Ahead of what it has described as major sanctions to be imposed on the Iranian oil industry on Nov. 4, another set of sanctions put in place by the US Treasury last week came as a big surprise.
The US imposed financial sanctions on the Middle East’s largest steel producer and largest tractor manufacturer, as well as banks and other business institutions in Iran, after alleging that they provide financial support to Iranian paramilitary group the Basij — a militia that acts under the supervision of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and which, according to the US, is complicit in the recruitment of children as soldiers.
Iran is allegedly recruiting poor Afghan refugees to fight in Syria. After fleeing the war in their country and going to Iran for a better standard of living and opportunities, they have found themselves in Syria fighting Daesh alongside the Fatemiyoun Division as the best option they have to support their families.
It is hard to say whether these poor Afghans have been forced, brainwashed or bribed to fight in Syria, but Human Rights Watch reported that children as young as 14 have been sent to the front lines. The group identified at least eight of them who had been killed in battle. According to international law, the recruitment of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a war crime.
More than 2,000 Afghan soldiers have reportedly been killed in Syria, some of whose age and real identities are not known. These people, along with the Iranians who serve in this militia, were recruited and trained by the Basij from an early age. They are trained and brainwashed to be used as a secret army whenever the IRGC needs their services.
Most Basij stations are located in the remote, poor areas of Iran, where government services are short and undocumented Afghan refugees, who cannot afford to feed their families, are more easily recruited.
The provision of free classes along with military training and free food or stipends, makes such a difference for a child or teenager who doesn’t have any access to social services and lives in poverty. All these services come with ideological training to make the recruits loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and devoted to sacrificing themselves when their services are needed.
The current regime not only pushed the nation back, but also spent nothing on developing Iran’s infrastructure and industry basically because the rulers were busy grooming and investing in their own internal and external militia
During the time of the Green Movement in Iran, which protested over the disputed presidential election of 2009, many of these recruits, under the support and provision of Basij members, were suddenly called on to serve their duty. They were told to crack down on those who were protesting against the system, the establishment and the election results.
The US Treasury described the institutions that have been sanctioned as a network providing support to the Basij Resistance Force. It also cited the paramilitary group’s ties to the IRGC, which is well known by ordinary Iranians. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin charged that the sanctioned businesses are complicit in the Basij’s “efforts to recruit, train and indoctrinate child soldiers, who are coerced into combat.”
For most Iranians, as much as I understand, it is a source of shame and embarrassment when they hear that their beloved country is associated with such a crime. Hearing that their government and associated institutions are engaged in recruiting child soldiers and sending them to the Syrian battleground, or manipulating children who come from poor families, is not what ordinary Iranians represent or can see themselves affiliated with.
What makes Iran unique is its history of civilization and humanitarian background. Iran was a leading force of change and democracy in the region just four decades ago. I should say that Iran wasn’t a perfect place during the time of the late shah, before the revolution in 1979, but its living standards in comparison with other countries in the region was progressive and promising.
The current regime not only pushed the nation back, but also spent nothing on developing Iran’s infrastructure and industry basically because the rulers were busy grooming and investing in their own internal and external militia, without paying attention to the public’s demands and needs.
The US is seeking to choke off Iran’s economy by expanding its sanctions, but it is hard to say if it can change the course of the Basij militia and its recruitment of child soldiers in the short term.
- Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian-American journalist, political commentator and author of “Camelia: Save Yourself By Telling the Truth” (Seven Stories Press, 2008). Twitter: @CameliaFard