Who, exactly, is beating Iranian protesters?

Rumors that the Basij paramilitary has foreign help are spreading fast in Iran.

Published June 25, 2009 10:26PM (EDT)

Since Iranian authorities began their brutal repression of protest marches a week and a half ago, rumors have been flying that the Basij paramilitary force -- whose hardline members are fiercely loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- has been joined in the streets by foreign partners. Iranian exiles have told Salon frequently that friends and family in the country keep encountering non-Farsi speakers at demonstrations, wielding batons and helping to put down the protest movement. The foreigners, the rumors say, are members of Hezbollah or Hamas, the terrorist groups that Iran has backed over the years, coming to repay their patrons.

The rumors haven't been corroborated officially, at least in part because Iran has made it extremely difficult -- and dangerous -- for reporters to work there. But the fact that the belief has become so pervasive tells a lot about the situation in Iran. Supporters of the protests don't want to believe that their fellow Iranians would be willing to crack down so harshly -- so it must be someone else doing it.

Now one Iranian American activist has passed along a report from a source the activist says is credible, who spoke with a Basiji in Shiraz, Iran. "We are not alone," the Basiji allegedly told the source. "There are Arabs among us, but they are getting paid more than we are. They are being up in hotels and they have different weapons than we do."

The Basiji also allegedly says the government is paying members of the militia about $200 a day, and instructing them to "go into the streets and hit people, everyone and anyone who is out, until they can no longer get up." Authorities are providing room and board, moving the Basijis around each night to different safe houses. Farsi-language exile press around the world have also begun reporting that non-Persians are among the Basij, according to another Salon source, an Iranian studying in the U.S.

Iran does have large Turkic-speaking minority populations, especially outside Tehran. It's possible that's the source of the rumors; it wouldn't make much sense for Hezbollah and Hamas, with relatively small cadres of armed members, to send them to Iran, and it would also be a provocation and an escalation of the international stakes of the violence there. But as the situation develops, it's worth keeping an eye on -- if for no other reason than to see how rapidly word of mouth is carrying information around the globe.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

MORE FROM Mike Madden

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room