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February 12, 2010

Iran Rewards Basij Militia With Political Clout

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — During an Iranian government meeting late last month, a top adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought a proposal to expand the political voice of a group more known for its street muscle: the civilian militia corps called the Basij.

The motion passed easily, according to pro-government Web sites.

And with it, Iranian authorities took another step in restructuring the state to reward the forces that help keep them in power — handing wider decision-making roles to the formidable Revolutionary Guard and its vast paramilitary network that have led the crackdowns against opposition protesters.

The Revolutionary Guard has always been a centerpiece of Iran’s Islamic establishment. But the latest door opened to its militia wing suggests a deepening policy role by Iran’s most hard-line groups as opposition forces grow bolder in their demands and the West considers tighter sanctions over its nuclear impasse with Tehran.

The Basij will again be out in force Thursday for expected protest marches to coincide with events marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Their attempts to crush the anti-government movement have been well documented since Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last June, including the trademark Basiji motorcycle charges in protest crowds.

What’s perhaps less noticed — but with even deeper significance — is the evolving role of the huge Basij force from loosely organized Islamic vigilantes to a more cohesive force with increasing channels to Iran’s leadership and security apparatus.

”It’s clear that the Revolutionary Guard has been increasingly inserted in Iran’s decision-making equation during the crisis,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ”Expanding the role of the Basij is a natural extension of this.”

The Basij’s big brother, the Revolutionary Guard, has long been a pillar of Iran’s regime as a force separate from the ordinary armed forces. The Guard now has a hand in every critical area including missile development, oil resources, dam building, road construction, telecommunications and nuclear technology.

It also has absorbed the paramilitary Basij as a full-fledged part of its command structure — giving the militia greater funding and a stronger presence in Iran’s internal politics.

The chief of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, often accuses dissidents of waging a ”soft revolution” against the Islamic system and says forces such as the Basij are needed more than ever to quash internal threats.

The Basij has its roots as volunteer fighters during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. It then developed as a grass-roots defender of the system — taking on roles such as Islamic morality police at checkpoints and parks or as shock troops busting up pro-reform gatherings or publications.

Iran’s meltdown since June has made the Basij into a front-line force against the opposition.

Security forces turned to them as neighbor-by-neighbor informants with hundreds of thousands of eyes and ears in every corner of the country. They also became a first-call attack squad against protests, often roaring into battle on motorcycles and armed with batons.

At least eight people were killed in clashes between security forces and protests in the last major opposition march in late December.

On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to deliver a ”punch in the mouth” to opposition groups if they follow through with calls for marches on Thursday during state-run celebrations of the Islamic Revolution.

He said the Basij would be deployed to provide ”order and security.”

It was the latest nod by the ruling clerics that the Basij is moving deeper into the fold.

At the late January Cabinet meeting, one of Ahmadinejad’s top advisers, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, made a speech praising the Basij before the vote to give the group an open invitation to get involved with decisions and policies in every ministry, according to Rajanews.com, a pro-Ahmadinejad Web site. The report also appeared in other government-allied sites as well as some opposition blogs.

Basij leaders also are reportedly asking for another budget increase for the next Iranian year that starts in late March. Last year, the Basij funding was boosted a staggering 200 percent to more than $500 million, according to Sobh-e Sadegh, a publication controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.

There has been no public pushback from authorities despite a severe fiscal crunch, which has brought unpopular measures such as plans to end government-subsidized gasoline prices.

No one in the embattled government wants to risk ruffling groups such as the Basij, which has remained among the strongest supporters of Ahmadinejad.

”They can serve almost as Ahmadinejad’s private army,” said William O. Beeman, a University of Minnesota professor who has written on Iranian affairs.

The higher political profile for the Basij also appears to fit into efforts to expand hard-line oversight in schools and universities. The Basij have been increasingly active in recruitment as the political tensions grow.

Precise numbers on Basij membership are not published, but some estimates range as high as 1 million or more.

”If they acquire more power as a body, they will be able to recruit more forces who will see this as an instant route toward social mobility and power,” said Beeman.

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