Iran’s child soldiers and the world’s silent complicity
After the victory of the so-called Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the theocratic regime that seized power — usurping the rights of the Iranian people — adopted several sectarian strategies that reflected its extremist ideology.
The regime focused on brainwashing and adopted Orwellian indoctrination tactics to serve its new policies. These moved from theory to practice during the early post-revolutionary phase via educational curricula in schools and colleges, as well as revolutionary admonition assemblies, during which the Iranian people were castigated by regime clerics for any perceived deviation from the regime’s harsh ideological worldview. This totalitarian regime developed swiftly and the clerics soon felt the need to go beyond Iran to test the effectiveness of their policies regionally. The Iran-Iraq War provided an appropriate opportunity for this, and it also allowed the region to observe the reality of the new Iranian ideology and the regime’s policies.
One of the most prominent examples of how the regime used indoctrination during the Iran-Iraq War was its use of children as human shields or cannon fodder, with countless young boys from the ranks of the poor sent to the frontline to fight. Many were, infamously, used to run across minefields placed along the Iran-Iraq border so that Iranian troops would be able to cross safely after them. This was seen by the regime as a cost-effective way to minimize military casualties and damage to military equipment, while the children of the poor were viewed as expendable “collateral damage.” Before leaving for the battlefront, these children were each presented with a cheap key on a ribbon to hang around their necks, and were told it was the “key to paradise” that would allow them to enter heaven as glorious martyrs.
Despite the passing of decades, it is despicable that, even now, the regime in Tehran feels unashamed to admit perpetrating such horrific crimes against innocent children. It regularly and proudly airs footage on state TV and publishes photographs in its official newspapers showing child soldiers, who are lavished with praise for their “heroic” acts and “martyrdom” during the eight-year war with Iraq.
Apparently inspired by this criminal abuse of children, Hezbollah has followed in the Iranian regime’s footsteps, indoctrinating children with extremist ideology and training them from a young age to take up arms and fight in battles that serve the Iranian regime and its expansionist project across the Middle East. Anyone who has watched Hezbollah’s media propaganda will have observed children being indoctrinated and exploited.
This indoctrination has not been confined to Iran and Lebanon, but has also spilled over into other areas as the Iranian regime spreads its extremist ideology. This includes Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthis routinely use children — some of them shorter than the guns they carry — to fight in battles in Yemen itself and on the Saudi-Yemeni border. A UN report issued in 2015 suggested that more than 1,500 Yemeni children had been forcibly conscripted, while activists in the country assert that the real number is far higher.
With Iran’s regime we are dealing with an ideological project of infinite cruelty and depravity
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
As elsewhere, the horrific but undeniable reality of the Houthis’ use of child soldiers is well documented by video and TV footage and regular reports from the country. In a recent BBC Arabic documentary, a reporter approaches a massive military vehicle guarded by a child no older than 14 years of age (and possibly far younger), sitting in the back beside a mounted machine gun that dwarfs him. When the reporter asks the child why he is there, the boy replies: “I don’t know; they asked me to do so.” The reporter attempts to prompt the boy, asking him: “Are you here to defend your homeland?” The child hesitates, clearly not understanding the question, before mumbling, “Yes.” Children are also used to clean barracks and guard checkpoints, with the Houthis even attempting to defame the Arab coalition with the lie that it is responsible for these crimes.
Dozens of Houthi child soldiers have been captured by the forces of the legitimate Yemeni government during battles in Yemen or in fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border. As in all cases of the use of child soldiers, this exploitation of children is purely the doing of those cruel enough to use them in such a cynical way.
As all these cases underline, with Iran’s regime we are dealing with an ideological project of infinite cruelty and depravity, which has no difficulty in sending children to die so long as this serves its objectives. All these factors show that the regime’s fate is a foregone conclusion. Anyone who can support such conscription and exploitation of children, whether through threats, rewards or punishments and usually a mixture of all three, does not fear punishment in this life or the next, and is wholly indifferent to all the international covenants and treaties that condemn such horrendous acts. Despite these facts, however, international bodies and human rights groups concerned with protecting children remain shamefully silent and passive on Iran’s criminal behavior.
The Iranian regime’s exploitation of children in Yemen and elsewhere needs to be exposed and this requires concerted action to bring such heinous practices to light. While international bodies remain silently complicit about this evil — contradicting their slogans about caring for and protecting children — it is essential to expose Iranian behavior before global public opinion in the admittedly slender hope that this might move the world’s conscience to reject complicity in such Iranian criminality and to bring those responsible to trial.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami