A recent article published by Fars News Agency offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Iran’s intelligence operations over the last three decades. The report highlights not only the power struggle between the country’s Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards, but also the disjointed nature of how the numerous intelligence bodies work together. And, as is so often the case, the unspoken narrative of the revelations is the sheer overarching power of the Supreme Leader.
Iran’s Council for Intelligence Coordination (CIC) oversees more than 16 separate governmental agencies, Fars News Agency reported on October 14. Fars, which is affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, only directly names five of the 16 intelligence units, following on from unprecedented revelations from the Intelligence Ministry itself about the reach of its operations over the last 30 years, which was published in Hamshahri newspaper on October 11.
The Fars report outlines the pivotal points of Iran’s intelligence: the Intelligence Ministry acts as the main partner organization, working with the Intelligence Unit of the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Republic Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Protection Organization. The article stops short of acknowledging a range of other bodies involved in vital “intelligence gathering” for various powerful authorities across the Islamic Republic, including the Intelligence Protection Bureau, which reports to the judiciary, the security forces’ Basij Intelligence Protection Bureau and many others.
Fars also published an illustration [pictured above] alongside the article, revealing the different insignia the complex maze of agencies use. Some of these agencies include:
The Commander-in-Chief’s General Bureau for Intelligence Protection, the director of which is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei
Intelligence Protection Organization of the Armed Forces General Headquarters
General Security and Intelligence Police (Pava), affiliated with the security forces and Defense Ministry
The Intelligence Ministry’s Protection Organization
Revolutionary Guards’ Center for Investigating Organized Crime
The Cyber Police
In addition, there are a range of other bodies from security councils to inspection and protection offices — perhaps unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani have their own, separate Inspection Bureaus.
The Council for Intelligence Coordination was set up in 1983 and is run by the minister of Intelligence, currently Mahmoud Alavi. It brings in numerous influential people in Iran, among them Iran’s prosecutor-general and the heads of various intelligence agencies. Over the past year, the CIC has met regularly, compiling dossiers on issues ranging from “threats in cyber space,” security conditions in various regions and other potential intelligence threats Iran might face. Some politicians have interpreted the more regular meetings as a move to boost Alavi’s authority, and that of the ministry.
Whatever media and political attention it has generated, the Fars Agency report — which followed the publication of a 200-page supplement entitled “30 Years of Silent Struggles” in Hamshahri newspaper on October 11 — has served to neatly remind the Iranian public that it is the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards that really holds the power. The unit, set up on the orders of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, is now recognized as the most powerful intelligence agency in Iran, working at the forefront of security actions since that time. From 2011, it also began functioning as a bailiff for the judiciary.
But the strength of the intelligence wing of the Guards is not popular with everyone: the power struggle between it and the Intelligence Ministry has a long turbulent history, as does friction and fierce competition between intelligence units functioning under these larger umbrella groups. Politicians and experts have been quick to point out how this rivalry — often vicious and always complex — compromises the country’s intelligence initiatives. Most recently, Ali Younesi, an advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, complained there is no coordination between the various agencies.
In 2000, reformist candidates, who held the majority in parliament, introduced a bill to increase the powers of the intelligence ministry as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began his presidency. Shortly after, Ahmadinejad made plans to reduce the number of operating intelligence agencies, though the goal was never realized.
During his presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad removed an official at the Intelligence Ministry, Mohseni-Ejei, and later took steps to remove the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, against the wishes of the Supreme Leader, who immediately re-instated him. Although Moslehi demanded an end to competition between intelligence agencies in 2012, a website close to Ahmadinejad accused him of double-dealing in 2011.“Moslehi’s management experience comes mostly from working for the Revolutionary Guards,” the site reported. “He has had meetings with the members of a security-economic gang and he wants to implement their wishes at the intelligence ministry.” When Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff, took steps to set up a parallel intelligence organization, he came under attack by hardliners. At the time, they called for a centralized intelligence organization to replace the intelligence ministry.
“Whenever others have tried to perform the main duties of the intelligence ministry, the results have been disastrous,” said Ali Younesi, Rouhani’s Intelligence Minister, in February 2014.
Influential Tehran MP Ali Motahari has also been quick to point out the dangers of the Revolutionary Corps meddling in intelligence matters. “Sometimes the Revolutionary Corps steps outside the border of its duties,” he told a gathering of political activists in June. “For example, they must not interfere in matters of intelligence.”
It is not the first time he has spoken publicly about interference, and, in the case of the 2009 presidential election, he drew a distinct line between Revolutonary Guards intelligence and violence. On August 11, 2009, he wrote to Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of the hardliner daily Kayhan, criticizing the actions of the Guards. “When we give the management of the recent crisis to people like Taeb [the head of the Revolutionary Corps Intelligence Unit at the time], who is more intimate with a nightstick than thinking and reason, the result would be like this.”
Over the years, a range of politicians have pointed to dysfunctional relationships and the potential dangers of a splintered intelligence network. In September, former intelligence minister, Mohammad Reyshahri (who held office from 1984-1989) told Fars News Agency that during his time there, the ministry operated with no less than seven separate units, or “seven stripes” as he called them. “During my last days in the intelligence ministry I came to the conclusion that it should be placed under the supervision of the regime’s highest authorities,” he said. “the Imam accepted this but issues arose which I don’t want to talk about and that prevented it.”
A Central Unit or Spread Bets?
In his 2010 memoir, “Defense and Politics”, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani recalled the difficulties intelligence officials repeatedly faced during his time in office, with the Reyshahri complaining in 1987 that the disparate intelligence units made it difficult to centralize intelligence activities. According to Rafsanjani, Reyshahri had cited internal problems within the Revolutionary Guards and clashes between the Guards and the ministry, recommending that the latter be restructured and run the judiciary. Rafsanjani recalled power struggles between the two groups, with the Revolutionary Guards pushing for more power and ministry officials calling for greater restrictions on the extent of the Guards’ reach. Intelligence Ministry officials argued that operations should be consolidated, and that the ministry should oversee it.
The struggle — and attempts to achieve a balance between the ministry and the Revolutionary Guards — continued in this fashion until 1988, Rafsanjani recalls in his memoir. Shortly afterwards, Reyshahri reiterated his belief that the constitution be amended so that the ministry would be under the Supreme Leader’s supervision, and ultimately become an organization that could carry out its work without the approval of parliament.
With the introduction of the Law for Centralization of Intelligence in 1989, the ministry was given more power. Tensions between the Guards and the ministry continued during the administration of President Khatami, the height of which was the Chain Murders scandal, when “rogue” elements of the intelligence ministry murdered up to 80 dissident intellectuals between 1988 and 1998. The scandal made it possible for the destabilization of the ministry therafter, and measures were taken to decrease its power, with the creation of splinter intelligence groups and organizations, in particular the Intelligence Unit of the Revolutionary Corps.
Some officials deny that such a power struggle exists, accusing sections of the media of fomenting fear and trying to paint a picture of an unbalanced, ineffective intelligence apparatus. “We don’t work in conjunction with any other organization,” Revolutionary Guards Spokesman Commander Sharif said in July 2012. “It’s the hostile media that is trying to convince the public that we have an organization that is equally as powerful as the Intelligence Ministry. This is just the enemy making false accusations.”
But Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative at the Revolutionary Guards, acknowledged its role in intelligence matters in August 2009. “Intelligence activities are a necessary part of the Revolutionary Corps work. It is coordinated with other parties and higher authorities and it is in no way harmful.”
Whatever their differences, one thing cannot be denied: Ayatollah Khamenei holds the power, whatever the name of the unit or the umbrella organization. “The intelligence ministry and myself worked under the supervision of the Supreme Leader,” former Intelligence Minister Mohammadi Reyshahri told Fars News Agency. “During those years if anybody wanted to consult me I would tell them that the Supreme Leader needed to approve.”
Ayatollah Khamenei chooses the majority of the units’ senior directors and staff, and he can oversee any aspect of operations he deems appropriate. It is safe to assume that he sees no need to centralize operations, and that keeping a strong hold over disparate agencies affords him the most sustainable — and easy to manage — power. As individual intelligence agencies gain even more power, these gains transfer directly to the Supreme Leader, leaving elected leaders, like President Rouhani, with fewer avenues to negotiate their own influence.