Sanctions will limit Basij's capabilities: experts

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo and AFP

Child recruits take part in a training session at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps camp in Tehran. [Photo circulated on social media]

Child recruits take part in a training session at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps camp in Tehran. [Photo circulated on social media]

The impact of US sanctions imposed on an Iranian paramilitary group and a network of businesses that were supporting it will soon become evident, experts told Al-Mashareq, with the disruption of its international recruitment networks.

The move will stem the steady pace of recruitment -- including the recruitment of child soldiers -- in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, they said, noting that the effect of the sanctions will be seen first in Syria.

The US Treasury Department on Tuesday (October 16th) imposed sanctions on the Basij Resistance Force, a component of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and a network of businesses that were financing it.

According to the Treasury, a network of more than 20 businesses known as the Bonyad Taavon Basij has been financing the paramilitary force.

Banners show the faces of Afghan child soldiers recruited by Iran's IRGC who were killed in battle in Syria. [Photo circulated on social media]

Banners show the faces of Afghan child soldiers recruited by Iran's IRGC who were killed in battle in Syria. [Photo circulated on social media]

The Treasury also accused the hardline militia of sending child soldiers to Syria.

"The Bonyad Taavon Basij network is an example of how the IRGC and Iranian military forces have expanded their economic involvement in major industries, and infiltrated seemingly legitimate businesses to fund terrorism and other malign activities," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

"The international community must understand that business entanglements with the Bonyad Taavon Basij network and IRGC front companies have real world humanitarian consequences," he said. "This helps fuel the Iranian regime's violent ambitions across the Middle East."

Human rights abuses

The Basij paramilitary force is one of the Iranian regime's primary enforcers of internal security, with branches in every province and city of Iran.

"In addition to its involvement in violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses in Iran, the Basij recruits and trains fighters... including Iranian children, who then deploy to Syria to support the brutal Assad regime," the Treasury said.

It said that in addition to Iranians, the militia recruited Afghan immigrants to Iran through coercion, as well as Pakistani nationals.

The Bonyad Taavon Basij is said to provide the Basij militia social welfare services, including housing and financial support, and manages economic activities by funding small companies.

"Bonyad Taavon Basij has expanded its reach into Iran's economy by establishing several investment firms through its financial and investment offshoot Mehr Eqtesad Bank," the Treasury statement said.

Among the other companies singled out was Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company (ITMC), the largest tractor manufacturer in the Middle East, which generates millions in profit for the investment firms that represent the Basij.

Also targeted was Zinc Mines Development Company, described as Iran's "pre-eminent, multibillion-dollar zinc and lead mining and processing holding company".

"What we have designated here today is a multibillion-dollar network that has had significant (links) in Europe and the Middle East," a senior administration official said.

Full US sanctions are set to hit Iran in November.

Iran's expansionist agenda

Iran's expansionist agenda could not have continued without enormous financial backing from the IRGC and the Basij, said al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher Fathi al-Sayed, who specialises in Iranian affairs.

The internal and external recruitment operations entrusted to the Basij all require "huge financial backing" as they rely on exploiting the poverty experienced by the families of the recruits, many of whom are children, he told Al-Mashareq.

The steady flow of recruitment in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon ensures the IRGC maintains its iron grip inside Iran, he said, and can supply fighters to the militias formed to support the Iranian project.

Money also is needed for the establishment of mobilisation and recruitment centres and socially-oriented institutions that distribute aid and money, he said.

It was therefore necessary to dry up the Basij's sources of funding, which are the driving force behind their operations, al-Sayed said.

Numerous child recruitment scandals have come to light, he noted, as media and intelligence reports show that a large number of children of various nationalities, particularly Iranians and Afghans, have been killed in Syria.

"Child soldiers are the backbone of IRGC-affiliated militias," he added, "and the Basij is directly responsible for this and cannot evade accountability."

"The Basij is responsible by law for recruitment and deployment of thousands of children and training them in camps it oversees in Syria," he added.

Targeting sources of funding

The US sanctions targeted the Basij's entire financial network, and went after its sources of funding, researcher Sami Gheit of al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies told Al-Mashareq.

In addition to sanctioning the network's companies -- which deal in steel, mining, tractors and cars -- the sanctions target the ways and means the Basij transfers and dispenses funds to militias inside and outside Iran, he said.

What remains is to pursue the "hidden arms", he said: the dozens of small companies scattered inside and outside Iran whose task is to circulate, transport and transfer funds.

"But focusing on the main source will undoubtedly weaken these arms and make most of them of little consequence," he added.

Gheit noted that some companies have established footholds in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, opening companies and factories under new names.

"But these companies will soon be exposed when their activity is stepped up to cover the shortfall resulting from the pressure applied on the mother companies."

What cannot be replaced are the mining and metallurgy companies, he said, which are not able to move their activities outside Iran to avert the sanctions.

"Thousands of fighters in the ranks of the Basij and the IRGC will be affected by the sanctions in the medium term, as expenses are high and funds cover salaries and institutions that support the families of killed fighters," Gheit said.

Money is the backbone of these institutions, he said, and ensures they continue to operate, in conflict zones in particular.

Impact seen first in Syria

Gheit said he expects the impact of the sanctions to begin to appear within a few months, starting with the flight of large numbers of recruits as support is cut off and the recruitment mechanism is disrupted.

The recruitment and deployment plan, in Syria at least, will be severely affected since it relies primarily on financial enticement, he said.

The impact of the sanctions imposed on the Basij paramilitary group will first appear in Syria, said Sheyar Turko, a researcher specialising in the IRGC and its financing methods and deployment.

"The recruitment and deployment teams there are still in the initial stages of the process of persuading local residents to join Iran-affiliated militias, especially in the eastern Badiya (desert) and Deir Ezzor," he told Al-Mashareq.

Militias in these regions still require enormous sums of money for the recruitment and enticement operations, he said, as they have not yet developed their own sources of funding -- typically small enterprises tied to the mother network.

Even established militias, such as Lebanon's Hizbullah, still need large infusions of money from time to time to cover urgent expenses, he said, such as those incurred by their participation in the Syrian war.

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