The basij are on a roll right now, having organized the get-out-the-vote effort that propelled hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a landslide victory in last month's presidential election. The militia, whose name means mobilization in Persian, was created by Ayatullah Khomeini in the 1980s to recruit young men to fight against Iraq. But a decade later, they took on the role of an official morality police, becoming better known for raiding parties than for raiding the Iraqi front line. June's election, however, marked the first use of the basij as a mobilizing tool in electoral politics, a role in which it proved devastatingly effective.
So is the suave Hossein Rahimi the new face of the basij? Not really. As the son of an adviser to the Defense Minister, he is drawn to hard-line politics out of family loyalty. But like many children of the revolutionary elite, class privilege sets his lifestyle apart from the basiji rank and file. He watches Fox News and discovers old friends on www.orkut.com. His favorite movie is A Beautiful Mind, and he lives in a well-heeled neighborhood of north Tehran rather than in the working-class quarter of Naziabad where his basij is based. "Not only do I like Eminem, I have the entire collection," he brags, checking his mobile phone for missed calls.
Unlike Rahimi, most basij members are poor. Their sleeves reach their wrists, their shoes are scuffed, and they're unlikely to know of Eminem. Many eke out a living by renting motorbikes to work as messengers or bike taxis; hordes of them idle sullenly on their bikes near Tehran's grand bazaar. With this sort of work, it will take them an epoch to raise enough money to get married. The basij might give them a small stipend and help cover holidays at the Caspian Sea, but it cannot buy them an apartment or sustain a life. Embarrassed by their unpolished answers to a reporter's questions, they call the better-educated Rahimi from the mosque to speak for them.
Despite the difference in their status and prospects, what Rahimi and his comrades share is their romance with the notion of Iranian power. Rahimi can rattle off the range of the Shahab-5 missile and fantasize about what closing the Strait of Hormuz would do to U.S. oil supplies. "We really should not have signed the additional protocol to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty," he laments. "Iran's legitimate right to nuclear technology should not be checked by the West's politics."
Ahmedinajad won the loyalty of the basij, and the voters who responded to their campaigning, by promising to relieve the grinding poverty that remains the lot of the majority a quarter-century after the Islamic Revolution. Piety and a hawkish foreign policy might be enough to retain Rahimi's support, but for most of his basij brothers, the new President may be judged on whether he is able to make their lives more like Rahimi's.