Deadly Shootings Put Spotlight on Hazing and Mistreatment in Forced Military Service in Iran

One night last year at an army barrack in Tehran, a tormented young conscript rousted his sergeant from bed and marched him outside at gunpoint, made him writhe in the dirt for an hour, mimicking the exercises he had been forced to do for two months after he was drafted. The private would soon disappear; soldiers later heard he was imprisoned for three years, LA Times reports.

The incident followed a series of deadly shootings by conscripts and focused national attention on the struggles faced by those completing Iran’s mandatory military service. Although far less powerful or well financed than the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the nation’s conventional army, a mainly defensive force, has long been seen as a pillar of the Islamic Revolution at home and loyal servants of the theocracy. But a prolonged economic crisis and growing resentment of clerics’ sweeping powers have dampened Iranians’ revolutionary zeal.

“I sympathize with the shooters. Something or someone must have been torturing them so deeply. That’s why they did what they did. Almost everyone is a victim of hazing and mistreatment. I hate the service and I hate my surroundings. I don’t feel any patriotism in my heart,” said Ahmad, a 25-year-old draftee who had just reported to the base and who requested that his last name be withheld because he could be punished for speaking out.

In July, a 23-year-old draftee in southern Iran shot and wounded a police officer before killing himself after his superiors turned down his request for leave. A soldier in northern Iran who was denied a transfer to another base opened fire on service members, killing three and injuring six. In August, a conscript from the country’s poorest province gunned down three troops at a garrison in Tehran and wounded at least eight others before he was shot to death.

Experts say the shootings signal a young generation’s increasing hostility to a ruling class that controls what they watch, wear, read and eat, and its worries about an economy that has failed to rebound despite the promises of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which relaxed international sanctions on Iran.

“When you see things like this in the garrison, it’s a reflection of the broader problems in society. The draftees, almost all of them, they know their future is bleak. They’re sacrificing two years of their lives, but for what?” said Misagh Parsa, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College and author of “Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed.”

The shootings have raised uncomfortable questions for Iran’s army, one of the largest in the Middle East with an estimated 350,000 active-duty troops, nearly two-thirds of whom are conscripts.

Reports of trouble inside Iran’s secretive security forces are rare. While scant details have emerged from officials or state media, many young draftees said the violence was not surprising. They described Iran’s military training as a 21-month ordeal of physical humiliation, psychological stress and petty corruption, where mental health problems fester and socioeconomic grievances are magnified.

Many said superiors often trample on poor and disadvantaged recruits while the wealthy and well-connected avoid the toughest tasks — or dodge the draft altogether.Uneducated soldiers are often sent to guard remote outposts, while those with connections can often negotiate undemanding desk jobs. Those disparities are in the spotlight now because they appeared to have been a factor in both July shootings.

“Picture it: You’re a young private stationed in a remote area, you are humiliated by the officers, you miss your family, you are alone in a tower standing guard in the middle of the night and you’re thinking about your future, which is unpredictable in Iran these days. Then someone comes and abuses you, makes you angry. It can make you explode,” Ahmad said.

In the aftermath of the shootings, Iran’s military announced that it would increase psychological screening of draftees. Some politicians have called for abolishing the draft, claiming that the army must be professional. Others said the draft served the interests of the theocracy, which would be less able to control a professional army.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, waves of lightly trained and often unarmed Iranian conscripts were sent to their deaths in infantry attacks that were repulsed by the better armed Iraqis. According to critics, Iran army needs cannon fodder and a source of free labor, and military service is a shock absorber for social troubles.