Iran’s military leaders, backed up by some of the country’s most power propagandists, continue to justify one of the most devastating violations of human rights: The use of child soldiers in war. Although the practice is most often associated the Iran-Iraq War, there is evidence of children taking part in more recent conflicts too, including the war in Syria.
I talked to one former solider. Aged 50, he looks much older. He was just 14 when he took up arms and went to the frontline. Today he lives in Tehran, and like many other child soldiers who fought in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, he joined the paramilitary Basij Force after the war. Now, after three decades, he says that the war robbed him of life, and of the simple joys of adolescence, like going to school and falling in love.
As a child, he kept company with scores of adolescents and middle-aged men who came from different cultures. “I grew up involuntarily and forgot about teenage preoccupations,” he says. “But we were fascinated with becoming heroes. Now, 31 one years after I first went to the frontline, I am still tortured by bodies without heads, by bodies torn apart and by horrifying sounds of explosions. I see all of them in my nightmares.”
During the eight-year conflict, many young boys wanted to help the war effort. They tampered with their birth certificates, sometimes with help from other people, or joined the Basij Resistance Force bases, which accepted volunteers aged under 18. In those years, while the government of the Islamic Republic was massacring its opponents and members of the opposition in prison, many children were given arms and sent to the slaughter houses of the war for the “love of country” or the “love of martyrdom”.
The propaganda to lure children into the war made extensive use of one key event in the history of Shia Islam. In 680 AD, the third Shia Imam and Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali, and his companions were massacred by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid 1 in Karbala, in present-day Iraq. The story has it that even children fought on the side of the Imam. The battle has reached mythical proportions within the Shia narrative, and also gave rise to a cult of martyrdom that was put to full use during the war with Iraq.
The “Martyrs” Tours
To safeguard its legitimacy, the Islamic Republic regime has tirelessly worked to keep the memory of war martyrs alive. Every year since 1997, the students’ arm of the Basij Force has organized tours for students to visit battlegrounds in southern and southwestern Iran as a means of indoctrination. Named “Travelers to Light” or the “Path to Light,” the tour describes its aim as beiing “to familiarize makers of Iran’s future with these epic legends to guarantee the country’s independence, progress and growth.”
But the tours have created their own martyrs — and not in a way that the organizers had intended. The battlefields are often situated in hard-to-reach areas and many are still strewn with unexploded land mines. As a result, hundreds of young students and adults have been killed in their quest to visit the “light”. In response to inevitable protests, officials dismissed concerns. “Certain incidents that occur from time to time during these trips should be prevented,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in 2014. “However, these incidents should not be used as an excuse for questioning this important and beneficial activity in its entirety.”
The commemoration of Iran-Iraq War martyrs is not confined to these tours, and marking the war is ever-present in Iranian society. Developers have tampered with many tourist areas, like the picturesque and popular Nahar Khoran Forest in the northeastern province of Golestan, building museums for the “Sacred Defense” — as the guardians of Islamic Republic refer to the Iran-Iraq war — or tombs for little-known fallen fighters.
The photographs and names of child martyrs are printed on young students’ notebooks, especially the picture of Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old boy who, on October 30, 1980, pulled the pin out of a grenade in his hand and leaped under an advancing Iraqi tank, killing himself and disabling the tank. Now, through an act of parliament, October 30 is celebrated as the Student Basij Day.
Live Mine Sweepers
According to the “Foundation for Preserving and Promoting the Values of the Sacred Defense,” an affiliate of the Iranian Armed Forces’ General Headquarters, during the eight-year war with Iraq, more than 33,000 high school students were killed, 2,853 were injured and 2,433 were taken prisoner. According to a report by human rights organization Child Soldiers International, “boys as young as nine were reportedly used in human wave attacks and to serve as mine sweepers in the war with Iraq.”
As one analyst puts it, the “exceptionally high ratio of dead to wounded (in a conventional war between professional armies the number of wounded is higher than the number of those killed) reflects the children's lack of military training: They were used as cannon fodder in human-wave attacks launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against the Iraqi forces.”
But this urge to use child soldiers is still strong in the Islamic Republic. Last year, under intense pressure from the Basij Force, parliament dismissed calls to join the United Nations Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, taking it off its agenda. The protocol bans the practice of recruiting children under 18 to send into battle. It requires that “states should take all possible measures to prevent such recruitment – including legislation to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment of children under 18 and involve them in hostilities.” But Basij officials protested that joining the protocol would tie their hands and make Iran susceptible to international pressure.
Iran’s Enemies Also Exploit Children
The Islamic Republic, however, was not the only country or group to exploit Iranian child soldiers. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic was also engaged in a war against the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK). After falling out with the new Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini, the leadership of the organization fled Iran and eventually ended up in Iraq, allying itself with Saddam Hussein — a figure the group had previously referred to as a “dictator” and an “aggressor.” Saddam allowed the MEK to establish bases on Iraqi soil to conduct military operations against Iran.
Even before its militarization, the Mojahedin leaders were never overly concerned with the age of their followers. Before the 1979 revolution, when the MEK conducted an underground, if mostly ideological, struggle against the shah’s regime, many of its members were teenage girls and boys that had been drawn to a “modern Islam” as articulated by the organization. This “real Islam” was a reinterpretation of the religion in mostly Marxist terms. Many of these under-18 believers were dispatched to fight against the Islamic Republic. An unknown number of them were killed.
According to Isa Azadeh, a former military commander for the MEK who now describes the organization as a “cult,” children had to go through the same military training as adults. For example, to qualify as “commandos,” the trainees had to live in the wilderness for several days without provisions; they were also required to run 26 kilometers fast, without stopping. Even some adults dropped dead in the course of this training but, as Azadeh says, if any child survived, the MEK leaders concluded that the child had the necessary abilities to be a fighter.
Azadeh says that the children received the same punishments as the adults, including being whipped with cables and being subjected to sleep deprivation.
Kurdish Child Soldiers
Some Kurdish armed groups have also been known to have recruited children for their military operations. One such child was Mohammad Badouzadeh, son of Jahangir Badouzadeh, a Kurdish political prisoner who is serving a life sentence in Iran. His elder son Bijan Badouzadeh was killed in Mahabad in February 2006. Mohammad’s sister had used self-immolation as a means of protesting against her father’s death sentence, leading to her death. Later, Jahangir Badouzadeh’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. Following persecution and pressure from Islamic Republic intelligence agents, the children's mother had left Iran for Iraqi Kurdistan. She died of laryngeal cancer in April 2011. So Mohammad Badouzadeh was alone and had no family. He ended up joining the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) and fighting for the leftist group against the Islamic Republic. Revolutionary Guards killed Badouzadeh in the summer of 2011.
Kurdish parties claim they do not recruit anybody under 16, but in 2016, Human Rights Watch accused two Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), of using child soldiers. It called on these groups to “urgently demobilize children, investigate abuses, pledge to end child recruitment, and appropriately penalize commanders who fail to do so." The PKK has denied the charge and claims that it is the victim of a smear campaign.
Kaveh Kermanshahi, the spokesman for the Kurdistan Human Rights Defense Organization who was sentenced to prison by the Revolutionary Guards and now lives in exile in Germany, has conducted a field study of the recruitment of children in Kurdistan. He told IranWire that children under 18 are given political and ideological training. “It is not like they give arms to all children and send them on a mission,” he said. “But it has happened that persons under 15 or 16 have volunteered for battle and not only have they not been stopped from fighting, but probably have even been encouraged. Unfortunately, the officials and the commanders of these parties take the least amount of responsibility for these cases and refuse to be held accountable.” They normally justify this failure to stop the exploitation of children by arguing that the situations arose as part of “war conditions,” he says.
The children in camps, says Kermanshahi, “are either the children of the active members of these parties who live with their parents and, if their parents have been killed or are in prison, they are being taken care of by the party. Undoubtedly a great number of them join the parties because of their own beliefs or because of their families, but there are other children who seek shelter with Kurdish groups for various reasons, including because of domestic violence.”
Iran Sends Afghan Child Soldiers to Syria
There have been many international agreements and documents banning the recruitment of child soldiers. The UN protocol is just one. But some governments ignore such agreements, including the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. There have been many reports of Islamic Republic officials forcing underage Afghan refugees to fight in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Two Afghan boys, a 16-year-old and the 17-year-old, said they had fought in Syria,” reported Human Rights Watch in 2016, “and another Afghan, Alireza Muhammad, who underwent military training but did not go to fight in Syria, said that he personally knew Afghan boys as young as 12 fighting in Syria in Iranian-organized groups, and that a 12-year-old boy he knew had been killed in the fighting. International law applicable in Syria prohibits both government forces and non-state armed groups from forcibly recruiting children under 18 or using them in hostilities.”
Despite these disclosures, and strong international campaigns to end the practice of using children as soldiers, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued as it has for decades, allowing children to risk their lives and future by sending them to the front line, and propping up propaganda that justifies — and in many cases, champions — war for children.