On Tehran's Streets, the Basij's Fearsome Reign

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Iranian protesters are chased by riot police and the Basij amid a tear-gas cloud on July 17, 2009

You don't know whom to trust nowadays in Tehran. Members of the feared Basij paramilitary roam the streets at night, often blending in with people lounging in parks or window-shopping at the capital's many squares. Locals are reluctant to discuss anything remotely political in public, let alone divulge their opinions. And looming over everything else is the constant paranoia of surveillance: on the Web, over the notoriously unreliable mobile networks, on the hectic, crowded streets, even at work.

In many ways Iran, and in particular Tehran — the epicenter of over a month of protests triggered by the June 12 presidential election — has become an Orwellian police state. Security has particularly tightened in the past few weeks as the regime has attempted to root out the intellectuals, journalists, opposition leaders and political organizers who have been firing up dissent. "We haven't seen this kind of security in 30 years," says one office manager in northern Tehran, alluding to the days before the 1979 revolution when the country was ruled by the Shah and his much-feared secret police, SAVAK. "They [the security apparatus] are lashing out because they're afraid the system is going to fall."

The renewed shakedown has led many Iranians to be subversive in more discreet ways. Instead of joining street protests, they try to short the electrical grids by turning on all household appliances en masse; they boycott products advertised on state TV; and they increasingly turn to Twitter, blogs, Facebook, e-mail-distribution lists and underground newspapers to bring attention to the regime's brutal tactics.

That is mainly to try to avoid bumping up against the Basij, who rule the streets. The government has chosen to rely increasingly on the force, which some believe to number more than 100,000 in Tehran alone, though that statistic is impossible to confirm. In previous days, they were primarily shipped in on a temporary basis from the more conservative countryside to quash planned street demonstrations. But now they seem here to stay. They operate out of the city's mosques, from which they venture out to patrol the streets at all hours of the night on motorcycles, often in small gangs. On a recent night, three Basiji were seen at 2 a.m. standing next to their parked motorcycles on a residential street.

The militia, which emerged during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s as a religious youth group that sent its members to sacrifice themselves by clearing land mines, has now become Iran's Big Brother, mafia, and neighborhood hooligans all rolled into one. During the street protests, they barged through the crowd Mad Max–style, brandishing wooden batons. Now they are playing more of an intelligence-gathering role, and consequently they have become much harder to detect. In recent weeks, many have shaved their telltale beards and shed their secondhand clothes; one group of Basiji recently spotted in north Tehran wore collared shirts, snappy dress shoes and jeans, allowing them to blend in with the trendy crowd.

Two Iranian women in their early 30s who live in a tony neighborhood in northern Tehran say they do not go out alone after dark, particularly because the Basij have been cracking down on partygoers who try to circumvent the Islamic Republic's strict rules forbidding alcohol, dancing or consorting with the opposite sex. One university student, who claims that the Basij raped his former girlfriend after she left a party last year, says he has avoided venturing out at night since the election. If he does have to go out, he calls a taxi to come directly to his apartment. "The streets are crawling with them," he says. "It's too dangerous. At the least, they'll stop you and ask where you've been."

Indeed, word of mouth has made the Basij even more fearsome. Stories abound of nondescript locals getting picked up for the flimsiest reasons. One businessman says an associate of his who runs a consulting firm was dragged recently from a flight back to Tehran and then whisked away by security personnel for days of interrogation. These Kafkaesque tales have become a part of everyday life in Iran.