Soldiers of God: Child Soldiers, the Basij, and Iran-Iraq War

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion by Cooper Mendelson-Grasse

This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.


The Iran-Iraq war had the dubious distinction of evincing all the evils of the first world war, 40 years after the second. From trenches, to chemical weapons, and from total war to child soldiers, the conflict was in many ways a startling revenant from a bygone era. It is on the last evil of the war that this article will examine. The employment of child soldiers is a complex and difficult issue. An aspect of this complexity comes down to understanding why these children might willingly choose to fight in a conflict. Unemployment, ideology, faith, coercion, and violence are all potential reasons given by Western analysts. However, in spite of how nuanced the topic is, the strategies employed by military forces to recruit children remains under-studied by security scholars. This article will assess the religiosity of the Basij with regards to its use of child soldiers from a bottom up perspective, by discussing its propaganda and recruitment efforts during the Iran-Iraq war.

The creation of the Basij, an Iranian paramilitary and reserve force, was called for by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, in late 1979, as part of his plan to build a “twenty-million-man army”(1). Officially founded several months later in April, 1980, the Basij rapidly expanded in size, numbering in the hundreds of thousands only a few years later (2). The organization’s importance ballooned in September of 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, seeking to capitalize off of the nation’s instability due to the recent Islamic revolution. The paramilitary force and its masses of light infantry would become infamous in the Iran-Iraq War, especially due to its employment of human-wave tactics and use of child soldiers (3).

Western media abounds with photos of young Iranian boys stationed at the front during the war. All are pictured wearing ill-fitting uniforms and headbands emblazoned with the phrase “God is the Greatest” and carrying nothing but a grenade and a small, plastic key “said to open the door to paradise”(4). Based on these photos, many western pundits characterized the Basij as a force of religious fanatics. This image of a rag-tag force of highly motivated religious volunteers is also one that is perpetuated by the Iranian government. When speaking to state-owned media, many veterans of the organization give a myriad of “good” reasons for enlisting, which are then amplified by state propagandists. Alongside the traditional motives for enlistment like patriotism and personal honour, recruits would often declare that they had joined up to fight for the revolution, and the world Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to create (5). During the war, recruiters would often reference the battle of Karbala, when the third of Shia Islam’s ruling Imams, Hussain ibn Ali, and his allies, were massacred by the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid I over the question of the spiritual leadership of the Islamic world, and make reference to the supposed presence of soldiers at the battle, in order to provide religious precedent for the enlistment of teenagers (6).

It is almost a truism to say that many young Iranians joined the Basij for religious reasons. Whether they joined out of loyalty to a political system that elevated the voices and decrees of clerics, or due to deep personal faith, religion was very influential for a great number of enlistees. In fact, many of the young men came from the religious lower classes who had been shunned by the secular, modernizing shah. The religiosity of the organization would often manifest in the form of exultations of martyrdom, which was used to idealize death in the minds of the many young recruits. Aside from standard religious compulsions, there were also less tangible aspects of the Basij’s religiosity, captured in the cinematic work of Iranian state sanctioned filmmaker Morteza Avini, whose work focused greatly on the esoteric reasons why many young Basijis fought, especially the relationship between the military force and the Supreme Leader (7).

Yet it is important to separate an organization from its rhetoric. Amongst themselves, and to trusted interlocutors, some veterans discuss how their real reasons for enlistment were far more pragmatic and complicated than how they were presented in Iranian and Western media (8). For instance, the social pressure exerted on young Iranian adolescents was huge, with as many as one in three middle schoolers enlisting (9). The pressure campaign usually took the form of appeals to faith and country, and benefited from the top-down, patriarchal family structure prominent in Iran, which helped amplify pressures on young men to enlist (10).

Alongside this pressure campaign were a multitude of inducements, including salary. A married 16-year-old enlistee could be payed 7,000 toman a month, the same rate of pay as a mid-level civil servant (11).11 The Basij also set up the Martyr’s Foundation, which helped finance the organization’s policy of financially compensating the families of maimed or deceased soldiers(12). These far more practical inducements strongly incentivized enlistment for poor young men who were not required to have parental consent to join the paramilitary force (13).

It would not be accurate to dismiss religion out of hand and assume that all young recruits were motivated by shrewd cost-benefit analyses of the tangible benefits for enlistment. However, it is important to identify, as some underground Iranian filmmakers have, the complex tapestry of factors that ultimately led hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys to enlist (14). Attempting to single out one reason why children might choose to fight in a war is reductionist, and dangerous. If we wish to work towards a world where militaries no longer feel the need to recruit children, we must understand how they can be coopted into military service. Pointing a finger at one variable and calling it a day does little to help those children who have fought, or are in danger of being impressed into a war.

  1. Ali Alfoneh, “The Basij Resistance Force.” The Iran Primer. United States Institute of Peace, October 6, 2010. https://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/basij-resistance-force.

  2. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - Iran.” Refworld. UNHCR, 2001. https://www.refworld.org/docid/498805f02d.html.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, trans. Nicholas Elliot, (Cambridge, Massachusets: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 346.

  5. Narges Bajoghli, “Towards An Archive of the Basij: Memories from Iran's Volunteer Militia.” Ajam Media Collective. Ajam Media Collective, January 16, 2017. https://ajammc.com/2016/05/31/contesting-histories-of irans-basij-militia/.

  6. Aida Ghajar, “The Lost Youth of Iran's Child Soldiers.” IranWire. IranWire, July 21, 2017. https://iranwire.com/en/features/4724

  7. PeoplePill, “About Morteza Avini: Iranian Photographer (1947 - 1993): Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life.” PeoplePill. Accessed November 6, 2020. https://peoplepill.com/people/morteza-avini/.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, trans. Nicholas Elliot, (Cambridge, Massachusets: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 347.

  10. Ibid. 347

  11. Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, trans. Nicholas Elliot, (Cambridge, Massachusets: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 348.

  12. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - Iran.” Refworld. UNHCR, 2001. https://www.refworld.org/docid/498805f02d.html.

  13. Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, trans. Nicholas Elliot, (Cambridge, Massachusets: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 347.

  14. Narges Bajoghli, “Towards An Archive of the Basij: Memories from Iran's Volunteer Militia.” Ajam Media Collective. Ajam Media Collective, January 16, 2017. https://ajammc.com/2016/05/31/contesting-histories-of irans-basij-militia/.