A Shadowy Paramilitary Group Leads the Bloody Crackdown on Iran’s College Campuses

How the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard cultivates future recruits and how the West — unwittingly or not — helps it along

A Shadowy Paramilitary Group Leads the Bloody Crackdown on Iran’s College Campuses
Iranian student members of the Basij militia rally at Tehran University on June 3, 2022. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Please help! They are murdering us here! We need the world to hear our voice,” cried a student from Iran’s Jondishapour University in Ahvaz, as regime forces violently raided the school’s dormitories in October 2022.

As images like these continue to pour out of Iran and onto social media for the world to witness, universities in Iran remain a front line of anti-regime protest in the fight to topple the Islamic Republic.

But just as university campuses across the country have become the pulse of the revolution, they have also become one of the key theaters of regime repression. Verified videos showing regime forces raiding campuses and opening fire on students — at Sharif University, Shahid Beheshti University and Amirkabir University, among others — have been circulating since protests erupted last fall. These scenes have been coupled with multiple reports of student suspensions, abductions and torture.

The bloody crackdowns at universities across Iran have not been led directly by the usual suspects — the police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or its civil militia, the Basij. Rather, the brutal repression against students is being driven by a shadowy paramilitary group almost unknown beyond Iran’s borders: the Student Basij Organization (SBO).

The SBO is the single most important branch within the Basij militia. The SBO not only acts as the IRGC’s violent enforcers on university campuses, but its membership also forms the core of the Revolutionary Guard’s military-research projects, such as its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The SBO consists of the youngest and most radical members of the Basij, who tend to be more active and idealistic than older and retired Basijis. Membership in the SBO is also helpful for gaining employment in the state bureaucracy and security and intelligence organizations.

Formed in November 1989, just months after the appointment of Ali Khamenei as the Islamic Republic’s second “supreme leader,” the SBO was established under the purview of the IRGC to promote the regime’s rigid theocratic doctrines across universities and to operate as its eyes and ears.

In addition to this academic surveillance role, the SBO’s initial purpose was twofold: to recruit students for the Basij and to bolster its ideological indoctrination capacity.

In the 1990s, the SBO’s offices rapidly expanded across academic institutions nationwide. But it would not be until the election of the “reformist” Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997 that the SBO would emerge as an engine of political repression. Khatami’s victory was, in part, a consequence of the gradual secularization and liberalization of Iranian society, which university students across the country spearheaded.

To counter the liberal student movement, Khamenei encouraged the SBO to play a more assertive role in enforcing the regime’s hard-line Islamist ideology on campus. The supreme leader devised a plan to further radicalize SBO members through indoctrination, under the influence of extremist clerics like Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.

These efforts would surface in the July 1999 student protests, when the SBO, in tandem with other groups like Ansar-e Hezbollah, raided dormitories at the University of Tehran, killing one student and subsequently an additional three people over six days of campus riots. The SBO’s loyalty was rewarded by the regime in the form of legislation that reserved 40% of admissions at tuition-free state universities and the Islamic Azad University for Basij students. This affirmative action policy boosted the growth of the SBO.

The election of the hard-line Basij member Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005 — a result of active SBO support — would further empower the paramilitary organization to unprecedented levels. Ahmadinejad sought to unleash a “second cultural revolution” aimed at re-Islamizing academic institutions in Iran, which, he believed, had become breeding grounds for secular, liberal and democratic ideals. The SBO was only too willing to assume responsibility for implementing this move to “purify” universities in Iran. It began violently enforcing morality codes, such as strict adherence to the rule that women must wear the hijab, while simultaneously conducting surveillance to identify dissenting students, unions and faculty members. This resulted in suspensions, expulsions and mass purges of both students and professors. In return for the SBO’s support, in 2008 and 2009, Ahmadinejad’s government unofficially extended the 40% admission quota for Basij students to state universities.

The IRGC, for its part, invested heavily in the SBO, allocating substantial resources to enhance the ideological indoctrination of its members. With expanding IRGC support, the SBO, which had previously sought to present itself as merely a student group, publicly declared its paramilitary status. This new level of coordination with the IRGC became visible during the momentous nationwide protests in 2009, with the SBO operating as the regime’s vanguard at universities, leading its brutal crackdown on student protesters, including killings, abductions and torture. The SBO’s relationship with the IRGC also transformed during the Ahmadinejad era, with the SBO actively seeking to implement whatever the IRGC deemed necessary, including storming the British Embassy.

In November 2011, a group of Basiji students, mainly from Imam Sadegh University, besieged and ransacked the British Embassy in Tehran following the U.K. government’s decision to impose further sanctions on Iran over the expansion of its nuclear program. The students broke into the embassy and set fire to buildings and vehicles, vandalized offices and stole documents and computers.

The election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 did not put the brakes on the SBO’s activities, despite promises from his administration. The SBO continued its destructive militancy, as evidenced by its attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran in January 2016. That month, a Basij mob (including student Basijis) attacked the Saudi Embassies in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the execution of the prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. As at the British Embassy five years earlier, they stole documents and started fires.

As an elite group within the Basij militia, SBO members are seen as a pool of human capital for the IRGC (and the regime more broadly). By intensifying the indoctrination of the SBO’s members, the IRGC laid the foundations for the recruitment of SBO members to its ranks. This investment would pay dividends: Ideologically charged Basij university students became first-choice candidates for recruitment within the IRGC’s sensitive research projects, including its nuclear and missile programs. For instance, the Iranian Defense Ministry engineer Ehsan Ghadbeigi, who died at the IRGC’s Parchin military and nuclear complex in a 2021 incident attributed to “industrial sabotage,” started out as an SBO member.

Armed with academic knowledge and indoctrinated in an extreme Islamist ideology, SBO members also form a key part of the IRGC’s cyber army — infiltrating, hacking and conducting cyberterrorism operations.

Like Ahmadinejad, the current administration of the hard-line Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi has given pride of place to the SBO once again. This has resulted not only in a greater allocation of resources and power to the organization but also, for the first time, the ascent of SBO members to senior government positions — including, at the ministerial level, the appointment of Eisa Zarepour as minister of communications in August 2021 and Mehrdad Bazrpash as minister of roads and urban development in December 2022.

For too long, the SBO has gone unnoticed to the outside world. This is underscored by the fact that while the paramilitary organization’s members violently suppress students in Iran — and are currently driving the brutal crackdown across universities — they often gain admissions and visas to schools in the West. Indeed, government-sponsored postgraduate scholarships to study abroad are among the lucrative rewards SBO members enjoy for taking part in repressive activities across universities.

There is no doubt that the SBO is a violent extremist organization that has been involved in systematic human rights abuses since its inception in 1989. The paramilitary group has also played a role in supporting terrorism, as evidenced by the University of Tehran SBO’s call for suicide attacks against Israel in 2008 — a campaign that saw 7,000 SBO members register for suicide missions against the Jewish state. Yet its activities have somehow managed to fly under the radar in the West.

While Iran’s universities are the heartbeat of the uprising against the Islamic Republic, SBO members take direct aim at them, intimidating and suppressing the students who dare to protest. Unlike the Pupil Basij, whose members are made up of children between the ages of 12 and 15, SBO members are young adults, fully aware of the nature of the IRGC paramilitary organization they have joined.

While the SBO’s critical role in violently suppressing the front lines of the protest movement may have gone unnoticed in the outside world, it has certainly not been ignored by the power centers of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei and the IRGC handsomely reward the SBO, which provides the Revolutionary Guard with brainpower for its illicit activities and manpower for its brutal repression of students. The Raisi administration has already increased the SBO’s presence in government, a trend that will continue to give SBO members more sway over policy and the repressive state apparatus as the Islamic Republic completes its transition to a full-fledged theocratic police state.

For its part, the SBO will do its best to operate in the shadows under the guise of a student organization. Its official status as a student outfit has, for decades, enabled it to mask its organized terror operations against generations of Iran’s liberal youth. There should be no doubt that a violent and extremist paramilitary force lies under this guise, one which stands at the very core of the IRGC’s coercive machinery.

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