- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2016

Iran plans to spread its notorious Basij militia into nearly every aspect of life, from villages to schools to sports clubs to factories, in a sign that the Washington-Tehran nuclear deal has not led to reforms in the 36-year-old Islamic revolution.

The Basij has been thought of as an urban force designed to suppress any uprising but now is receiving broad approval to set up units nationwide.

A report by the U.S. Army’s foreign military studies office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said that pushing the Basij deeper into Iranian society may mean the ruling Shiite mullahs plan to strictly enforce Islamic law.

“Should it be implemented, it suggests that the regime may be preparing for a new cultural revolution to weed out elements of reformism or moderation,” analyst Michael Rubin writes in the Army studies report.

A high-powered council’s disqualification of 99 percent of reformist parliamentary candidates, he said, “indicates a desire by the clerical hierarchy within Iran to consolidate more hard-line control.”

Basij is a domestic arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the dominant security force in Iran that also includes an army, a navy, an air force and an overseas strike force, al Quds.

Mr. Rubin described Basij’s role this way: “While the law enforcement forces might conduct more regular police work, Basij operations tend to focus more on countering ideological enemies and encouraging fealty to the Islamic Revolution through after-school programming and university organizations, and by policing morality.”

The Basij is being expanded while Islamic rulers make a series of moves to harden their control methods.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of opposition groups, reported this month that public hangings are increasing. The crimes for some of the condemned appear to be political dissent, not criminal conduct, the NCRI said.

“The increasing trend of executions aimed at intensifying the climate of terror to rein in expanding protests by various strata of the society, especially at a time of visits by high-ranking European officials, demonstrates that the claim of moderation is nothing but an illusion for this medieval regime,” the NCRI said in a statement.

It called the hangings “arbitrary executions carried out in violation of its international obligations.”

Last week, the NCRI released a video produced by the Basij that showed teenagers performing a song urging other children to volunteer for the war in Syria.

Iranian’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a group of Guard Corps officers last year that the 1979 revolution, which started with the ouster of the shah, will continue unabated and indefinitely.

The hangings, continued talk of revolution and the Basij’s larger role add up to a harsh picture of Iran that has not changed in the face of personal outreach from President Obama. If anything, Iran, which U.S. intelligence says is the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, has expanded its military and intelligence exploits to try to dominate the Middle East.

Tehran has sent thousands of Iranians, many of them ethnic Afghans, to Syria to fight for the regime of President Bashar Assad. The guard is guiding and supplying Iraqi Shiite militias and has helped topple the pro-U.S. government in Yemen.

Iran continues to pursue its interests and create a balance of power that is favorable to the Islamic republic,” said James Russell, a former Pentagon official and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “There is nothing surprising about any of this. In some respects, the decline in U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf and Middle East is seeing the resurgence of regional states directly confronting one another for regional power and influence. Iran is in the game. No question about it.”

In the Syria cause, the Basij militia has expanded its domestic role as a grass-roots war recruiter.

The regime says the recruits are needed to protect Shiite shrines near Damascus, the Syrian capital. But analysts believe this is a ruse to hide their war-fighting role and to entice young people to go to Syria for a noble Islamic mission.

The need to recruit, when Iran has hundreds of thousands of army soldiers and guard officers, signals a possible split among Tehran power structures.

Mr. Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “While the Revolutionary Guards exists to protect not only Iran’s territory, but also its ideology, the fact that it must recruit volunteers rather than simply order members into Syria may raise questions about fissures within the organization between a more ideological leadership and a significant and perhaps majority portion who joined the Corps less for the ideology and more for the pay and privilege, especially in juxtaposition to service in the conscript army.”

He said 28 Basij-recruited volunteers have been killed fighting in Syria. This contradicts Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s denial that any Iranians are fighting in Syria.

In November, Ayatollah Khamenei addressed hundreds of Basij commanders who wore camouflage fatigues and red headbands.

“The scent of Basij must be understood, must be smelled,” he said. “And the truth of this auspicious phenomenon must be correctly understood.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has increasingly relied on the Basij to counter what he perceives to be internal threats.

“The Basij’s growing powers have in turn increased the force’s political and economic influence and contributed to the militarization of the Iranian regime,” says an analysis by the United States Institute of Peace. “It is an auxiliary force with many duties, especially internal security, law enforcement, special religious or political events and morals policing. The Basij have branches in virtually every city and town in Iran.”

The Iranian Labor News Agency reported that the Basij’s new powers will take it into neighborhoods, workshops, institutes, clubs, and manufacturing and service companies.

The militia members played a role in putting down protests after the disputed 2009 national elections, but many refused to turn on their fellow townspeople, the institute reported.

“They’re a bunch of thugs,” said Shahin Gobadi, an NCRI opposition leader based in Paris.

He said that it appears from state media reports that the law had cleared parliament.

“The main objective of the Basij is to suppress the population and prevent a mass uprising in the cities,” Mr. Gobadi said. “The fact that the clerical regime has to increase the authority and presence of the Basij clearly indicates the regime’s growing fear of popular uprisings similar to those in 2009. This is the ultimate red line for Ali Khamenei. It also indicates the growing isolation of the regime, which has to resort to further suppression.”

Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini created the Basij in 1980 as the government’s personal paramilitary force.

“The regime has tried to preserve and promote organizations like the Basij to try and preserve the illusion of a population that is still seized by the ideas and goals of the Islamic Revolution,” the Naval Postgraduate School’s Mr. Russell said. “But the regime is left creating a stuffed animal with efforts like this. The broader population in Iran has moved on, leaving the regime to try and create the impression of revolutionary fervor where it doesn’t exist on a widespread basis.”

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