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Updated: Apr 1

Insurgency Overview

Sâzmân-e Basij-e Mostaz'afin, or the Basij, is an Iranian paramilitary militia organized under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC). Formed in the wake of the Iranian Revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini, Basij members, often called Basiji, are tasked with quelling domestic unrest and enforcing the decrees of the Ayatollah within Iran. The Basij has recently become infamous for its crackdown on protesters during the 2022-2023 Mahsa Amini Protests.

History and Foundations

The story of the Basij began on the 29th of November, 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the formation of a “people’s army of 20 million” to defend Iran against both domestic opposition and an American invasion he believed to be imminent (Schahgaldian 99). Just weeks earlier, on the 4th of November, the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed by student revolutionaries who took 66 US citizens hostage, which massively heightened tensions between the two countries (Schahgaldian 87-88). In the uncertain political landscape of the revolution, Khomeini saw the need for a massive paramilitary force loyal to the political and religious teachings of the Islamic Republican Party.

In September 1980, Iraq made an incursion into the Iranian province of Khuzestan, kicking off the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq War. Basij units made up a considerable number of Iranian frontline forces and participated in some of the most brutal tactics of the war. Basiji were oftentimes used in human wave tactics where inexperienced fighters, often including child soldiers, would charge at well-defended Iraqi lines and quickly be cut down in a hail of gunfire (Arasli 16). Thousands of Basiji lost their lives in this manner in what was quickly dubbed a “Cult of Martyrdom” surrounding the Ayatollah’s regime (Dorraj 489-490).

Alongside the war with Iraq, the Basij also spearheaded quashing a violent revolt of political opposition. In 1981, the National Council of Resistance (NCR), a coalition of opposition groups including the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the National Democratic Front, launched attacks on IRGC members. The IRGC fought back with a vengeance and by the end of 1982, the rebellion was mostly extinguished. Conservative figures state that approximately 3,000 rebels were executed by the Iranian government during the revolt, an average of 50 per day (Curtis and Hooglund 64). The effects of the 1981 rebellion on the Basij were palpable; from 1981 to 1982 they severely ramped up surveillance, purges, arrests, and home searches until December 1982, when the Ayatollah himself decreed an end to the wiretapping of civilians and put restrictions on the actions of the Basij (Curtis and Hooglund 65). By 1988, when the Iran-Iraq War finally ended, the IRGC, and by extension, the Basij, had won significant domestic political popularity for their massive sacrifices during the war (Arasli 16).

Post-war Iran saw the rise of the Basij as a power in the Iranian economy. Following the war, the government faced massive challenges with reincorporating the hundreds of thousands of Basiji back into society. It was eventually decided that Basiji would participate in Iran’s first five-year development plan, working on reconstructing towns and cities impacted by the war. (Curtis and Hooglund 271). In 1992, the Basij Cooperative Foundation (BCF) was formed as a welfare organization for Basijis. Before this, in 1982, a small Basij welfare net had been established to provide things like no-interest loans and housing to Basijis who oftentimes come from the lower classes of Iranian society (Golkar 628-629). In 1994, parliament passed a law that gave Basij priority in buying government-owned stocks which had a massive impact as different Basij chapters bought into anything from agriculture to automobile manufacturing. The effects of the Basij’s influence on the Iranian economy continued as it quickly became a massive economic arm of the Iranian state. Basiji are oftentimes used as workers for government-sponsored infrastructure initiatives under the BCF-owned Construction Basij Organization (CBO), investing in rural communities throughout Iran to gain support for their political backers (Golkar 631). In 2007, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, ordered a massive privatization initiative that allowed the Basij, who already had priority in buying government stocks, to gain an effective monopoly on government privatization. The move allowed the regime to get rid of major sources of budget strain while at the same time controlling the industries they privatized via their proxies (Golkar 633). Since the post-war reforms, the Basij has spearheaded a type of carrot-and-stick strategy for the Iranian regime; cracking down on dissent while at the same time attracting young people, oftentimes teenagers, to accept the regime’s political will through a myriad of welfare programs.

While simultaneously expanding the economy of Iran, the Basij were tasked with enforcing the fundamentalist Islamic teachings of the Ayatollah. A 1992 law granted Basiji the power to citizen arrests, a power that has since been used to arrest “suspicious” individuals and, in particular, repress women and men who do not follow the Islamic dress code mandated by the state (Curtis and Hooglund 272). Given the authority to enforce the state’s desires, they have effectively become a secret police force masquerading as a militia. Even today, Iranians who do not follow the decrees of the Ayatollah are subject to arrest by Basiji militiamen.

In 2009, opposition parties made accusations of fraud in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner for the regime. Massive protests broke out throughout the country against the government in what became known as the “Green Movement” (Keath). The Basij were quickly deployed by the government to crack down on the protests. Basiji shot into crowds of protesters and conducted mass arrests, culminating in at least 150 casualties according to some sources (“Chaos prevails as protesters, police clash in Iranian capital”).

The trend of brutally responding to protests continued in 2019 when in response to massive gas prices, protests erupted in what came to be known as “Bloody November”. The Basij cracked down on those protests with major voracity, killing more than 200 people and arresting thousands more (Martin 11). These killings fomented even more resistance against the regime, particularly in universities, which became strongholds for opposition protesters (“دانشجویان امیرکبیر چهارمین روز اعتراض‌ها؛ حمله بسیجیان به”).

On September 13th, 2022, Mahsa Amini was taken into custody by the Gasht-e Ershad, or morality police in Tehran for not following the Islamic dress code. While in transit to a detention center, she was tortured by multiple policemen and fell into a coma. She died 3 days later on the 16th of September (“What happened to Mahsa/Zhina Amini?”). While her killers were not Basiji, the Gasht-e Ershad fulfilled a role very similar to the Basij, to enforce the fundamentalist teachings of the Ayatollah. With chapters of Basiji in every town and city, the strict enforcement of dress codes and the crackdown on dissent is a commonly shared experience in Iran. Her death led to a wildfire of dissent and resistance throughout the country (Strzyżyńska).

The Mahsa Amini protests were responded to in the same way as the others. The Basij deployed across Iran, crushing protests and arresting more than 19,000 people (Loft). Killings during the protests topped any seen before, with 537 killed in protests by the Basij and other forces, and more than 300 executed by the government (“Report on 200 Days of Protest Repression/List of at Risk Protesters”).

Objectives & Ideology

As an organization within the IRGC, the Basij is inseparable from the Islamic fundamentalist ideology of the Ayatollah and the regime. As a force created during the Iranian Revolution, the Basij has not only served its role of guarding the regime by suppressing internal opposition but also indoctrinating the youth of Iran into the regime’s ideology (Schahgaldian 95). The Basij is not just a paramilitary organization, but a social club and symbol of allegiance to the Ayatollah. Members of the group disproportionately come from the poorer and more conservative sections of Iranian society, which are also the sections of society that the regime gains most of its support from. The Basij are not just a government organization or a militia, they are inexorably linked to the cultural and political divide of Iranian society (Abbasi). Consequently, many Basiji have used the ideological loyalty and the vast economic resources of the Basij to enter Iranian politics; those Basiji who have found themselves climbing the political ladder are known to be among some of the most conservative figures in the Iranian state and have only further campaigned for more government investment into the Basij (Golkar 641-642).

Military & Political Capabilities

While official estimates on the number of the Basij put them at around 20 million members, most estimates give the number of members at around three to five million split into at least 47,000 bases throughout the country. Around 20% of their numbers are made up of children and teenagers, with chapters being organized in schools and universities being common (Martin 4-10). They are principally an infantry-focused force and are often seen training with Kalashnikov pattern rifles. However, lethal weapons are not seen in most modern instances of Basiji in action, instead substituted for riot control weapons or simple clubs, used to crack down on protests or enforce the laws of the regime.

While most Basiji have only acted in an internal enforcement role, there have been reports of the Basij stretching beyond their task of domestic security. The Basij have been known to contribute to volunteer fighters in Iranian-backed groups in Syria and Iraq. While this role would normally be delegated to the Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign operations branch, it seems that the Basij are now also contributing to Iran’s regional goals. According to an Iraqi official in 2014, some 2,000 Basij had crossed the border to meet up with Iranian-backed militias (Chulov). Reports also show that around 50 student Basij had died in the Syrian Civil War (Majidyar). Regional involvement seems to be becoming part of the Basiji forte as more of its members involve themselves in the “Axis of Resistance” that Iran has built throughout the Middle East.

Approach to Operations

The Basij began in the 80s as a group dedicated to the domestic defense of the nation; when Iraq invaded Iran, hundreds of thousands of Basiji confronted Iraqi forces head-on in suicidal wave attacks. In 2008, the Basij’s “Resistance Districts” were reorganized into the IRGC Provincial Corps, which signaled a shift in the Basij into a more ideologically focused paramilitary and enforcement group (“The IRGC Provincial Corps”). Since then, the Basij has greatly increased its assets and economic hold on the country, transforming itself into a hallmark of both Iranian geo-strategic planning and Iranian society itself.

International Relations & Alliances

In 2016, the then-head of Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani was quoted as saying: “Islamic movements such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and Palestinian HAMAS received inspiration and spiritual aid from Basij. This is why Iran’s flag would fly in those countries” (“Basij 'crucial in export of Revolution'”). As members of the IRGC, the Basij are tasked with the export of the regime’s ideology throughout the Islamic World. This has led the organization to have relationships with militias and insurgent groups aligned with the regime's ideology throughout Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”. They have served as an inspiration for other groups throughout the world, most notably the Colectivos, a Venezuelan paramilitary group that fills a similar role to the Basij for the Venezuelan regime. The relationship between these two groups stretches beyond simple inspiration; in 2009 the commander of the Basij, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi visited Caracas to advise Venezuelan authorities on streamlining their counterintelligence capabilities (Humire 10-11). While tasked with the duty of domestic security, the Basij have become a force to be reckoned with throughout the region, going wherever the Ayatollah calls them to. 

Works Cited (MLA-Style)

“دانشجویان امیرکبیر چهارمین روز اعتراض‌ها؛ حمله بسیجیان به.” ایران اینترنشنال,ايران/چهارمین-روز-اعتراض%E2%80%8Cها؛-حمله-بسیجیان-به-دانشجویان-امیرکبیر. Accessed 19 February 2024.

Abbasi, Hyder. “A feared Iranian militia is leading the crackdown on protesters. Who are the Basij?” NBC News, 22 October 2022, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Arasli, Jahangir. “Pasdaran Incorporated: Evolving from Revolutionary to Praetorian Guard.” DTIC, March 2010, Accessed 16 February 2024.

“Basij 'crucial in export of Revolution.'” Mehr News Agency, 23 November 2016, Accessed 19 February 2024.

“Chaos prevails as protesters, police clash in Iranian capital.” CNN, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Chulov, Martin. “Iran sends troops into Iraq to aid fight against Isis militants.” The Guardian, 14 June 2014, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Curtis, Glenn E., and Eric Hooglund, editors. Iran: A Country Study. Library of Congress, 2008.

Dorraj, Manochehr. “Symbolic and Utilitarian Political Value of a Tradition: Martyrdom in the Iranian Political Culture.” The Review of Politics, vol. 59, no. 3, 1997, pp. 489-521. JSTOR,

Golkar, Saeid. “Paramilitarization of the Economy: The Case of Iran’s Basij Militia.” Armed Forces & Society, vol. 38, no. 4, 2012, pp. 625-648. JSTOR,

Humire, Joseph M. “JOSEPH M. HUMIRE “IRAN AND HEZBOLLAH IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.””, 18 March 2015, Accessed 24 February 2024.

“The IRGC Provincial Corps.” IranWire, 9 April 2019, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Keath, Lee. “2009 vs now: How Iran's new protests compare to the past.” AP News, 3 January 2018, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Loft, Philip. “One-year anniversary of the Mahsa Amini protests in Iran.” The House of Commons Library, 14 September 2023, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Majidyar, Ahmad. “Increasing Role of Iran's Basij Force in Syria War.” Middle East Institute, 29 March 2017, Accessed 19 February 2024.


“Report on 200 Days of Protest Repression/List of at Risk Protesters.” Iran Human Rights, 4 April 2023, Accessed 19 February 2024.

Schahgaldian, Nikola B. “The Iranian Military Under the Islamic Republic.” RAND Corporation, March 1987, Accessed 16 February 2024.

Strzyżyńska, Weronika. “Protests in Iran at death of Kurdish woman after arrest by morality police.” The Guardian, 17 September 2022, Accessed 19 February 2024.

“What happened to Mahsa/Zhina Amini?” Amnesty International, 15 September 2023, Accessed 19 February 2024.

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