Iran’s Spies Are at War With Each Other
As international tensions rise, two different branches of the Iranian security state are increasingly butting heads.
Political rivalry among Iran’s various factions is nothing new. Ever since the 1979 revolution and particularly after former President Mohammad Khatami’s unexpected electoral victory in 1997, moderate officials—including reformists and centrists now associated with Hassan Rouhani’s administration—have been vying with hard-liners and traditional conservatives known as “principalists” for a greater share of clout and resources in Iran’s labyrinthine system of governance.
Security officials were long believed to be firmly on the hard-line side of these disputes. Yet factional jockeying is now happening more conspicuously than ever within Iran’s sprawling intelligence apparatus. Two Iranian intelligence services are increasingly, and openly, at odds with each other. The rivalry has significant implications for Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy.
While the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign and growing threats of war are fueling nationalist sentiments across the political spectrum, they are also exposing the fault lines between the Rouhani administration and its Intelligence Ministry on the one hand and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its intelligence organization on the other. The infighting is mainly over which body is better positioned to protect the country—and over which aspects of the country most need protecting.
The latest fuel for infighting came on Aug. 3, when BBC Persian aired a rare and exclusive interview with Mazyar Ebrahimi, a former prisoner in Iran who was jailed on suspicion of collaborating with Israel to assassinate four Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. His story shed new light on the workings of the Intelligence Ministry and its relationship with the IRGC. Above all, the interview undermined the conventional belief that the Intelligence Ministry is the “good cop”—the more rational and responsible actor—to its “bad cop” hard-line rival, the IRGC intelligence unit.
Ebrahimi spent more than two years in Evin Prison in Tehran from June 2012 to August 2014. During his imprisonment, he was brutally tortured into making confessions about his alleged complicity in the killings, in what now appears to be a systematic attempt by the Intelligence Ministry—led at the time by the firebrand cleric Heydar Moslehi—to save face after it failed to prevent the assassinations of the nuclear scientists. Ebrahimi’s forced confessions, along with those of 11 other suspects, were aired on state TV in a documentary dubbed The Terror Club. One of the more notorious inmates featured in the documentary was Majid Jamali Fashi, who was reportedly executed in May 2012.
In an interview with Foreign Policy from his new home in Germany, Ebrahimi said that, on the whole, “107 people including my brother, his pregnant wife, and my brother-in-law” were arrested during the crackdown, only for most to be released after the IRGC’s intervention. “Seven months into my imprisonment, and after I had ‘confessed’ to all they demanded about the assassinations, an [Intelligence Ministry] interrogator wanted me to take responsibility for the Bid Kaneh explosion as well,” he added, referring to a large blast in the missile warehouse of Modarres garrison outside of Tehran in November 2011, which killed many including IRGC Maj. Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, the father of Iran’s missile industry, and was attributed to Israel. “It was only then that the Revolutionary Guards intervened and the torture stopped as they realized all my confessions were false, but I was still kept in jail for a year and a few months.” It seems that the IRGC, which is in charge of securing and developing Iran’s missile program, considered the issue at hand to be too critical to let it be tackled by a rival body. In fact, the interagency competition, and the mutual mistrust at the heart of it, paved the way for Ebrahimi’s release.
Ebrahimi’s interview has prompted some Iranian lawmakers to demand official explanations from the Intelligence Ministry about the high-profile assassinations and could affect the fate of other inmates in similar circumstances. One such prisoner is Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian Swedish medical doctor and lecturer at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who was arrested by the Intelligence Ministry in April 2016 and sentenced to death on dubious charges of engaging in nuclear espionage for Israel. Jalali is still in custody and awaiting execution.
The rivalry traces back to 2009, amid the Green Revolution protests against the electoral fraud that granted former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. There were strong tendencies within the Intelligence Ministry against the official narrative—propagated by the Ahmadinejad administration and supported by the IRGC and the supreme leader’s office—that dismissed the possibility of vote rigging and framed the protesters as foreign-backed “seditionists” hell bent on regime change. Fearing a coup or systematic defiance, the IRGC set up its own independent intelligence unit in 2009, on the orders of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed Hossein Taeb as its director.
The political competition between the two parallel security bodies has only intensified since, with the IRGC—which has traditionally been closer to Khamenei and his personal office—striving to prove its revolutionary mettle and demonstrate that it is the true, and more reliable, protector of the Islamic Republic.
Under the reformist administration of Khatami (1997-2005) and in the wake of the “chain murders” of dissident intellectuals and authors in the 1990s—which were ultimately blamed on a number of “rogue elements” within the Intelligence Ministry—the ministry was somehow cleansed to guarantee that such incidents would never happen again. The purge, conducted by the Khatami administration and its reform-minded security strategists, sowed the seeds of suspicion among hard-liners, including the IRGC top brass and those close to Khamenei, that the ministry could no longer be trusted in full. With the reform movement raging on in Iranian society and the ruling system alike, the IRGC stepped up efforts to make sure that reformists did not take over and permeate pivotal institutions of the state once and for all.
The clash, at its core, was—and continues to be—about the identity of the Islamic Republic and how Iran should be governed and steered into the future. Reformists including a relatively reformed Intelligence Ministry promoted a political vision that emphasized democratic governance at home, underpinned by a free press, a vibrant civil society, and fair elections, and detente and dialogue abroad. The hard-liners, on the other hand, sought to preserve the revolutionary character of the state based on the “absolute guardianship” of the supreme leader as God’s representative on earth in the absence of a flawless imam and adhered to a revisionist foreign policy. The ideological conflict has also given rise to competing perspectives of national security—and such related concepts as espionage, infiltration, subversion, counterintelligence, and so on—and how it should be established. While for reformists, who have a more rationalist approach to governance, security means securing the national interests or interests of the nation-state as a whole in a balanced and sustainable fashion, for hard-liners preserving the interests of the Islamic system (nezam in Persian) arguably takes precedence over those of the nation. Hence the Intelligence Ministry’s reputation, at least among the reform-minded parts of society, as a relatively “good cop.”
Tensions came to a head in the summer of 2015, when Iran’s marathon negotiations with world powers culminated in a nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the Rouhani administration made concerted efforts afterward to facilitate foreign trade and lure the multimillion-strong Iranian diaspora back home for investment, the IRGC embarked on a vigorous security campaign to fight what Khamenei warned about in late 2015: foreign “infiltration” and “soft subversion.”
The clampdown particularly targeted dual nationals, including academics and entrepreneurs who had flocked back home in the hope of building a new Iran in the post-JCPOA era. It not only deprived the national economy of fresh resources and skills but also affected Iran’s foreign policy in general, bedeviling its ties with the countries in which those victims held citizenship, such as the United States (Siamak and Baquer Namazi), the United Kingdom (Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe), Sweden (Ahmad Reza Jalali), Australia (Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi), France (Fariba Adelkhah), and so on.
These anti-infiltration measures, however, failed to stop security breaches and scandals, raising serious suspicions that, in fact, it was Iran’s hard-line centers of power, like the IRGC itself, that had been infiltrated. In early 2018, Mossad agents managed to extract over half a ton of Iran’s nuclear archives from a warehouse in Tehran and ship them to Israel, in an operation that lasted six hours and 29 minutes. Such a lengthy and intricate operation would have arguably stood little chance of success absent internal coordination and facilitation.
Perhaps in response, the IRGC doubled down on its anti-infiltration and counterespionage campaign, this time scapegoating environmental activists in an unprecedented manner to wash its hands of failure. Nine environmentalists were detained in early 2018 for allegedly spying on Iran’s missile and nuclear facilities, despite protestations by the Intelligence Ministry and later the Supreme National Security Council, which declared the detainees innocent. The crackdown also led to the suspicious death in custody of the Iranian Canadian academic Kavous Seyed-Emami. The remaining eight conservationists are still in jail. Furthermore, to repair its image, the IRGC has launched a well-funded public relations crusade that portrays the Rouhani administration, and its foreign and intelligence ministries in particular, as the main culprit behind Iran’s security problems. In June, state TV broadcast a 30-episode series in the spy thriller genre titled Gando (or mugger crocodile) that glorifies the IRGC and its intelligence branch as they strive to protect Iran’s strategic interests against damages by treacherous Westerners trying to infiltrate a sympathetic, or at best naive, administration. The series elicited serious objections from a number of lawmakers and the Rouhani government, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Crippling economic sanctions and the growing likelihood of military conflict have rendered moderates irrelevant and helped homogenize Iran’s political system in favor of hard-liners. In the face of diminishing resources as a consequence of sanctions and increasing need for security due to escalating hostilities with the United States and its allies, the IRGC is winning the battle over how Iran’s national interests should be defined and protected. It is, therefore, no wonder that the Islamic Republic has intensified repression of dissent in society and adopted a more offensive military posture abroad since the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.