Iran General NewsInside the Iranian crackdown

Inside the Iranian crackdown


ImageWall Street Journal: When the protests broke out here last month, Mehdi Moradani answered the call to crush them. On the first day of the unrest, the 24-year-old volunteer member of Iran's paramilitary Basij force mounted his motorcycle and chased reformist protesters through the streets. On the fourth day, he picked up a thick wooden stick issued by his Basij neighborhood task force and beat demonstrators who refused to disperse.

The Wall Street Journal
When the Unrest Flared, the Ayatollah's Enforcers Took to the Streets of Tehran With Batons and Zeal


ImageTEHRAN — When the protests broke out here last month, Mehdi Moradani answered the call to crush them.

On the first day of the unrest, the 24-year-old volunteer member of Iran's paramilitary Basij force mounted his motorcycle and chased reformist protesters through the streets, shouting out the names of Shiite saints as he revved his engine.

On the fourth day, he picked up a thick wooden stick issued by his Basij neighborhood task force and beat demonstrators who refused to disperse.

By the eighth day, demonstrators alleging that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had rigged his re-election were out by the hundreds of thousands. Mr. Moradani says he mobilized in a 12-man motorcycle crew, scouting out restive neighborhoods across Tehran. He battled protesters with a baton and tear gas. The demonstrators fought back with rocks, bricks and bottles. Mr. Moradani says he handcuffed scores of demonstrators and dragged them away as they kicked and screamed.

"It wasn't about elections anymore," says Mr. Moradani, a short, skinny man with pitch-black hair and a beard. "I was defending my country and our revolution and Islam. Everything was at risk."

The mass uprising against the results of the June 12 election by supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad's challengers has largely died down. Demonstrations this Thursday, though heated, drew thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Iranian officials have said between 17 and 20 people have died in the monthlong protests. Independent organizations tracking human-rights violations in Iran put the death toll closer to several dozen.

If Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeds in stamping out the unrest, it will be in large part because of Mr. Moradani and his colleagues in the Basij militia, the Islamic Republic's most loyal foot soldiers.

The story of Mr. Moradani, a midranking Basij member, offers a rare glimpse into one of the most mysterious and feared arms of Iran's regime — and into the group's most significant mobilization since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. This portrait of Mr. Moradani is based on interviews with him conducted in person and by phone, both before the uprising and after the crackdown began.

The Basij fanned out across Tehran, beating protesters with sticks, lining streets and squares, and roaring through neighborhoods on their motorcycles in a show of force. Regime officials praised the shock troops.

"Our efforts to unveil the faces of our enemy saved Iran from a grave danger," Yadollah Javani, the political chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which commands the Basij, said last week.

But the Basij also became the most visible target of the opposition's fury. In some neighborhoods, protesters covered streets with oil to thwart Basij motorbikes, surrounding and beating fallen Basij riders.

The Basij was created in 1979 by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was devised as a volunteer force, to back up the Iranian army in the Iran-Iraq war. Many of its young members were deployed to the battlefield to walk ahead of soldiers and detonate Iraqi mines.

After the war ended in 1988, the Basij evolved into a type of neighborhood task force. Members serve as law enforcers, morality police, social-service providers and organizers of religious ceremonies. In times of crisis, the Basij are tasked with restoring order and ferreting out dissidents.

Iran's government says the Basij count some five million members. Independent analysts put the number closer to one million, out of an Iranian population of about 75 million.

Those numbers make the group the regime's largest and most wide-reaching network of security volunteers. Members, both men and women, slip easily between roles, from social worker to community spy.

The Basij don't wear uniforms. Men typically sport beards, and often wear loose-fitting shirts that fall untucked over their pants. Women members are usually covered in head-to-toe black chadors.

Rank-and-file members don't draw salaries, though there are perks to the job. They enjoy special consideration when competing for university admission or government jobs.

A Basij chapter operates out of every officially sanctioned institution, private or government owned. Ministries, universities, factories, schools, mosques and hospitals all house Basij units. Joining the Basij can be as easy as signing up. But members are carefully vetted. Indoctrination includes theology and ideology seminars, then military training.

During the administration of reformist President Mohamad Khatami, from 1997 to 2005, the Basij were only called out during times of street protests. After Mr. Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, the Basij enjoyed something of a revival.

Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, authorities reinstituted street checkpoints, manned by Basij and separate morality police, who monitored everything from men's haircuts to how women wear their mandatory headscarves.

In 2005, Basij forces were placed under the command of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's most elite security force. The Guard, with responsibility for internal security, runs a sort of parallel military, with its own air force and naval branches, its own ministry and extensive business activities.

Mr. Moradani is the son of a former commander of the Guard, who fought against Israel in Lebanon in the 1980s and helped train the armed militia of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group.

The eldest of three children, Mr. Moradani was enrolled by his parents in the Basij's youth club when he was nine years old. The youth club is a mix between the Boy Scouts and Bible school. The clubs organize soccer games, swimming lessons and picnics in the woods.

Children are taught how to pray, and they recite Quranic verses. Religious teachings at the clubs emphasize the call to defend Islam, even at the expense of death, or martyrdom. Future Basij members to told to strive to create a pure society in line with conservative Islamic values.

Mr. Moradani remembers field trips to war monuments, Shiite shrines and so-called martyrs' cemeteries, where those who died in the Iran-Iraq war are buried. He received his first military training before he turned 14, learning how to handle a gun and fight from trenches, he says.

When he was 14, the Basij forces piled Mr. Moradani and 100 other youths into buses and took them around the dormitories of Tehran University. At the time — 10 years ago this week — students had been orchestrating large, antigovernment protests. The demonstrations were among the most significant since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic.

Basij commanders ordered the teenagers to beat up student organizers, Mr. Moradani says. They did. In 2003, when student uprisings erupted again, he rushed to help quash them.

"The revolution and Islam need me. I will give my life in a heartbeat if the regime asks me," Mr. Moradani said in an interview earlier this year at a shop in central Tehran, where he sells Islamic and revolutionary paraphernalia, including key chains, T-shirts and CDs. "Our society is now at the verge of sin and filled with antirevolutionary people."

In his small store, Mr. Moradani works with his shoes off, because he also prays there. The shop's walls are adorned with framed posters of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

"My heroes," he says.

Mr. Moradani, who lives in Shahr-eh Rey, a city adjacent to southern Tehran, didn't attend university. He focused instead on his religious studies. He says he hopes one day to follow in his father's footsteps and join the Revolutionary Guard.

He has taken the Guard's rigorous entrance exam twice, passing the ideology and the written portions both times. But he failed the final hurdle: an intense interview that lasts six to eight hours. Applicants must discuss why they are loyal to the regime and the Supreme Leader. He intends to try again.

Mr. Moradani takes religious-singing lessons and aspires to master "madahi," the art of chanting Shiite religious odes at holy ceremonies. His cellphone is programmed to ring with a famous religious song about Imam Hussein, a Shiite saint.

Before the election, Mr. Moradani campaigned for Mr. Ahmadinejad. He printed campaign posters and pasted them on walls. The day after the vote, with his candidate declared the winner, Mr. Moradani bought a box of chocolate cupcakes and drove his motorcycle to one of Mr. Ahmadinejad's campaign offices to celebrate.

A few hours later, he recalls, he was shocked to see demonstrators filling the streets. They set plastic trash bins afire along Tehran's long Vali Asr Avenue. Men and women, gathered in clusters across town, shouted "Death to the Dictator."

Riot police chased them away. The demonstrators regrouped and began chanting again — a cat-and-mouse game that played out for days.

"I never expected the protests to be so intense and last so long," said Mr. Moradani in a phone interview from Tehran this week. "I thought it would be over in a few days."

Basij members organized to support riot police and other security officials across Tehran. Some Basij members infiltrated the opposition demonstrations, according to eyewitnesses.

Protesters, most of them young, fought back. "You saw young people on both sides mobilizing with vengeance and willing to kill," said Issa Saharkheez, a political analyst in Tehran, in an interview shortly after the election. Mr. Saharkheez was subsequently arrested in detentions that followed the unrest.

At the height of the street battles, in Sadaat Abad, a middle-class neighborhood in east Tehran, young men and women organized themselves into an unofficial militia to fight the Basij, with a "commander" taking responsibility for each street. Every afternoon, they would meet to prepare for the evening's expected battle, according to a 25-year-old student who was involved with the group.

They collected rocks, tiles and bricks from construction sites and spilled oil on the roads, an attempt to sideline the Basij's motorcycles. When a Basij rider would go down, the young men would beat him, according to the student. Women stood back, screaming "Death to the Dictator" and stoking bonfires in the street. Older supporters remained indoors, throwing ashtrays, vases and other household items from their balconies and windows onto the Basij motorcycle riders below.

"There was a war going on here every night," the student says. "We are not going to stand and let them beat us."

At the end of the first week of protests, Mr. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, led Friday prayers and endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory. He ordered all demonstrators off the streets.

A few hours after Mr. Khamenei's sermon, Mr. Moradani got a call at home. The local Basij headquarters was holding an emergency meeting. About four hundred members showed up.

A top Basij commander briefed them on the riots and their responsibilities going forward. He called protesters "havoc makers" and accused them of having ties to Western countries aiming to sow chaos in Iran. The commander said the protests were no longer a matter of election unrest, but had become a serious, national-security threat.

"It is now everyone's Islamic and revolutionary duty to crush these antirevolutionary forces," Hossam Gholami, the 27-year-old chief of Shahr Rey Basij, told members, he recalled in a telephone interview this week. "You are not dealing with ordinary people. They are our enemy," he said he told them.

Mr. Moradani lined up with his comrades to receive an official letter of deployment, signed and bearing the seal of the Revolutionary Guard. He was given new equipment: a camouflage vest to wear over his clothes, a plastic baton, handcuffs and a hand-held radio.

Depending on rank, some members received shields and hard hats, and others were given chains and tear gas, according to Messrs. Gholami and Moradani. Mr. Moradani says no one in his division carried knives or guns.

On the streets the next day, a Saturday, the Basij and other security services cracked down, resulting in some of the bloodiest clashes with protesters. Mr. Moradani says he and his brigade roamed the streets, attacking what he says were violent protesters. Alerted about a burnt-out mosque, he rushed to the scene to secure the area.

One day, Mr. Moradani says, a mob chased him. He fell off his motorcycle and the crowd beat him with sticks and rocks, he says.

His leg was bandaged for a few days, and he still walks with a limp, he says. Dozens of Basij militia have been killed and injured, he says. Protesters have attacked his friends by throwing acid on their faces, he says.

A surgeon at Pars Hospital in central Tehran, where many of the fallen were taken, confirmed casualties on both sides. He said the hospital had operated on three young people from the opposition who were shot in the head and abdomen by security forces. He also treated scores who were badly beaten or stabbed, he said.

Among them were Basij and government supporters, he said — including Basij members who had acid thrown on their faces.

Mr. Moradani says a young man in his group was killed when a protester in a black sports car ran over him, he says. The driver, he says, was arrested and confessed to driving over 11 Basij members. Mr. Moradani's account was impossible to independently verify.

For Mr. Moradani, the biggest shock during the election turmoil came in his personal life. He had recently gotten engaged to a young woman from a devout, conservative family. A week into the protests, he says, his fiancée called him with an ultimatum. If he didn't leave the Basij and stop supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad, he recalls her saying, she wouldn't marry him.

He told her that was impossible. "I suffered a real emotional blow," he says. "She said to me, 'Go beat other people's children then,' and 'I don't want to have anything to do with you,' and hung up on me."

She returned the ring he gave her, and hasn't returned his phone calls. "The opposition has even fooled my fiancée," he says.

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