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Iran’s sickening use of child soldiers

U.S. and Western moral values and Iran’s embrace of child martyrdom are clearly incompatible.

A mural depicting an Iranian child soldier. Photo: Adam Jones
A mural depicting an Iranian child soldier. Photo: Adam Jones
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger

Is the diplomatic option viable when dealing with Iran’s ayatollahs, who since 1979 have promoted child martyrdom in their school curriculum and on the battlefield?

Brainwashing children into martyrdom is presented by the ayatollahs as an extension of the Shia mythology surrounding the 680 CE Battle of Karbala, which was the Big Bang of the Sunni-Shia conflict and a model for martyrdom. During the battle, Hussain ibn Ali, the third Shia Imam and grandson of Muhammad, and his warriors—including children—were betrayed and massacred by the Sunni Caliph Yazid.

Using children for martyrdom purposes was commonplace during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, during which children were used for mine-sweeping and other suicide missions.

According to the Geneva-based Refworld, an arm of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “[Iranian] child soldiers, some as young as nine, were used extensively during the Iran-Iraq war. … They were given ‘keys to paradise’ and promised that they would go directly to heaven if they died as martyrs against the Iraqi enemy.”

“An Iranian government representative admitted in a closed-door sub-commission hearing that children did participate in the war against Iraq,” Refworld continues. “In a series of rulings issued in the autumn of 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini declared that parental permission was unnecessary for those going to the front. … Iranian officers captured by the Iraqis claimed that nine out of ten Iranian child soldiers were killed.”

“Boys as young as nine were reportedly used in human wave attacks and to serve as mine-sweepers in the war with Iraq,” Refworld found. “Martyrs’ families enjoyed some social prestige and reportedly received monetary compensation per child, plus a martyr’s card entitling the family to food and other privileges. Child soldiers were nearly all from poor villages or slum families.”

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that “during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when self-sacrifice and martyrdom became the quintessential values of the Islamic Revolution and the guiding principles of Iranian society, more than 550,000 [elementary and high school] students were sent to the front, often with a plastic ‘key to paradise’ hanging around their necks.”

These children “were used as cannon fodder in human-wave attacks launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against the Iraqi forces. In order to promote and glorify the spirit of martyrdom in line with the law enacted by the Majlis [Iranian parliament], Oct. 30 is celebrated as Student Basij Day.”

“Welfare and Social Security Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, himself a former Revolutionary Guard commander, said last month that ‘children should be educated in such a way that when they reach the age of 13, they will be able to imitate Hossein Fahmideh [commit martyrdom],’ ” the report notes.

The New York Times’ Terence Smith reported, “The young boys were recruited by local clergy or simply rounded up in the villages of Iran, given an intensive indoctrination in the Shiite tradition of martyrdom, and then sent into battle against Iraqi armor. Often bound together in groups of 20 by ropes to prevent the fainthearted from deserting, they hurl themselves on barbed wire or march into Iraqi minefields in the face of withering machine-gun fire to clear the way for Iranian tanks. Across the back of their khaki-colored shirts is stenciled the slogan: ‘I have the special permission of the Imam to enter heaven.’”

“Iran seems a society possessed,” Smith observed. “Its soldiers at the front and its clerical leaders at home display a kind of zealotry in pursuit of their revolution that is hard for the Western mind to comprehend.”

According to an IMPACT SE 2021-22 study of Iran’s school curriculum, this attitude has not changed: “Child martyrdom is glorified. … Martyrdom is viewed as a goal to be pursued in order to achieve spiritual perfection.”

Since February 1979, when the ayatollahs assumed power in Iran, the diplomatic option has been a moral failure, rewarding a regime that has brainwashed children into martyrdom. No regime capable of such a thing should be considered a viable diplomatic partner. U.S. and Western moral values and Iran’s embrace of child martyrdom are clearly incompatible.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was originally published by The Ettinger Report.

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