NEW YORK – Zahra Saremi took a different sort of vacation this year to celebrate Iranian New Year—touring the bloody battlefields of Iran's long war with Iraq at a week-long camp dedicated to martyrdom and patriotism.
Such tours are a crucial tool for Iran's clerical leaders as they seek to keep alive fervor for the 1979 Islamic Revolution, especially among young people with little or no memory of it.
Saremi and about 100 young men and women lined up at buses one morning in Tehran in late March, heading for the border regions of southwest Iran. About 1 million Iranians are taking the same journey during the three-week Nowruz holidays, which extend until mid-April, in tours organized by the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
They visit the desert scenes where Iranian troops threw themselves in deadly human wave attacks against Iraqi lines in offensives with codenames like "Dawn is Coming" and "Certain Conquest." They hear lectures from military officers, visit the old trenches and bunkers and sleep in military garrisons.
Most importantly, they commemorate martyrs.
"It is like a spiritual tour," said the 21-year-old Saremi, her black, all-encompassing chador flapping in the morning breeze. She has gone once before, two years ago. "I went there to pay tribute to those who fought the enemy and lost their lives to bring peace for us."
Just how far the fervor for the Revolution has ebbed is visible in Tehran's streets, rife with Western influences the revolution once sought to purge. Shops are packed with bootleg DVDs of Western movies and music, and many women now shirk the chadors required in the revolution's early years—instead wearing tight jackets and headscarves that cover only a small part of their hair.
Many among the millions of Iranians born since 1979 just want to put the revolution—and its Islamic clerical rule—behind them.
That has made the Basij even more important for clerical leaders, who want to keep up the drumbeat of slogans re-enforcing the revolution's principles: fierce resistance to the United States and Western culture, adherence to strict Islamic law and reverence for sacrifice.
The Basij is seen by some as the Islamic republic's "hidden army." Their numbers are not known, though the Revolutionary Guards say they are in the millions. Basijis are in nearly every government institution, from post offices to schools—normal employees except for their membership in the force.
Their role has increased under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is believed to have stepped up state funding for Basij groups. That mirrors the growing prominence of the Basij's patron, the Revolutionary Guards: former and current Guards officers have gained important posts, and Guards-linked companies have received lucrative government contracts for construction and other projects.
The U.S. has branded the Guards' elite Quds Force a terrorist group, accusing it of backing militants in Iraq, and the U.N. has slapped sanctions on Guards-linked firms accused of links to Iran's nuclear program.
At times, the Basij plays its role through force. In 1999, they helped put down student protests that began at Tehran University in rioting that left several people dead. Basijis also are known to stop women in the streets, scolding them to wear Islamic dress.
Far more pervasive, though, are the cultural events that Basijis lead. Student groups organize seminars and films at universities, often about Israeli "massacres" of Palestinians. Basiji theater groups put on plays depicting stories of "revolution and resistance."
There's even a Basiji film company that produces movies about the Iran-Iraq war. One studio boasts a yard full of old tanks and other armor, on the side of the highway from the new Imam Khomeini airport into Tehran.
The battlefield tours resonate because the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, in which at least 1 million people died overall, is an emotional rallying point for Iranians.
Nearly every Iranian family lost a relative in the brutal fighting, and even Iranians with no love for the Islamic revolution express nationalist pride at fending off then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
For Hassan Taheri, a 53-year-old war veteran boarding the same bus as Saremi, the tour is a chance to reconnect with an earlier era. "Years of war, blood and resistance," said Taheri, who was bringing his wife. "Many of my friends never came back from the war. When I go there, I feel I am with them."
But most of those on the tours are young Basijis and their families—and a constant theme is linking the war to the "third generation of the revolution." Those joining Saremi's tour were largely from Tehran's poorer districts, strongholds of support for Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners.
The tours are extensively covered on state-run television, which throughout the holidays shows footage of young people touring battle zones or weeping at martyrs' graves.
They have been organized since 1992 by a Basiji-run agency. The group says 1 million people are participating this year, up from 700,000 last year.
"The willingness to obey shown by the martyrs is what made them successful," one military commander, Gen. Ali Asghar Rajai, told a group of young Basijis taking part in one late March tour, according to the group's news agency.
"Today, that should be the example for all of us to follow," he said.