The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
It was late in the afternoon on a cold winter day. Light snow had covered Tehran the night before, and I was spending the day in the production office of a small film unit of the Basij paramilitary militia. I was researching cultural producers in the Islamic Republic’s military and paramilitary organizations, and the young men who worked in this film unit had agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity.
Ali, a 20-year-old Basij film editor, came into the office where I sat with his colleague Mustafa, 24. Ali was working on a sequence for state television about U.S. media and its opposition to the Islamic Republic. Carrying his laptop, he excitedly showed us his latest find, a segment on CNN prior to the signing of the Iran deal about why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij are so powerful in Iran. The segment depicted Iran’s armed forces as a homogenous crowd of bearded men with stern faces, dressed in fatigues or black button-down shirts, listening to the supreme leader. Mustafa and Ali watched the report with wide smiles. Ali turned to me once it ended and said: “It’s funny to me how Westerners depict us. They make it seem as if the leader [Ali Khamenei] says something and we just fall in line.” He laughed. “Does anything in Iran work so smoothly? They should come and see how messy everything is here. What makes them think that amid everything barely functioning––from our economy, to our traffic, to our work culture––the Basij are so well organized?”
Across town the following week, I observed a production meeting with a group of IRGC leaders in charge of media. All the men in the room were in their early 50s. Fervent revolutionaries in the first decade of the Islamic Republic, today they wanted to modify the system by easing social and cultural restrictions and opening the political system to greater competition, but they disagreed with one another about what those changes would look like. They agreed, however, that they needed to cultivate a broader audience for their media and that young Basijis, such as Ali and Mustafa, should not make ideological films that appealed only to small audiences. The young Basijis “are our real problem,” Alireza, a lieutenant in the Revolutionary Guard, lamented. “They’re so black and white in their outlook, and they drive a bigger wedge between us and the people.”
“Their arrogance is poison for us,” Javad, a captain in the guard, added. Referring to the eight-year war with Iraq that consumed the first postrevolutionary decade, he said, “They wouldn’t last a day in the trenches of the war.”
In the more than ten years I spent researching among the media producers in the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard, Basij, and Ansar-e Hezbollah, I found a world in which men tied to the country’s armed forces held heated debates about the future of the Islamic Republic and fought with one another over resources. The institutions I studied were far from monolithic, nor were they purely ideological in their outlook. The concerns of the men who helped create the Islamic Republic’s vast media output were not confined to religion and Islamic politics. Rather, they tended to focus on class, generational differences, and social mobility. My findings led me to question not only the existing depictions of these men but more generally the predominant frame of analysis when it comes to understanding the Islamic Republic.
Since 1979, when revolution swept through a country that just one year earlier U.S. President Jimmy Carter had toasted as an “island of stability,” American policymakers have scrambled to understand an upheaval that not only blindsided them but expressed a deeply felt anti-imperialism, as Iranians demanded independence from Washington. U.S. news media described Iranian society as “possessed by madness” and Iranians as blinded by religious fervor and seeking martyrdom at all costs. Such explanations may have answered an immediate need to understand on simple terms—and to undermine—the revolutionary government and the aging ayatollah at its helm. But those who have viewed Iran’s politics over these last 40 years exclusively through the lens of Islam have overlooked important social dynamics that undergird the regime.
What happens if we reframe our analysis of Iranian politics from the vantage point of those who work inside the Islamic Republic in support of the goals of the 1979 revolution? If scholarly and policy analysis thus far has failed to understand the Islamic Republic in all of its complexity, what can be gained from an approach that insists on exploring the positions and worldviews of its supporters, on their own terms? Such questions led me to try to understand how the Islamic Republic attempts to keep its revolution “alive” and how it communicates a vision for the future of the Islamic Republic. What I came to see was that contestation in the Islamic Republic is not just between the regime and the people, or the old generation and a protesting young generation. Rather, the regime itself is conflicted over its very nature and what its future should look like.
One afternoon in central Tehran, I left a tense meeting between young Basiji film students and Reza, a leading regime filmmaker and captain in the Revolutionary Guard. During the meeting, he had told the nearly two dozen students in attendance that regime media needed to work toward projecting a more inclusive vision of the Islamic Republic—one that could reach portions of the population that have become disillusioned. Reza referred to the events of 2009, which witnessed the largest protests against the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution. In what came to be called the Green Movement, a cross section of mainly urban women and young people protested perceived voter fraud, eventually producing a crisis of legitimacy for the political elite. In order to reach the part of the population that had protested or sympathized with the protests, Reza suggested creating media that would emphasize narratives of nationalism and unity, while allowing religion to fade into the background. The leader of the students stood up, his finger pointed angrily at Reza, and proclaimed, “Your generation may be tired of confrontation, but not ours!”
When we left, Reza turned to me and said, “These young Basijis don’t realize that distancing ourselves from the general public is what got us in this mess we now face. We need to reach out to the other side that is protesting us, not alienate them, as these kids want. You know what these kids’ problem is? They don’t know what it was like to be marginalized in society. They don’t remember, because they were born after the revolution. All they’ve ever known is a system in which our side has been in power.”
The leaders of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces have more, even, at stake today than the defense of a political system. These men and their families did not command respect in Iranian society before 1979. The monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi formally marginalized religious families, and the Iranian intellectual elite of the day looked down on them as well. The creation of the Islamic Republic gave pious Iranians of Reza’s class and generation a sense of purpose and a place in society. I often heard them wonder aloud anxiously: If circumstances in the country changed, would they be driven to the periphery again?
Reza continued, “The younger Basijis don’t know that if we don’t take care of this revolution, we’ll be relegated back to the margins. They don’t know how quickly things can change.”
Many men of Reza’s generation see the younger Basijis as opportunistic and soft because they have not passed through the harrowing experience of war. Regime paramilitary organizations such as the Basij were the main recruitment arm through which the revolutionary state sent soldiers to the front in the 1980s. After 1988, when the war with Iraq ended, Iran’s political elite were left to figure out what to do with these organizations. The supreme leader’s office eventually deployed them to confront Western “soft war” tactics and to police anti-regime activists. Because it is tailored to these purposes, and frames the general population as a potential threat and target of policing, the ideological training the younger Basij receive today is one the older generation of the Revolutionary Guard disagrees with. “The only similarity between the Basij of today and the Basij of the war is that we share the same organizational name. Those in the Basij today are horrible,” Mehdi, a war veteran and filmmaker, said to me.
“It’s so painful for me that people think of the Basij in negative terms now,” he continued. “We were created for a different purpose at the beginning of the revolution. We went to defend the country against the invading Iraqi military, not to get better jobs or get into university, like the Basij of today. Or to beat our own people, for God’s sake! Today these kids are opportunistic.”
Although Reza and his colleagues had all eagerly joined the Basij in the first years after the revolution, not a single guardsman I met over a ten-year period would allow his children to become active Basijis. “There’s no reason for them to be involved. And the atmosphere is not one I want my kids to be in,” one of them told me. Instead, they send their children abroad to Europe. Allowing their children to be a part of the Basij would be a step down the social ladder they have already scaled.
Younger Basijis such as Ali and Mustafa, however, feel that the revolution has gone astray because the older generation lost touch with its values. Like many of their colleagues, Ali and Mustafa hail from pious working- and lower-middle-class families that migrated to Tehran from smaller provincial towns. When, as a teenager, Mustafa wanted to pursue filmmaking, the Basij in his high school provided the resources and social network his family could not. Once he graduated from film school, Mustafa easily found a job at a production house that made documentaries for state television, allowing him to be a full-time filmmaker and provide for his new wife. The revolution had offered Mustafa and Ali a social mobility to which they saw the corruption of the older generation of revolutionaries as a threat.
“They’re the ones who are soft, not us,” Ali told me. “We appreciate their sacrifices during the war, but they’ve become corrupted by money and obsessed with making themselves like the secular elite.”
Again and again, my conversations with members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij turned back to issues of corruption, social and cultural class, and generational differences. Often my interlocutors turned their ire on one another more than on those who were not supporters of the regime. Their vast and nuanced disagreements revealed a complicated political reality that could not be contained in the familiar binaries, such as reformist vs. hard-line or anti-regime vs. pro-regime.
As the Islamic Republic enters its fifth decade, keeping the revolution “alive” will depend on the ability of its image-makers not only to appeal to a younger population that wants change but also to build consensus among members of the younger generation within the regime’s own ranks. The task before the Islamic Republic is to win over a broad cross section of its citizens while simultaneously defining what shape its revolutionary project, and its state apparatus, will take over the long term. How best to achieve this goal, without losing the Islamic Republic’s founding vision altogether, defines Iran’s conundrum and its field of possibility.