“Revolutionary” Children

Old revolutionaries and the young activists taking their place.

Members of Iran’s paramilitary Basij militia participate in a parade in front of the former US embassy in Tehran on November 25, 2011 to mark the national Basij week. Iran has dismissed a US news report implicating it in a chemical weapons cache uncovered in Libya, saying it was a champion in fighting to eradicate such arms. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: We published Stranger’s Guide: Tehran in 2021. We noted at the time that Iran’s capital is one of the few major cities in the world where Google Maps offers no street views. For many Americans, the country exists primarily through geopolitical headlines. We wanted to show a nuanced portrait of this place and most importantly its residents, the millions of people who must navigate living publicly and privately. We placed particular emphasis on showcasing the work of women writers in the country. 

A year later, 22 year-old Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina Amini) was killed in the custody of Iran’s “morality police;” her death sparked a protest movement, lead largely by Iranian women of different ages. In the face of increasing force from the government, the protestors have continued gathering. They frequently use the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom.”

After the 2009 Green Movement uprisings, the commanders of Iran’s most powerful military apparatus, the very force in charge of defending the revolution, admitted that the majority of the population no longer understands the regime’s revolutionary stories. With the Islamic Republic in its fifth decade, a sizable number of Iranians are tired of the state’s propaganda and, in turn, the regime is confronting a crisis of credibility. The generation gap in Iran has never been greater, and the guardians of the Islamic Republic now face the classic paradox of any successful revolutionary movement: how to transmit the commitment to their revolutionary project from one generation to the next?

To understand the increasing tension between those who helped bring revolution and those who now seek to fill their shoes, one must first understand the origin story of the Islamic Republic. The 1979 Iranian Revolution, a massive popular revolution against the American-backed government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ended 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran and instituted the nation’s first republic. Protestors and revolutionaries came from all political backgrounds, including leftists, liberals, Islamists, Marxist-Islamists and others. The exiled religious cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, commanded the greatest amount of support and eventually became the leader of the post-revolutionary government. The Shah fled Iran in January 1979. By February, Khomeini had triumphantly returned to Iran, and by March, the Islamic Republic was established by a popular referendum.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution reorganized the geopolitics of the Middle East. When students in support of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American Embassy compound in Tehran in November 1979, taking 52 hostages for 444 days, they permanently redefined Iran-US relations. Iran had previously been America’s most powerful ally in the region, and the Shah did the bidding of the United States in the Middle East. Given the fact that Iran shared a long border with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran became America’s pillar of US foreign policy in the region, and it was rewarded handsomely for its cooperation. One of the main rallying cries of the 1979 revolution was, “Neither East nor West. Islamic Republic!” Iranian revolutionaries made it clear that they no longer wished to be ammunition in the larger political fight between the United States and the Soviet Union. Iran shifted from being a staunch US ally governed by an autocrat who made claims of “modernizing” the state, to one governed by Shi’a Islamic norms as defined by the anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini.

A year later, in September 1980, Iraq invaded southern Iran and started what would become a bloody eight-year war between the two neighbors. The United States supported Iraq overtly during the Iran-Iraq War, and supported Iran covertly through the sale of arms, aiming for a war of attrition between the two sides. Iran, meanwhile, helped found Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, and, through direct military aid, the United States ensured that most Arab states in the region turned their backs on Iran. However, once the United States toppled Iran’s two closest enemies—the Taliban in 2001 and Saddam Hussein in 2003—Iran saw its position in the region rise, as its enemies no longer posed a threat. To this day, the 1979 Iranian Revolution has had far-reaching reverberations in the region and the world, contributing to the rise of Islamist political movements; the proxy wars between Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq; as well as the prolonged animosity between Iran and the United States.

As any revolutionary system becomes the status quo, it inevitably faces challenges: it must safeguard the revolution, as well as the socioeconomic and class status of its leaders, while also appealing to younger generations and their demands for political participation. Scholars of revolution have long noted that the transformation of class systems in revolutions are crucial. The Iranian Revolution and the political system it created fundamentally transformed the class system of Iran’s ruling elite. Regime elites in Iran now ponder how to maintain the socioeconomic status that they gained through the Revolution, while also making the system flexible enough to incorporate outside challenges. At the heart of these debates is the question of what exactly defines the Islamic Republic and its revolution.

In this dynamic, everything becomes both a possibility and a problem.


Despite the resounding victory of the 1979 Revolution, it is the Iran-Iraq War that provides the master narrative of the Islamic Republic. The revolution was too messy; it included too many secularists, leftists, feminists and nationalists to be neatly packaged as an “Islamic Revolution,” as much as the regime now tries to extol it as such. By contrast, the Iran-Iraq War, following on the heels of the revolution, allowed the regime to imprison members of the opposition for reasons of “national security,” to mobilize the population in defense of the revolution as the regime defined it and to consolidate its power. In other words, the war crucially allowed the Islamic Republic to silence dissent, rally the country behind nationalist sentiments inherent to war and strengthen the state.

In the years leading up to the revolution, Khomeini gained popularity by capitalizing on the class antagonisms between the lower class (tabaqeh-e payin) and the upper class (tabaqeh-e bala), following in the footsteps of anti-Shah leftists groups. Khomeini and the core group of clerics who surrounded him vowed to right the social wrongs in society by redistributing wealth and eliminating poverty, shantytowns, unemployment and morally corrupt behavior. The Islamic Republic relied upon the support of the mostazafin, members of the “dispossessed masses,” who had extant organizing networks in mosques and neighborhoods. These networks served as organizing centers both to oust the Shah and to recruit volunteer soldiers in the subsequent war effort. It was this segment of the population that answered Khomeini’s call to defend the nation and nascent revolution when Iraq invaded in September 1980. Although both the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij were created following the 1979 Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War turned them into central institutions in Iran.

With the once-powerful army of Iran in disarray and the new Revolutionary Guard still untrained, the Iraqi regime mistakenly envisioned that its invasion of Iran in September 1980 would lead to a swift victory. Instead, the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War was the longest conventional war of the Twentieth Century. In it, trench warfare was used for the first time since World War I, and Iraq dropped numerous nerve gas and chemical bombs on Iranian military and civilian populations. Iraq attacked Iran along its southern border, in the province of Khuzestan, home to Iran’s ethnically Arab population. Saddam Hussein banked on the hope that Iran’s Arab population would rise up against the Iranian government and side with the Arab invader, which did not happen. Taking advantage of Iran’s disarray following the revolution, Iraq made a surprise attack and quickly occupied the port city of Khorramshahr, 10 miles from Abadan. Iraq’s eyes were on Abadan, where the Middle East’s largest oil refinery at the time was located. Despite a weakened army and an untrained Revolutionary Guard, Iran was able to fight off Iraq’s assault on Abadan. It took two years for Iran to take back the city of Khorramshahr, at which point the Islamic Republic went on the offensive and attacked Iraqi territory under the slogan, “From Karbala to Jerusalem.” The war continued for another six years, and when both sides finally signed a United Nations ceasefire in 1988, no territorial changes had taken place.


“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 Kermani, a war veteran, former Basij and pro-regime filmmaker said to me one day as we sat in his office in Revolution Square, steps from the University of Tehran’s main campus, sipping tea. Over the years, I have interviewed numerous members of the Basij, the volunteer militia that rose up alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, across several generations. Kermani served in the Basij before going to work at the Chronicles of Victory, a prominent pro-regime media center, in 1989. He had been pushed out of the center during the second term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013). Kermani found the environment in Iran too suffocating after his 2009 suppression, and decided to leave rather than open his own production studio like some of his colleagues. He spent most of his time in Lebanon, making films with Hezbollah’s media team. He came back for short stints in Tehran to see his family and friends. “We’re all so embarrassed.” He stared off into the corner of the room, his right hand mindlessly spinning a sugar cube on the glass table, his jaw tight.

Breaking his silence, he continued, “Basijis used to stem from the people. The Imam [Khomeini] meant for us to serve the people and the nation when he created the Basij. But what they did this past summer [during the 2009 Green Movement] was disgusting. They turned everyone against us.”

“It’s so painful that people think of the Basij in negative terms now. 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!”

Kermani’s cell phone rang. It was another filmmaker named Hosseini on the line, his good friend and a leader of pro-regime filmmaking in Iran. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to see if we would grab lunch with him. One of his favorite sandwich shops in the city was on the same street as Kermani’s office. We picked up our things and joined him.

Kermani filled Hosseini in on our conversation. Hosseini turned to me as he took a bite of his kabob sandwich and said, “I’m embarrassed to tell you that I don’t know what the Basij is today.” He had spent all morning in an editing room, where the filmmakers were putting the finishing touches on yet another narrative film about the ways in which the newly minted Revolutionary Guard suppressed the Kurdish uprising in 1979.

Hosseini stared off into the corner of the restaurant as he chewed on his sandwich, looking for answers about how to define an organization that he joined with conviction as a fifteen-year-old. He shook his head, as if in disbelief, before turning his attention back to his sandwich. Hosseini could no longer define the Basij, much less defend it: “During the war, everything was clear: the Basij was a training ground. But today, I honestly can’t tell you what it’s about. There is not one definition of the Basij. I guess we all believe in the Imam [Khomeini] and the revolution, but beyond that, we’re mixed. And this new generation of Basijis,” he scoffed, “forget about them.”

The younger Basijis, on the other hand, feel that their elders have sold out on the ideals of the revolution and tried to refashion themselves as the secular elite. “They used to be revolutionaries,” Ahmad, a third-generation Basiji said to me, “but they aren’t any longer. They’ve become the very people they fought against. We’re the ones who have to continue en- suring the revolution stays intact.”


When the war ended and there was no longer a need to send men to the warfront, both the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij had to recalibrate. Although Ayatollah Khomeini’s will banned the military from involving itself in politics, shortly after his death in 1989, the Revolutionary Guard not only entered the political sphere, but also became the main contractor for rebuilding the infrastructure of the country after the war. This turned it into the wealthiest independent institution in the Islamic Republic. Due to the changing social, political and economic conditions of post-war Iran, then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997) enacted policies that effectively transformed the Revolutionary Guard and allowed it to gradually infiltrate economic and political life in the Islamic Republic.

With the increased presence of the Revolutionary Guard in various facets of the state’s socioeconomic life, the Basij has become one of the most important sites of state power and citizen participation in the Islamic Republic. It is the Revolutionary Guard’s primary apparatus for organizing and controlling the Iranian population through neighborhood branches, universities, factories and workplaces. Since its establishment in 1980, the Basij has collaborated with various police enforcement agencies in an effort to exert moral control over society. It has participated in law enforcement (at times, specifically targeting dissidents), organized public religious ceremonies, provided emergency management, provided social services throughout the country and produced media, all with a “proper” revolutionary and Islamic twist.

Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, allowed the Revolutionary Guard to enter politics in order to safeguard his own power. Khamenei did not enjoy the mass support and following of his predecessor, and appointed large numbers of former Revolutionary Guard members and commanders to political positions. In the initial post-war period, the Basij aided in the moral policing of the population. They reprimanded women for not covering themselves properly. They stood at street checkpoints to monitor for “indecent” music and behavior, and anything else that was deemed immoral. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the new Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, made the Basij one of the five main divisions of the Revolutionary Guard and shifted its mission to a force responsible for the internal security of the state.

The Supreme Leader began to alter the Basij drastically when over half of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij voted for reformist Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election. Khamenei saw this vote for reform in such large numbers as a direct threat to his rule. The Supreme Leader’s Office, along with more conservative members of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, decided to intensify training pro- grams, especially for younger members, in an attempt to create a more loyal cadre of supporters within the regime’s armed forces. The goal was to create a stable voting bloc for more hardline candidates and to avoid another 1997 election with landslide victories for reformists. In this endeavor, they have so far succeeded, as the 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential election demonstrate. These foundational changes are one of the main reasons that the younger gen- eration of Basijis now tend to support the Supreme Leader, whereas the war generation tends to support Ayatollah Khomeini and his family—who have become reformists.

Despite attempts to institutionalize the Basij in the post-war period, it continues to have a loose structure on the ground. Basijis themselves have a difficult time defining their exact role, and as I interviewed those within their ranks I found great discord. The only Basij branch that tends to be unified are the university Basij organizations. Otherwise, the current Basij members who serve outside of the university sphere—in offices, factories and neighborhoods—are often unsure of their exact role. Most revealed to me that they had joined to take a step up on the social ladder or to keep their jobs.


Like the first generation of Revolutionary Guard members, a great majority of Basij volunteers came from lower-middle-class, with some from middle-class families who tended to be religious. Only a few came from landowning families. “Dr. Hasani is the only rich kid I knew at the front,” a man named Mahdi told me, referring to a physician who volunteered from the central town of Arak and came from a wealthy landowning family. Mahdi, a sociologist employed by the research wing of the Revolutionary Guard, was especially interested in questions of class. According to the data that he and his team gathered, the vast majority of those who had joined the Basij and Revolutionary Guard during the war came from humble backgrounds. This correlated with my own findings. Wealthier or less religious families often tried to send their sons abroad to avoid recruitment to the front, despite Iran’s closed borders and the extreme difficulty of securing visas for young Iranian men at the time. Veterans I interviewed often asked me if my family left Iran in the middle of the war because my father was trying to avoid recruitment. Even today, there exists a division between those who voluntarily fought in the war and those who left the country.

Many of the men from the first two generations of Basij aspire to have their children rise in class position. Therefore, they keep them from joining as active members of the Basij, whom they view as lower class. In essence, the divide, and often disdain, that underlies the ways in which the first and second generations of Basijis speak about the third generation points to issues of status and class, as well as disapproval over the opportunism that they believe is the primary motive of the younger generation joining the Basij. Although Hosseini, Ahmadi and their cohort of first- and second-generation Basijis hailed mostly from humble backgrounds, today they tend to live comfortable middle-class lives. Meanwhile, Revolutionary Guard members who partook in business opportunities following the war often got rich. Those men and their families now lead upper-middle-class lives.

Not a single first- or second-generation Basiji I met has allowed his son or daughter to become active in the Basij. When I asked why, the response was nearly always the same: “There’s no reason for them to be involved. And the atmosphere is not one I want my kids to be in.” For the first- and second-generation Basijis, allowing their children to be a part of the Basij is a step down in the social ladder they have already scaled. Instead, members of the first generation tend to save their money and send their children on tours of Europe. Although they perform their religious duties and go with their children to Shi’a pilgrimage sites in Iran, Iraq and Syria, they work hard to ensure that their children, both young men and women, get a chance to travel to Europe once they are in their early 20s. These children go on such trips either with their mothers or as part of an organized tour with other friends’ children. A European tour helps ensure that their children have the right cultural capital to be in the social class to which they aspire.

These first two generations of the organization express dis- dain for the third generation of Basij youth, not only because they represent a lower class, but also because they see them as self-interested, joining the organization to scale the social ladder. Ahmadi explained to me, “Those who went to the war went to fight for and defend the country, not to get better jobs or get into university, like the Basij of today. When you became a Basiji back then, you knew you could die at the warfront. You went because you really believed. But not today. Today these kids are opportunistic.” There seemed to be some truth in the accusation of opportunism: several third-generation Basij filmmakers themselves told me that they had joined because they did not have access to expensive filmmaking equipment. Once in the Basij, they could freely use such equipment to make their first films, a valuable stepping-stone.

I frequently heard the first two generations of Basijis complain about the third generation that they don’t know exactly what they stand for. In other words, they stand for anything as long as it gets them ahead. “For us, it was a matter of life or death. These kids are just ideological and they don’t even know why,” Masoud, a war veteran and professional photographer who did freelance gigs for the cultural events of the Revolutionary Guard, whispered to me one day while we were in Abadan, the border town 30 miles away from Basra, in southern Iraq, where the Iran-Iraq War started. There was a young intelligence minder from Tehran who had flown down “on assignment” from his pro-regime cultural organization to observe, report back and control the cultural festival we were attending. He was there to make sure everything was “correct” for the festival. He looked on with suspicion as the crew set up one of the theaters in Abadan. Masoud turned his back to the intelligence minder and his Abadani Basij counterparts, and continued, “They don’t even understand theater and film well enough to comment more than two sentences. But look at how arrogantly they stand there, posturing, trying to intimidate everyone. They wouldn’t last a minute in the trenches in Abadan if Iraq invaded again right now.” The first and second generations see “the kids,” as they call them, as uncultured, incapable, blindly ideological and uncouth.

Yet among the third generation of Basijis, class has played out in just as important ways. Mostafa, a leader in his university’s Basij Student Organization, the most repressive student organization on campuses, said to me, “I don’t know why we should offer them [reformist minded intellectuals and intellectuals who were critical of the state] an olive branch when they think we’re just closed-minded idiots. They have no desire to engage with us; why should we?” Having spent time with Mostafa at the university before he graduated, I saw how he and his friends were shunned by the other students. Especially in an art university in Iran, where style of dress and comportment are important indicators of one’s outlook, Mostafa and his friends were made to feel that they did not fit in. The art (honari) style of dress, which in the 15 years of the new millennium was a bohemian style and later a hipster style for both men and women, became the predominant look for an aspiring young artist and signaled a subculture at odds with the regime. It was this art style that came to represent and define “cool” in urban Iran. And from at least high school, Mostafa and his colleagues in the university Basij organization told me that they not only felt excluded from that culture, but that they actually were excluded as the ultimate other in these circles. “They take one look at us and they automatically dismiss us and our work because of how we’re dressed,” Mansour, a 19-year-old Basiji student in Mostafa’s university told me. The angry looks the art students shot at Mostafa and his friends were not unwarranted; much of the energy of Mostafa and his organization centered on policing their fellow classmates. Ironically, the very regulations set up at the beginning of the Islamic Republic to create a revolutionary collective based on certain ideals of dress and comportment now made supporters of the regime feel excluded in society at large.

Precisely for these reasons, the children of first- and sec- ond-generation Basiji and Revolutionary Guard try not to dress as if they come from pro-regime families. Most of my interlocutors’ daughters wore colorful headscarves and overcoats instead of chadors. The boys styled their hair and followed the latest trends at school. If their fathers were wounded veterans of the war, they faced scorn in secondary school and at the university level from other students, since offspring of wounded veterans get advantages in placement in the extremely competitive national university entrance exam. For this reason, they attempted to hide any affiliation with the regime in their outward appearances. Boys whose fathers had made a fortune through the Revolutionary Guard’s myriad business ventures went a step further, flaunting their luxurious lifestyles on Instagram, including alluding to their escapades with the opposite sex.

In parenting, the differences between early Basijis and recent recruits is perhaps most stark. First- and second-generation Basiji fathers spoke of how their children, mostly in their teens and early twenties, challenged their political, social and cultural views. Those who have daughters, especially, talked to me extensively about how they began to question the stricter views they once held about the place of women in society, as their daughters now face restrictions. These men now understand the struggles of women in Iran in a more intimate fashion than their peers who do not have daughters, they explained. Almost all talked incessantly about their daughters’ achievements and how much they resented the societal restrictions on women in Iran. They lamented the fact that they had supported a system that restricted women’s advancement in society in the first decade of the revolution. They recalled that at the beginning of the Islamic Republic these restrictive policies were abstract for them. But today, their daughters run up against these restrictions and they now see the real-life consequences of their prior political actions.

“My daughters graduated at the top of their university classes,” Yousef, a Basiji-turned-Revolutionary Guard, told me. “One was in law school and the other is a chemical engineer. The lawyer comes home upset every day that it’s unfair she can’t become a judge but her lesser-qualified male classmates can. And you know what? She’s perfectly right. We didn’t fully understand what these restrictions would mean when we fought for them after the revolution. My daughters have helped me grow on these fronts. And because of that, I want our system to grow and make room for her, not turn her away in frustration.”

Viewing the country through the eyes of a parent has changed the outlook of many in the first and second generation of Basijis. Ahmad, who has one teenage son and another in his early 20s, said to me: “As my boys have grown, I’ve become less ideological. I’m still a political person, but I’m not passionate and fiery like I used to be 30 years ago. Now I constantly think about the kind of country my sons will live in. It’s not just about ideology anymore. It’s about leaving my sons with a country they can comfortably prosper in. We don’t need to put so many social restrictions on them.”

In these narratives of parenting, children stand in for the future and stability. The first and second generations often attribute the more hardline (tond-ro) tendencies of the third-generation Basijis to the fact that they either didn’t yet have children or were just starting their families. These young kids, I often heard, do not yet instinctively think about what kind of system they wish to bequeath their children. This makes a difference in their outlook for the future of the state.

Once third-generation Basijis began to have children, I saw similar shifts. Toward the end of my fieldwork, five of my interlocutors in the third generation had had babies. Thinking about their children’s future led them to hope for stability. Reza, a 28-year-old Basiji who used to be the head of his university’s Basij in Tehran and had suppressed protestors in 2009, told me when his daughter was eight months old, “I used to welcome confrontation with the West so that they would stop bossing us around. But now when I hear my friends saying the same things I said only a year ago, I find myself automatically thinking of my daughter and wanting nothing but a peaceful country for her to grow up in.”


Narges Bajoghli

Narges Bajoghli is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Her book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic (Stanford University Press, 2019), was a winner of the 2020 Margaret Mead Award.

As US-Iran relations continue to make headlines, Stranger’s Guide: Tehran brings readers to the streets of a city few outsiders have had the opportunity to explore. Through new works from Dina Nayeri, Jason Rezaian, and a number of up-and-coming authors, the issue explores ...

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