Why Did Iran’s Ali Khamenei Oust a Loyal Intelligence Head?

Hossein Taeb’s sudden removal from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is part of a wider project to install a new generation of zealots.

By , a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and , a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.
Hossein Taeb, then-head of the intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, looks on during a meeting in Tehran on June 24, 2018.
Hossein Taeb, then-head of the intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, looks on during a meeting in Tehran on June 24, 2018.
Hossein Taeb, then-head of the intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, looks on during a meeting in Tehran on June 24, 2018. HAMED MALEKPOUR/TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images

The sudden removal of the hard-line Islamist cleric Hossein Taeb from his position atop the intelligence arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) two weeks ago came as a shock to all. Few insiders in Iran’s clerical regime are privy to the country’s top secrets, and even fewer have constant direct access to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but Taeb—a close confidant of the supreme leader’s son Mojtaba Khamenei—was one of them.

Taeb, who joined the IRGC in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, has been a long-standing member of the regime’s security-intelligence apparatus. His career began with a rocky start: He was dismissed from the Ministry of Intelligence after targeting the son of then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani. This dismissal would be far from a setback. Rather, it would place Taeb in the thick of the tacit rivalry between the supreme leader, Khamenei, and then-resident, Rafsanjani. Thereafter, Taeb set out to deepen his allegiance with Khamenei and established a career in the intelligence arm of the Office of the Supreme Leader, heading the newly formed Parallel Intelligence Agency. In 2008, Taeb was appointed commander of the Basij, the IRGC’s civil militia, on the basis that he “organize and prepare the Basij according to the will of the supreme leader.”

The 2009 Green Movement anti-regime protests, following the fraudulent presidential elections, would be the turning point, both for Taeb and the IRGC, in the field of intelligence. Historically the involvement of the IRGC in the field of intelligence had been restricted to military affairs and was at the directorate level. But the organization’s role during the protests—outperforming the Ministry of Intelligence in gathering intelligence and violently suppressing those on the streets—would result in Khamenei upgrading its intelligence directorate to the IRGC Intelligence Organization. Taeb was rewarded for his personal role in orchestrating the ruthless crackdown with an appointment as head of the Intelligence Organization, a position he would hold on to for nearly 13 years.

The sudden removal of the hard-line Islamist cleric Hossein Taeb from his position atop the intelligence arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) two weeks ago came as a shock to all. Few insiders in Iran’s clerical regime are privy to the country’s top secrets, and even fewer have constant direct access to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but Taeb—a close confidant of the supreme leader’s son Mojtaba Khamenei—was one of them.

Taeb, who joined the IRGC in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, has been a long-standing member of the regime’s security-intelligence apparatus. His career began with a rocky start: He was dismissed from the Ministry of Intelligence after targeting the son of then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani. This dismissal would be far from a setback. Rather, it would place Taeb in the thick of the tacit rivalry between the supreme leader, Khamenei, and then-resident, Rafsanjani. Thereafter, Taeb set out to deepen his allegiance with Khamenei and established a career in the intelligence arm of the Office of the Supreme Leader, heading the newly formed Parallel Intelligence Agency. In 2008, Taeb was appointed commander of the Basij, the IRGC’s civil militia, on the basis that he “organize and prepare the Basij according to the will of the supreme leader.”

The 2009 Green Movement anti-regime protests, following the fraudulent presidential elections, would be the turning point, both for Taeb and the IRGC, in the field of intelligence. Historically the involvement of the IRGC in the field of intelligence had been restricted to military affairs and was at the directorate level. But the organization’s role during the protests—outperforming the Ministry of Intelligence in gathering intelligence and violently suppressing those on the streets—would result in Khamenei upgrading its intelligence directorate to the IRGC Intelligence Organization. Taeb was rewarded for his personal role in orchestrating the ruthless crackdown with an appointment as head of the Intelligence Organization, a position he would hold on to for nearly 13 years.

This raises two questions: What was the motive behind Taeb’s removal? And what does this mean for the IRGC’s most influential center of power?

So far, there are three dominant theories to answer these questions. The first relates to the efficiency of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization in countering the infiltration of foreign intelligence services, not least Israel. In fact, some have gone as far as claiming Taeb himself was an agent of Mossad. The second theory is related to the supreme leader’s succession, with proponents of this idea claiming Taeb’s ouster was linked to the balance of power between the two top candidates for the job, Mojtaba Khamenei and current President Ebrahim Raisi. Finally, the IRGC’s own narrative has been to frame Taeb’s dismissal as a routine replacement to infuse new blood into the organization.

Still, while all of these theories have a degree of merit, they miss the bigger picture. Taeb’s replacement should not be seen as an isolated event. Rather, it is part of a longer reorganization of the military-security structures in the Islamic Republic, which began in 2019 under the banner of “The Second Step of the Islamic Revolution.”

This plan was put together by Khamenei to prepare the Islamic Republic for the next decades to come and to complete his project of personalization of power, which began from the moment he became supreme leader in 1989. As part of his personalization of power, Khamenei has sought to install a new generation of zealots to ensure his hard-line ideology outlives him. Since 2019, we have witnessed a trend of replacement of many security-military heads, including IRGC commander in chief, the commander of the Basij, head of the IRGC Protection Guard and the head of the Sarallah Security Headquarters—the Guard’s most important security center. A more recent example of this trend is the structural changes to the country’s national police, the commander of which is now much more powerful.

But what does this mean specifically in relation to Taeb, and what might the implications be for the possibility of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal?

By replacing Taeb, Khamenei is attempting to kill many birds with one stone. First, in spite of Taeb being loyal to Khamenei, the fact that he was viewed as one of Iran’s most powerful figures in itself threatened the supreme leader’s personalization of power project. His replacement sheds light on Khamenei’s apparently increasingly paranoid state of mind. Secondly, the aging ayatollah is simultaneously attempting to purify the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization from foreign infiltration. In fact, that’s why Mohammad Kazemi, the former head of the IRGC’s counterintelligence unit, was chosen to succeed Taeb. But also by replacing Taeb, a cleric, with Kazemi, a military general, Khamenei is seeking to make the Intelligence Organization more efficient and successful in its operations. This comes after many embarrassing failures, such as the latest terrorist plot to kill Israeli citizens in Turkey. Finally, by injecting new blood into the intelligence agency, the supreme leader is hoping to upgrade its repressive machinery to increase effectiveness against growing anti-regime dissent, a trend also seen with the ascent of Iran’s police force.

Moreover, the chances of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal have significantly decreased after Khamenei decided to double down on the regime’s hard-line ideology (which we see through the so-called purification of the regime and installation of the most zealous elites across the system). Based on the regime’s perception of the Biden administration in the United States, it has calculated that there will be no serious consequences for increasing its nuclear activities. It also believes the Republicans will win this year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election. Against this backdrop, Khamenei and his close circle have convinced themselves that the next two years could be their best opportunity to further expand Iran’s nuclear program. To achieve this, the regime needs to protect its program, equipment, scientists, and sites with greater diligence. This includes blocking foreign intelligence infiltration after a series of acts of sabotage at Iran’s nuclear sites and assassinations of senior IRGC personnel.

While there is no doubt that Taeb was one of the most repressive figures in the Islamic Republic, his removal is anything but an easing of suppression inside Iran and a scaling back of terrorist activity outside. As Khamenei pushes to complete his personalization project, each and every individual appointed by his order will have to prove their worthiness to his rule. Against this backdrop, we can forecast not only that the IRGC’s intelligence arm will become more repressive domestically, but also that it will seek to scale up its activities beyond Iran’s borders in the hope of making up for Taeb’s failures. The path toward escalation is in many ways inevitable.

Saeid Golkar is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Kasra Aarabi is a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who specializes in Iran and Shiite Islamist extremism. He is also a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and is undertaking a Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews, where his research focuses on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Twitter: @KasraAarabi

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