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
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