AFP: Dressed in a shabby grey suit, 41-year-old Hossein looks upon himself as a selfless server of Iran and a pious follower of the Islamic republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By Farhad Pouladi
TEHRAN (AFP) — Dressed in a shabby grey suit, 41-year-old Hossein looks upon himself as a selfless server of Iran and a pious follower of the Islamic republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A veteran of the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, Hossein — who would not reveal his real name — is one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers making up the hardline Basij (Mobilisation) militia.
The Basij is in the limelight again ahead of Iran's June 12 presidential election, after reports that its members were primarily responsible for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning the previous election in 2005.
Formed by order of Islamic revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon after the 1979 toppling of the US-backed shah, the Basij became known for staging "human wave attacks" on Saddam Hussein's forces in the Iraq war.
Young Basijis reportedly walked through minefields, many of them being blown to pieces, to clear a pathway for regular Iranian troops.
The militia is part of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, which itself was formed to defend the revolution from threats both domestic and external after the fall of the shah.
Hossein, who still has bouts of coughing during long conversations which he says is the result of chemical attacks by Iraqi forces on Iranian soldiers, joined the Basij when he was just 16.
"I joined of my own free will. Nobody influenced me. I didn't join the force for material gain or any worldly benefits. The work of Basij is known only to Allah," he told AFP as he toyed with the rings on his right hand.
Hossein is the ultimate Basiji.
The hardliner says he has no satellite television at home because it is banned, even though many households have managed to secure access to it.
"My son has not asked for it either," he said. "You see, it all depends on the kind of personality you project. I am not forcing anything, I just try to be a role-model for him."
Most Basijis come from Iran's middle and lower middle classes and are actively involved in social causes such as vaccination campaigns.
They also take part in moral policing, and are feared when they gate-crash illegal rave parties which the authorities say are culturally decaying, or haul away a woman on a Tehran street if they find her dressed in an "unIslamic" way.
More than two decades after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, the Basij snapped back into focus during the 2005 presidential election.
The little known Ahmadinejad became the surprise winner when he defeated heavyweight former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani amid reports his victory was because of massive Basij mobilisation after Khamenei implicitly backed him.
One candidate in 2005, Mehdi Karroubi, who is standing again in this month's election, alleged there had been "bizarre illegal interference" by the hardline militia and the Revolutionary Guards to ensure an Ahmadinejad victory.
Karroubi, a reformist, has urged both the authorities and Khamenei himself to ensure there is no repeat of the 2005 experience on June 12.
However, Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said in May that "based on the supreme leader's discretion", the unarmed wing of the Basij will participate in "political matters".
The armed branch of the Basij forms part of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces.
Hossein indicated that Ahmadinejad is the preferred candidate in the presidential election.
"Among the candidates, one can find a person who fits the image of the president as drawn by the (supreme) leader… one who can be a good president, and a true servant" of the people, he said.
Khamenei has urged the electorate to opt for a candidate with a "modest" lifestyle, in an apparent reference to Ahmadinejad who is known for his simple way of living.
Under Ahmadinejad, the Basij has "been given more space", Hossein also said without elaborating.
The industrial arm of the Revolutionary Guards, Khatam-ol-Anbia, has bagged several energy and telecommunication projects under Ahmadinejad's presidency, and indications are that Basijis are involved with some of them.
For Hossein, Iran under Ahmadinejad has "exported the Islamic revolution the way Imam Khomeini wanted. Many nations now look up to Iran as a role model… the more sanctions the more we progress."
Iran has defied UN sanctions by continuing its controversial nuclear project, insisting that it is aimed at producing civilian nuclear energy.
The United States, its European allies and Israel fear Iran's uranium enrichment activities are aimed at producing the material for a nuclear bomb.
But Israel, Iran's arch-foe, is of no consequence to Hossein.
"Israel does not count much since Imam Khomeini has said it will soon disappear from the face of the earth. The Basij is as ready as ever. Basijis love martyrdom and live for it."