A new batch of US sanctions announced on October 16 targeted some 20 companies and financial institutions that finance Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary organization linked to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
Introducing the sanctions last Tuesday, the United States Treasury Department said in a statement that the network of businesses that were targeted by the new sanctions provide financial support to Basij, that trains child soldiers for the IRGC.
The new sanctions are part of the United States’ economic campaign to pressure Iran over what President Donald Trump's administration describes as its "malign" role in the Middle East, including support for militant groups.
But is the Basij force as violent and destructive as its critics charge? Radio Farda asked its listeners in one of its call-in shows; The Sixth Hour.
The show’s host and Radio Farda’s chief editor, Niusha Boghrati, probed into the nature of Basij's activities as well as its structure, its link to the Iranian military, its expansion in the region and its activities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
One listener, questioned Basij's definition as a defender of the country, saying, "Those who defended Iran during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, were young men who were raised in Iran under the Shah. They are now either in prison or living in exile if they are still alive. What is known today as Basij is a tool to create terror."
Another listener highlighted Basij's role in intimidating and suppressing peaceful protesters. He said, "Basij members keep shockers and tear gas canisters at home ready to be used against demonstrations as they break out. Sometimes they even frighten the regular police."
Listener Amir was adamant that Basij members were "brainwashed" to believe the regime's core ideology and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's personality cult.
Speaking about Basij's structure, Radio Farda’s expert on the IRGC, Morad Veisi said: "IRGC has four forces and two organizations. The four forces are the ground force, the aerospace force, the naval force and the extra-territorial Qods Force. The two organizations are the Intelligence organization and the Basij. The Basij network starts from Tehran and spreads to the rest of the country down to the smallest villages via a capillary network."
"This structure, which runs through every street and alley, was widely used in the disputed Presidential election in 2009. The network efficiently carried out decisions about supporting hardline candidates favored by IRGC down to the last person. The government has been using this network as a key tool since then," Veisi added.
"Meanwhile, Basij has spread its structure into various sectors, creating sub-structures such as Students Basij, Government Employees Basi and so on," He continued.
Elsewhere in the program, Veisi explained how the Basij owns and manipulates interests in the stock market and how it runs investment and industrial firms including banks and steel plants.
Veisi also explained the Basij's regional activities. He said, "The Islamic Republic has duplicated Basij's structure and organization in various Middle Eastern countries to support the political forces that align with Tehran."
"The first of such experiences was the creation of Hezballah in Lebanon, which is now a key player in that country. According to IRGC commanders, later on, in Syria, when the armed opposition was about to capture Damascus, IRGC commanders armed civilians to defend the Bashar al-Assad government. The first commander of the Basij-like forces in Syria was an IRGC general who was later killed in a road accident," Veisi explained.
According to Veisi, when ISIS became highly active in Iraq in 2014 and Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa for jihad against ISIS, Iran helped form the Hashd al-Sha'bi by recruiting the militia wings of various political groups in Iraq. The force, however, is still active in the post-ISIS Iraq with some 120,000 armed men.
Veisi said that Iran's latest experience in duplicating Basij's model is still going on in Yemen, where Iran has been working to form and strengthen the militia group Ansarollah based on Basij's structure and mission.
A listener joining the debate towards the end of the program said that although Basij helped the Islamic Republic to attain its goals in the war against Iraq, later it was quickly turned into a force for suppression of the regime’s opponents. A force that according to yet another listener, identifies reform-minded individuals and intellectuals and clamps down on them.