Iran opened a military theme park this week designed to teach children as young as 8-years-old how to fight in a war and fire weapons at its perceived Western enemies.
Located in a western suburb of the city of Mashad, the “Park of the Revolution’s Children” marks “Sacred Defense Week," an annual commemoration of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, according to a park brochure.
“The participant children are trained in shooting virtual fixed and moving targets including moving objects decorated with the U.S. and Israeli flag,” Hamid Sadeghi, the managing director of Children and Future Cultural House, which supervises the activities of this park, told Raja News.
The conservative Raja media outlet is affiliated with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, which has thousands of troops fighting in Syria on behalf of the government of Bashar al-Assad. The opening ceremony of the park held this week featured several speakers including the family of a high-ranking Revolutionary Guards commander killed in Aleppo this month.
Sadeghi did not respond to calls from a VOA reporter seeking comment.
In a photo essay released the state-run Iranian News Agency, children at the park are pictured carrying weapons in field drills, navigating an obstacle course and gathering around bonfires while wearing military apparel similar to Revolutionary Guard uniforms.
The children learn how to defend a sacred monument that resembles a Shi’ite holy site in Damascus that Iran says it is protecting in Syria’s civil war, Sadeghi told Raja News.
“Children divide into groups of eight to 10 upon their arrival to the park and one picks a group leader,” he said. “They say goodbye to a model shrine at the beginning and engage in war games, training and teaching and will defend the Syria shrine at the end of this 40-minute track.”
Human rights activists in the city say they are quietly trying to dissuade families from allowing their children to participate in park activities.
“But since we do not carry any weight in terms of authority, our efforts are not very fruitful and we can be face hardship if we push more,” one activist leader told VOA.
“We urge international organizations to take these issues more serious as it may contribute to the future of extremism. Their propaganda is very strong and targeting low budget and uneducated families… . This can really twist children’s future and push them toward violence and make them keen to display violence.”
The activist asked for anonymity fearing retribution from authorities if her name became public.
Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which monitors and tracks human rights in Iran, called the theme park “a dangerous incitement and misuse of children’s emotions.”
“They are playing with the future and fate of these kids by seeding the excitement of war in them which might affect them all their life and their decisions in the future,” Boroumand said in an interview with VOA.
“Boys are inherently interested in war games and consider this as a game but do not know what is waiting for them in war zones. Enticing them with these kind of games is despising and not acceptable.”
The Iranian government often glorifies war and its alleged military might.
State-run television released a propaganda video in April aimed at encouraging young people to join Iranian forces in Syria.
The video showed children taking up arms and singing a song about “martyrs who defend the sacred shrine.”