the violent suppressive actions on the streets of Tehran and other cities against Iranians because no fellow Iranian would do that to his compatriots, particularly in a regime that declares to be moral and ethical in its views and actions.

Therefore, contrary to Mr. Zarghami’s claims that the reasons for the tarnished image of the Basij lay in the publication of a few photographs that depicted its members as perpetrators of the most hideous acts, the true reasons for the fall from grace were the very fascistic actions Basij members engaged in their efforts to suppress the peaceful demonstrations and their compatriots, and thus perpetuate the existing religious despotism.  But the true situation regarding the Basij does not escape the head of the largest propaganda organization in the Islamic republic  which is why he speaks of rebuilding its lost image. But can what has been lost be recovered?