On a cold February morning, primary-age schoolchildren are lined up for a ceremony in which they will shout “Death to America” and hurl old shoes at effigies of Uncle Sam, the Great Satan.
The event, part of annual celebrations of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is the work of the Student Basij, a subdivision of Iran’s powerful paramilitary movement which is seen as a bulwark of the regime.
The Basij force made its name in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, as an army of fearless volunteers who acted as auxiliaries to the regular troops, marching across minefields and through concerted Iraqi fire to clear a way through.
The movement fielded at least 550,000 under-18s in the course of the eight-year war. Thirty-six thousand were killed or were reported missing in action.
More recently, the Basij has acquired a reputation as a domestic security force loyal to the Iranian regime, and was deployed on the streets of Tehran to counter the widespread protests that followed last year’s disputed presidential election.
The Basij is the largest organisation in Iran and has a presence in schools, universities, factories, government offices and the private sector. Structurally, it sits under the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and its leader is appointed directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.