In recent months, several covert Iranian intelligence operations have come to light. Throughout March, U.S. officials claimed and media reported that Iran was providing arms to the Taliban. On March 30, Tehran announced that Iranian intelligence agents had carried out a complicated cross-border rescue of a kidnapped Iranian diplomat in Pakistan. Then on May 1, a report began to circulate that intelligence agents thought to be working for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been arrested in Kuwait. The diplomat's rescue may have been exaggerated (unnamed Pakistani officials said they were involved in the handover, which may have occurred in Kabul), but it does not diminish Iran's reputation for having a capable intelligence apparatus particularly adept at managing militant proxies abroad — all in the name of regime preservation. Editor's Note:This is the second installment in an ongoing series on major state intelligence organizations.
Click here to download a PDF of this report Iran has two major and competing services that form the core of its intelligence community: the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the intelligence office of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The bureaucratic battle between the two, as well as many examples of cooperation, may suggest the future makeup and character of Iranian intelligence and, by extension, the regime itself. Both services were purposefully designed so that no single organization in Iran could have a monopoly on intelligence. But over the past year, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has taken more direct control of both. The operations of Iran's intelligence and military services are directed first and foremost at maintaining internal stability, particularly by minimizing the internal threat posed by minorities and their potential to be co-opted by external powers. While other countries such as North Korea must have strong internal security to preserve the regime, Iran has an even greater need because of the ethnic diversity of its population, which is spread throughout a mountainous country. Such an environment is ideal for the growth of separatist and other opposition groups, which must be contained by a strong intelligence and security apparatus. The second focus of Iranian intelligence is maintaining awareness of foreign powers that could threaten Iran, and utilizing Iran's resources to distract those powers. This involves traditional espionage (obtaining secret information on an adversary's intentions or capabilities) and disinformation operations to obfuscate Iran's capabilities and redirect attention to militant and political proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Badr Brigades in Iraq and even elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. These non-state entities give Iran a threatening power-projection capability with a significant degree of plausible deniability. The third focus is acquiring better capabilities for Iran's defense. This includes everything from Iran's nuclear program to missile and naval technology to spare parts for aging military equipment such as the F-14 jet fleet. The Iranians are also constantly recruiting and developing insurgent capabilities in case of war — both in and outside Iran. For example, Iran's paramilitary force has developed a guerrilla warfare strategy that requires acquiring or developing advanced speedboats and torpedoes to influence events in the Persian Gulf. Iran is most successful at operating behind a veil of secrecy. The country's leadership structure is confusing enough to outside observers, but the parallel and overlapping structures of the intelligence and military services are even more effective in obscuring leadership at the top and links to proxies at the bottom. The prime example of this is the IRGC, which is a complex combination of institutions: military force, intelligence service, covert action/special operations force, police, paramilitary force and business conglomerate, with proxies worldwide. The MOIS is more traditional, a civilian internal and external intelligence service. Both of these organizations have overlapping responsibilities, but one key difference is that the president has much more authority over the MOIS, which is a ministry of his government, than he has over the IRGC, which has become a national institution unto itself (the supreme leader has ultimate authority over both). The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and the Supreme Leader's Intelligence Unit are the semi-parallel organizations where overall intelligence authority lies. The SNSC is the official state body that makes broad political and military decisions that rely on intelligence collection and analysis as well as recommendations from advisers, but these decisions still must be approved by the supreme leader. His intelligence unit has the most power over Iranian intelligence activities and is designed to control the MOIS and the IRGC. The secretive nature of Iranian institutions blends into operations as well. One of the first and most famous attacks instigated by an Iranian proxy was the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, a case in which the identity of the bomber is still unknown, a notable exception to the culture of martyrdom within Islamist terrorist organizations (Hezbollah never claimed responsibility for the attack, which was likely perpetrated by one of its front groups). Through its intelligence services, Iran has connections with militant Islamist groups worldwide, but its influence is especially strong with those in the Middle East. And Iranian intelligence is careful to pad these relationships with layers of plausible deniability that help protect the Iranian state from any blowback. The most pressing issue for Iranian intelligence is management of the complex parallel structures with overlapping responsibilities among intelligence, military and civil institutions. This structure guarantees that no single entity has a monopoly on intelligence or the political power that stems from it, but the safeguard can also be a source of conflict. Over the last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has gone to great lengths to bring the MOIS and IRGC under his direct control. This gives him even more direct power over the president and insulates him from political and security threats. And the parallel structures ensure duplication of activities and competitive intelligence analysis. Eventually, however, centralization of power could insulate the supreme leader in an intelligence bubble, with officials telling him what he wants to hear rather than engaging in a rigorous reporting of the facts. This danger arises in all countries, but it could be a particularly serious problem for Iran as a kind of intelligence war continues across the Middle East. The regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last monarch of Iran, fell in large part because of a politicized intelligence service that ignored the reality on the ground. Today, as the supreme leader gains more direct control over Iranian intelligence services, such control could promote a better, more competitive process, but it could also make the supreme leader as disconnected from reality as the shah.
A Brief History
The modern history of Iranian intelligence begins with the infamous security services under the shah. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown by a U.S.- and U.K.-sponsored coup, which began Pahlavi's gradual rise to power in Iran. His power was based on the strength of the National Intelligence and Security Organization, better known as SAVAK (a Farsi acronym for Sazeman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar), which was formed in 1957, reportedly under the guidance of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad. To enforce the rule of the shah, SAVAK created a police state through vast informant networks, surveillance operations and censorship. This was one of the first attempts in Iran's history to impose centralized control of the country, rather than rely on relationships between the government and local leaders. While SAVAK was instrumental in controlling dissent, it also exacerbated corruption and brutality, resulting in a disaffected Iranian populace. A 1974 article in Harper's magazine claimed that one in every 450 Iranian males was a paid SAVAK agent. Still in use today by the IRGC, Evin prison was infamous for torturing and indefinitely detaining anyone deemed threatening to the shah's regime. The director of SAVAK was nominally under the authority of the prime minister, but he met with the shah every morning. The shah also created the Special Intelligence Bureau, which operated from his palace, and deployed his own Imperial Guard, a special security force that was the only Iranian military unit stationed in Tehran. Even with this extensive security apparatus — or perhaps because of it — the shah was ignorant of the Iranian public's hostility toward his regime until it was too late. He fled the country in January 1979 as the Islamic revolution reached its zenith. Even before the revolution, the security forces for a new regime were already taking shape and establishing links in the Middle East. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and founder of the new Islamic republic, sent some of his loyalists for military training in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where they received instruction at Amal militia and Fatah training camps. By 1977, more than 700 Khomeini loyalists had graduated from these camps. They were founding members of what would become the IRGC (effectively the new Imperial Guard and Special Intelligence Bureau). During the revolution, the shah's forces were purged by Islamic revolutionaries and what was left of them were merged with the regular Iranian armed forces, or Artesh (Persian for "army"). The IRGC was formed on May 5, 1979, to protect the new Islamic regime in Iran against counterrevolutionary activity and monitor what was left of the shah's military. In February 1979, the revolutionaries overran SAVAK headquarters, and its members were among the first targets of retribution. Internal security files were confiscated and high-ranking officers were arrested. By 1981, 61 senior intelligence officers had been executed. Even though SAVAK was dismantled, its legacy remained in the form of SAVAMA (Sazman-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Melli-e Iran, or the National Intelligence and Security Apparatus of Iran). In 1984, in a reorganization by the Army Military Revolutionary Tribunal, SAVAMA became the current MOIS, and this was when Iran's parallel intelligence structure truly took form.
From Terrorists to Agents of Influence
In February 1982, about a month after Israeli forces invaded Lebanon to quash the Palestinian resistance, an unnamed IRGC officer met in Lebanon with Imad Mughniyah, a young and disaffected Lebanese man of Shiite faith. Mughniyah also was an experienced guerrilla fighter, a member of Fatah's Force 17 and a bodyguard to Yasser Arafat. For years there was no record of this meeting, even among the world's premier intelligence agencies, even though it would mark the inception of Iran's first militant proxy group, an organization that would later become known as Hezbollah. Although the name of the IRGC officer is still unconfirmed, he was likely Hussein Moslehi, the IRGC's liaison with Hezbollah in the years afterward. The new Shiite militant group would conduct many terrorist attacks orchestrated by Mughniyah (and many different organizational names would be used, such as the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO, to create ambiguity and confusion). During that first meeting in Lebanon, and unbeknownst to many, Mughniyah received an officer's commission in the IRGC and would later be named commander of a secret IRGC proxy group, Amin Al-Haras, or Security of the Guards, for which he was told to recruit family members and friends from his time in Fatah to wage a new jihad under the IJO banner. Mughniyah also became part of the security detail guarding Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah. In March 1983, he represented Fadlallah at a meeting in Damascus with the Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Ali Akhbar Mohtashemi. They decided to begin a terror campaign that would become the first to repel a "foreign occupier" in the modern era of Islamist militancy. Mughniyah orchestrated the truck-bomb attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, and against the U.S. Marine barracks and French paratrooper barracks on Oct. 23. By March 31, 1984, the multinational peacekeeping force had left Lebanon. On behalf of Tehran, Mughniyah orchestrated many other bombings, kidnappings and plane hijackings that hid the hand of Iran (and sometimes even his own). When foreign governments wanted to negotiate the return of hostages held in Lebanon, however, they always went to Iran. The Iranians used their proxies' captives as playing cards for political concessions and arms deals (like the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s). By the 1990s, however, Iran had realized it could achieve its geopolitical goals more effectively not by engaging in provocative international terrorist activities but by promoting insurgencies and infiltrating political movements. So Hezbollah turned into a political group with an armed guerrilla wing to fight Israel and rival Lebanese forces while also gaining political power in Lebanon. Guerrilla warfare replaced terrorism as the primary tactic for Iran's proxies, which also came to include the Badr Brigades (then based in Iran); Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Palestinian territories; and various Afghan militant groups. Tehran never wanted to lose the deterrent threat of Hezbollah's terrorist capabilities, however, and Hezbollah continued to develop plans and surveil targets, such as military installation and embassies, to threaten Iran's adversaries. (In 1994, Mughniyah was involved in planning attacks in Buenos Aires.) Hezbollah victories against Israel in 2000 and 2006 proved the group's effectiveness while Mughniyah became less active as a terrorist coordinator and more active as a military commander. By the time Mughniyah was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, Iran had shifted its proxy tactics, for the most part, from international terrorism to regional insurgencies. The secular Iraqi Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi may have personified the next Iranian proxy shift, from guerrilla fighters to more careful agents of influence. Chalabi was one of three executives, and the de facto leader, of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a supposedly broad-based Iraqi group opposed to Saddam Hussein's regime. It will never be clear who Chalabi really worked for, other than himself, since he played all sides, but Iran clearly had substantial involvement in his activities. STRATFOR laid out the case for Chalabi's relationship with Iran in 2004, noting that the false intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction provided by Iran through Chalabi did not inspire the U.S. government to go to war in Iraq, it only provided the means to convince the American public that it was the right thing to do. Chalabi was more influential in convincing the U.S. Defense Department's Office of Special Plans that the threat of Shiite groups in southern Iraq was minimal. Chalabi's influence contributed to U.S. tactical failures in Iraq that allowed Iran's unseen hand to gain power through other Shiite proxies, most notably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), known at the time as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The ISCI gained a substantial amount of power after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and its main militia group, the Badr Brigades, has since been integrated into the Iraqi security forces. In early 2004, Chalabi fell out of favor with the Bush administration, which continued to work with ISCI leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. For all practical purposes, the Dawa party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the al-Sadrite movement and assorted other political factions in Iraq are also, to varying degrees, proxies of the MOIS and of the IRGC's overseas operations arm, the Quds Force. In May 2004, U.S. officials revealed that Chalabi gave sensitive intelligence to an Iranian official indicating that the United States had broken the MOIS communications code. And the fact that Chalabi was able to pass the intelligence revealed certain clandestine capabilities on the part of Iran, particularly the ability to use proxies for direct action and intelligence-gathering while keeping its involvement plausibly deniable. While there is much circumstantial evidence that Chalabi or Mughniyah were Iranian agents, the lack of direct evidence clouds the issue to this day.
Organizations and Operations
Ministry of Intelligence and Security
Iran's MOIS, also known by its Farsi acronym VEVAK (Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar), is the country's premier civilian external intelligence service, with approximately 15,000 employees as of 2006. The MOIS' internal organization is unclear, but its authority and operations are identifiable. The MOIS is a government ministry, which means its director is a minister in the Iranian Cabinet under the president. This gives Iran's president, who while popularly elected must also be approved by the clerics, considerable authority in MOIS intelligence activities. The minister of intelligence, currently Heidar Moslehi, also serves within the Supreme National Security Council, the highest decision-making body of the government. In addition, the MOIS chief is always a cleric, which means the supreme leader has considerable influence in his appointment and oversees his performance. (click here to enlarge image) Training for MOIS officers begins with their recruitment in Iran. Like any employee of the Iranian government, intelligence officers must be strict "Twelver Shias" (those who expect the reappearance of the twelfth imam) and firm believers in the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih (a state ruled by jurists). Their loyalties to the Islamic republic are tested often during training at sites in northern Tehran and Qom, according to STRATFOR sources. Before training they also go through a careful clearance process, which almost certainly involves a lengthy background check by counterintelligence officers. Intelligence officers are placed in many cover jobs, a standard practice among the world's intelligence services. As do most countries, Iran includes large intelligence sections in its embassies and missions, and official cover often includes positions in the Foreign Ministry abroad. This was the case when Iranian intelligence officers were caught surveilling targets in New York City in 2006 and when Iranian Embassy officials helped facilitate bombings in Argentina in 1994 by providing documentation, logistics and communications support to the bombers. The MOIS also employs non-official cover for its officers, including those of student, professor, journalist and employee of state-owned or state-connected companies (e.g., IranAir and Iranian banks). According to STRATFOR sources, some expatriate academics who often travel back to Iran from overseas positions because of family obligations or emergencies may be MOIS employees. Recruitment of foreign agents, some of whom are given official positions within the MOIS or IRGC, occurs mostly in overseas Muslim communities. Many are also recruited while studying in Iran. Their first areas targeted for major recruitment outside of Iran were Lebanon and Iraq, and the scope eventually spread to other Shiite communities in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. The MOIS has individual departments for recruiting agents in the Persian Gulf, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Europe, South and East Asia, North America and South America. Its particular target in South America is the tri-state border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where a large Lebanese Shiite population exists. Foreign agents may also be non-Shia, whether Sunni Muslims or of other backgrounds. Shia, however, tend to be the only MOIS agents who are fully trusted. On paper, the MOIS' domestic responsibilities remain a higher priority than its foreign responsibilities, but its primary duties no longer involve managing the domestic security environment. The IRGC has largely taken over domestic security, although the MOIS still maintains a few parallel responsibilities. One is to actively thwart reformists, preventing them, for example, from organizing demonstrations or secret meetings. MOIS officers also surveil and infiltrate Iran's ethnic minorities, especially the Baluchs, Kurds, Azeris and Arabs, in search of dissident elements. Another MOIS mission is monitoring the drug trade, and though the service is probably less involved in narcotics than the IRGC, its officers likely receive a percentage of the profits from the large quantities of Afghan heroin that transit Iran on their way to European consumers. The service's intelligence-collection operations abroad follow traditional methodologies that its predecessor, SAVAK, learned from the CIA and Mossad, but the MOIS also is adept at conducting disinformation campaigns, which it learned how to do from the KGB after the Islamic revolution. In conducting its foreign intelligence operations, the MOIS focuses on the region but also extends its operations worldwide, where it faces growing competition from the IRGC and Quds Force (more on this below). As in its domestic efforts, the MOIS' first priority on foreign soil is to monitor, infiltrate and control Iranian dissident groups. Its second priority is to develop liaison and proxy networks for foreign influence and terrorist and military operations, an effort usually facilitated by pan-Islamism, Shiite sectarianism and Farsi ethno-linguistic connections. Currently, the MOIS is most involved with Shiite networks in Iraq and Farsi-speaking groups in Afghanistan. (The networks in Iraq and even in Afghanistan seem to be managed by IRGC, however, and this is explained in more detail below.) The MOIS' third priority abroad is to identify any foreign threats, particularly surrounding Iran's nuclear program, and it is currently focusing primarily (and naturally) on Israel and the United States. Its fourth foreign intelligence priority is to spread disinformation in order to protect Iran and further its interests, and in recent years this has mainly been an effort to convince the rest of the world that an attack on Iran not only would fail to stop its nuclear program but also would have disastrous consequences for the world economy by shutting down the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The MOIS' fifth and final foreign intelligence priority is to acquire technology for defensive purposes, including spare parts for aging military equipment such as F-14 jet fighters that the United States provided Iran during the reign of the shah. The MOIS calls its disinformation operations nefaq, which is an Arabic word for discord. It learned the methodology from the KGB, which taught that 80 percent to 90 percent of information released to foreign media or intelligence agencies should be fact while only a small percentage should be fiction. In addition to its more recent use of disinformation to discourage an attack against Iran's nuclear program, the MOIS has used it to discredit reformist and opposition groups in foreign countries and to distract and confuse foreign powers regarding Iran's intelligence and military capabilities. Examples include Chalabi's deception of the United States and MOIS-operated websites claiming to represent Iranian dissident groups such as Tondar. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iranian intelligence operatives assassinated numerous dissidents abroad. Within the first year of the Islamic revolution, the monarchist Prince Shahriar Shafiq was assassinated in Paris and a former Iranian diplomat who was critical of the Islamic regime, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, was shot and killed in his home in a Washington suburb by an African-American operative who had converted to Islam and has lived in Iran since Tabatabai's murder. One of the most high-profile MOIS assassinations was the killing of the last prime minister under the shah, Shapour Bakhtiar, in Paris in 1991 (after at least two failed attempts). It is believed at least 80 people were assassinated by Iranian intelligence during the 1980s and 1990s across Europe, in Turkey and Pakistan and as far away as the Philippines. This was in addition to a series of murders of dissidents and scholars inside Iran between 1990 and 1998 (15 assassination were allegedly orchestrated by the MOIS). Since the early years of the Islamic republic, assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad have decreased as the intelligence services have evolved and as threats to the regime have diminished. This is largely because politically active Iranians living in other countries are involved in many different and competing opposition groups and are not united. This leads them to report on each other's activities to the local Iranian Embassy or consulate, and it has resulted in a shift in intelligence-service tactics, from assassination to harassment, intimidation and delegitimization. Representatives of Iranian missions have been known to monitor dissidents by infiltrating and observing their meetings and speeches, and MOIS officers often want dissidents to know they are being watched so that they will be intimidated. Some of these dissident groups are considered by the Iranian regime (and others internationally) to be terrorist groups, such as the Marxist-Islamist Mujahideen-e-Khalq, while others are royalists or democracy advocates. Often the reputation of a dissident group can be heavily influenced by the MOIS, which will work to get the group officially designated as a "terrorist organization" by foreign governments or otherwise discourage foreign governments from having anything to do with it. The MOIS has its own section (reportedly called "Department 15") that is responsible for subversive activities abroad, or what the service calls "exporting revolution." It has done this by establishing liaisons with many types of resistance and terrorist movements throughout the world, not just Islamist groups (it shipped weapons, for example, to the Irish Republican Army). However, the MOIS concentrates on groups within or near Iran's borders. Although the Iranians will never fully trust a Sunni group, the MOIS has had a long-standing relationship with elements of al Qaeda, though it is as much an infiltration of the group for intelligence purposes as it is an alliance. As long as these elements share similar goals with Tehran, Iran will work with them. The primary reason for Iran to have such non-ideological relationships is to collect intelligence on militant groups competing for the leadership of the worldwide radical Islamist movement. The secondary reason is to distract Iran's adversaries by forcing them to deal with militants in other countries. Reports differ on how close the MOIS and other Iranian services are with jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda, but the cooperation is definitely selective and tactical. In the early 1990s, Mughniyah and Hezbollah reportedly helped teach al Qaeda operatives how to make vehicle-borne improvised explosives devices in Sudan. After 9/11, Iran distanced itself from al Qaeda, going so far as to return al Qaeda suspects in Iran to their home countries. But in some cases the liaison between Iran and al Qaeda may be even stronger than before, in order to influence events in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MOIS has relationships with many other non-Shiite groups around the world, particularly in the Palestinian territories. While the Iranian revolution was purely indigenous, it did receive some outside support, particularly from secular Fatah. Iran also has had long-term and close relationships with the more militant PIJ and Hamas, and its relationship with the latter has grown closer as Hamas leaders debate what country to choose as an ally. Iranian support played an important role in the most recent conflict in Gaza, when Israel attempted to eliminate Hamas. The relationships began in December 1992 when Israel expelled Hamas and PIJ operatives to Lebanon, where the MOIS developed contacts with them through Hezbollah. (These Sunni groups would go on to develop suicide terror tactics that until then had been used only by Shiite militants.) As Iranian largesse increased, Hamas transitioned from using homemade Qassam rockets in their attacks against Israel to using manufactured rockets supplied by Iran that have a much longer range. Iran has expanded its links to groups as far away as Algeria and, in the other direction, to the Taliban in Afghanistan. These groups are ideologically different from Iran, but they all employ similar tactics and have the same broad goals in fighting non-Islamic influences in their respective countries. The MOIS is very good at covering up or obfuscating information on these links, so little is known but much is suspected. The MOIS develops and organizes these contacts in many different ways. One common method is the use of embassy cover to meet and plan operations with its unofficial associates. For example, many of the Iranian-sponsored operations in Lebanon conducted by Hezbollah and associated groups are planned in the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria. The MOIS also works with the IRGC in the operation of training camps for visiting jihadists and proxy groups along the Iranian border and in secure areas abroad like Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Iran's current minister of intelligence and MOIS head is Heidar Moslehi, a former IRGC officer who was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the June 2009 election and protests. Moslehi's background working with the IRGC and Basij paramilitary forces, and being a close ally of Ahmadinejad's, furthers the IRGC's current advantage over the intelligence bureaucracy. With the support of Khamenei, the IRGC was able to accuse the MOIS of not fulfilling its domestic responsibilities and letting the election protests get out of hand.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
The full name of the IRGC is Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, literally "the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution." According to STRATFOR sources, its intelligence office is at least as powerful as the MOIS, if not more so. The IRGC was founded in May 1979 by decree of Ayatollah Khomeini as the ideological guard for the new regime and remains the main enforcer of velayat-e-faqih. Article 150 of Iran's Constitution gives the IRGC both the vague and expansive role of "guarding the Revolution and its achievements." To enforce its commitment to the cause, the supreme leader has placed political guides at every level of the organization. The IRGC is as much a military force as an intelligence and security service, with an air force, navy and army. It is also a social, political and business organization that permeates Iranian society, producing a large number of political and business leaders and involved in many aspects of Iran's economy. The IRGC's intelligence office seems more active internally while its key operational group abroad is the Quds Force — possibly the most effective subversive-action group since the KGB's First Chief Directorate and its predecessor organizations, which were very adept in implementing what they referred to as "active measures." In its unique position as an elite military organization with major intelligence capabilities, the IRGC has essentially supplanted the Artesh as the military backbone of the state. Other countries, especially in the Middle East, have multiple military and security forces, but none with the expansive influence and control of the IRGC. From the beginning of the revolution until the MOIS was completely established in 1984, the IRGC was Iran's most active domestic and foreign intelligence organization. After dismantling SAVAK, the IRGC worked with former SAVAK intelligence officers to disrupt and destroy many domestic dissident groups, including Forghan, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq and the Communist Tudeh Party. While the internal intelligence role was transferred to the MOIS in 1984, the IRGC remained a "shadow" intelligence organization, with its security division, Sazman-e Harassat, functioning more like a domestic intelligence unit, monitoring and arresting dissidents and separatists and putting them in IRGC-controlled prisons. The IRGC's intelligence office, the Ettelaat-e-Pasdaran, had a staff of 2,000 in 2006 (though this number has very likely increased). It is difficult to separate its activities from the rest of the IRGC, but the office is known to be responsible for the security of Iran's nuclear program, which means that it monitors all scientists, manages the security force at nuclear installations, guards against sabotage and conducts counterintelligence to prevent the recruitment of Iran's nuclear scientists by other countries. Other activities of the intelligence office are unclear, but they likely include the coordination of intelligence gathered by the Basij for domestic security and overseas operations of the Quds Force. The 2009 post-election reshuffling also brought in Hassan Taeb, former head of the Basij and a conservative cleric who was instrumental in suppressing the 2009 protests, to lead the intelligence office and gave the office more power in Iran's intelligence community. The IRGC intelligence office and the MOIS are, in fact, parallel intelligence and security organizations, and regime critics claim that the former currently includes the most conservative and violent elements of the latter. This may be an exaggeration, but it is clear that the members and missions of the two organizations do flow back and forth. When reformist President Mohammed Khatami appointed Hojjateleslam Ali Younessi minister of intelligence in 1997, conservative clerics were unhappy with the government's increased tolerance of political dissent reflected in a purge of the MOIS. The supreme leader then gave the IRGC control of the former MOIS intelligence officers and networks, which enabled operations like the assassination campaign in the 1980s and 1990s mentioned above. The momentum temporarily shifted back to MOIS when Ahmadinejad became president and appointed, as minister of intelligence, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, who began to establish his bona fides by cracking down on internal dissent. He was later fired by Ahmadinejad in the intra-elite struggle sparked by the controversial 2009 presidential elections. While Iran's two main intelligence organizations may oppose each other bureaucratically, in the end they both share the same goal: preservation of the clerical regime.
Originally, the IRGC's foreign covert-action and intelligence unit was known informally as Birun Marzi ("Outside the Borders"), or Department 9000. When the group was officially established in 1990, IRGC leaders settled on the name Quds Force (al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem and is intended to imply that the force will one day liberate the holy city). Such a unit is enabled by Article 154 of the Iranian Constitution, which states: "while scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations, it supports the just struggles of the freedom fighters against the oppressors in every corner of the globe." Since the IRGC took the lead in "exporting the revolution" by developing proxy forces, first in Lebanon in the early 1980s, its Quds Force would take on the responsibility after its formation in 1990. Proxy operations are directed by the Quds General Staff for the Export of the Revolution, a group that includes various directorates responsible for operations in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, the Indian subcontinent (including Afghanistan), North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, former Soviet states and Western countries, including the United States, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The Quds Force also has liaison and advisory operations in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The major Quds training centers are at Imam Ali University in Iran's holy city of Qom and at the Shahid, Kazemi, Beheshti and Vali-e-Asr garrisons. Foreign Muslim students who volunteer to work as intelligence agents or to become involved in covert activities receive their training at secret camps in western Iran and in Iranian universities. The IRGC/Quds also have established overseas training camps in Lebanon and Sudan. One main responsibility of the IRGC/Quds is training the Hezbollah Special Security Apparatus, which is the most elite force within Hezbollah, Iran's principal proxy movement. Iranian military attaches in Damascus coordinate with the IRGC/Quds in the Bekaa Valley in its work with Hezbollah and other groups in the area. There also is an IRGC headquarters in the Syrian border village of Zabadani that coordinates operations and transfers funds and weapons. In recent years, Quds operations have been most prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quds worked with multiple, often opposing, proxies throughout Iraq to destabilize the regime until an Iran-friendly government could be established, before and especially after the U.S. invasion. Quds operates out of a command center, the Fajr Base, in the city of Ahwaz near the Iraqi border and has an operational base in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. Quds operatives worked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in addition to Iran's traditional Iraqi Shiite proxies like the al-Sadrite movement and its armed wing, the Mahdi Army, and the Badr Brigades, ISCI's military wing. IRGC operations in Iraq were highlighted in January 2007 when U.S. forces raided an Iranian consulate in Arbil and detained, among others, local Quds commander Hassan Abbasi, who was also a major strategic adviser to President Ahmadinejad.
Domestically, the IRGC enforces security mainly through the Basij, which also assists in intelligence-gathering. The Basij was founded in 1980 as the Niruyeh Moghavemat Basij, which literally means "Mobilization Resistance Force." At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree that boys older than 12 could serve on the front lines. Many of these youths were brought into the Basij for use in suicidal human-wave attacks and as human mine detectors. As many as 3 million Basij members served during the Iran-Iraq war and tens of thousands died. Of those who survived, many went on to become officers in the IRGC. President Ahmadinejad himself was a Basij member stationed in Kermanshah during the war and later became an IRGC officer. The Basij formally came under the IRGC command structure in 2007, but the militia has long been affiliated with the guard, and membership in the former can lead to a commission in the latter. The Basij was founded for the same reasons and was based on similar principles as the IRGC — to quickly replace the shah's security forces and protect the regime of the ayatollahs. However, while the IRGC is considered (among other things) an elite military force of well-trained personnel, the Basij is more of an amateur paramilitary force whose members are largely untrained civilian volunteers which constitute a variety of units, ranging from neighborhood watch groups to a kind of national guard. In a speech in 2006, Basij commander Hussein Hamadani spoke proudly of the militia's vast informant pool, which is called the "36 million information network." The number was picked because it is half the population of Iran. While such an overwhelming number of informants is unlikely, the Basij serves as a pervasive internal vigilante force. The Basij is organized almost as the Communist Party is in some authoritarian states, existing at many levels throughout civil society. Each Iranian city of a certain size is divided into "areas" and "zones," while smaller towns and villages have "cells." Units are organized at social, religious and government institutions, such as mosques and municipal offices. There are Basij units for students, workers and tribe members. The Basij has developed the Ashura Brigades for males and the al-Zahra Brigades for females. Basij members also are organized by their level of involvement and consist of "regular," "active" and "special" members. Special members are those who have been on the IRGC's payroll since 1991, 16 years before the Basij came under IRGC authority. Basij members are recruited through local mosques by informal selection committees of local leaders, though mosque leaders are the most influential committee members. GlobalSecurity estimated the size of the militia in 2005 to be 90,000 active members and 300,000 reserve members, with a "potential strength" of 1 million or more, which would represent the lower-level volunteers. With such a large membership, the Basij claims to have been instrumental in preventing several coups and other threats to the Islamic republic. It is said to have stopped a Kurdish uprising in Paveh in July 1979 and to have infiltrated what is known as the Nojeh coup, organized by military and intelligence officers under the leadership of former Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, in July 1980. In January 1982, the Union of Iranian Communists, a Maoist political and militant group, initiated an uprising near Amol that the Basij also claims to have suppressed. All three of these incidents were considered substantial threats to a young regime without institutionalized security forces, and the Basij's success firmly established its role as the regime's de facto internal police force. The official Iranian police (Law Enforcement Forces, or LEF) have a mixed record, and during the Ashura protests in December 2009, Ayatollah Khamenei considered the regular intelligence and security services unable to cope with the situation and thought the Basij was better suited to the task because of the revolutionary fervor of its members, who are usually hardcore Islamists recruited from mosques. Iran's conventional military forces are garrisoned away from population centers (which is not uncommon in the Middle East, where governments tend to maintain a second force to help prevent military coups). Other Iranian vigilante groups such as Ansar-e Hezbollah are more violent and less organized than the Basij and too undisciplined to effectively enforce security. And while the IRGC is being used more for internal security, it is a much smaller force, numbering less than 200,000. Hence, the IRGC must employ its sprawling Basij as the main force on which the regime relies for internal security, though the government also has been responding to the risk of this reliance. Unlike the country's parallel intelligence apparatus, the Basij had become the last as well as main line of defense against internal unrest. In 2007, not confident that another organization could provide back up to the Basij, the regime refocused the IRGC inward, in part by merging the Basij into the IRGC command structure. The new IRGC commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, said at the time, "The main strategy of the IRGC [is different] now. Confrontation with internal threats is the main mission of the IRGC at present." The shift came about after Tehran saw a growing internal threat that it claimed was fueled by foreign governments. The 2007 shift and the more recent suppression of protests exemplify the intentional opacity and flexibility of the IRGC and its various components. The regime can use the force for any use it wants. As Maj. Gen. Jafari said in 2007, "We should adapt our structure to the surrounding conditions or existing threats in a bid to enter the scene promptly and with sufficient flexibility." Essentially, the IRGC, with its Basij and vast sea of informants, has become Iran's "911" security force capable of gathering intelligence and responding to any incident at any time to keep the Islamic regime in power.
Like all conventional military forces, Iran's regular armed forces (the Artesh) have their own joint military intelligence capability in the form of the J2 unit. This unit handles traditional tactical intelligence and is composed of officers and personnel from all branches of the armed forces, including the IRGC and some law enforcement entities. The organization also is responsible for all planning, intelligence and counterintelligence operations, security within the armed forces and coordinating the intelligence functions of all the regular services, combat units of the IRGC and police units that are assigned military duties.
Ministry of Interior and Law Enforcement Forces
The Ministry of Interior oversees Iran's police forces, but it has been all but pushed out of general security and intelligence functions even more so than the MOIS. The country's official LEF was established in 1991 when the country's urban police, rural gendarmerie and revolutionary committees were merged. According to Iranian law, the LEF, reportedly numbering some 40,000 personnel, remains officially responsible for internal and border security, but over time it has come to focus on day-to-day police work and serve as the first line of defense while the Basij has the ultimate responsibility for quelling civil unrest.
Oversight and Control
The government of Iran already has a convoluted organizational chart, and the structure of its intelligence services is even more complex. Understanding the internal workings of intelligence gathering, dissemination, command and control in the Islamic republic is most challenging, given their extreme secrecy, structural complexities, unclear legal mandate and shifting responsibilities. In the end, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei, is both customer and commander of Iran's intelligence services. Following the 2009 elections and the attendant unrest, the supreme leader expanded a special unit within his office to handle intelligence matters as part of his effort to keep a lid on unrest and better manage the bureaucratic competition between the MOIS and IRGC. Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, essentially Khamenei's chief of staff, manages the supreme leader's office, which was officially established as the "House of the Leader" by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic republic's first supreme leader. Golpayegani was one of the founders of the MOIS and previously served as a deputy minister of intelligence. The new intelligence section within Khamenei's office, the Supreme Leader's Intelligence Unit (also known as "Section 101," according to STRATFOR sources), was established to manage the conflict between the country's two main intelligence services by clarifying their responsibilities, directing foreign intelligence gathering through the MOIS and covert action through the IRGC. These assignments fit more with the original responsibilities of the organizations as well as their cultures and specialties, though duplication still exists and serves an important purpose in keeping intelligence groups competitive. Section 101 is reportedly headed by Asghar Mir Hejazi, another Khamenei loyalist who previously served in the MOIS. It is notable that two senior staffers in the House of the Leader have an MOIS rather than an IRGC background, since it is generally thought that the IRGC possesses the momentum in the rivalry. Regardless of where these people come from, as Khamenei appoints loyalists within his own office to control the intelligence flow, the intelligence officers closest to him are less likely to "speak truth to power." The reorganization is intended to create a more centralized intelligence apparatus in Iran, but it could also risk the kind of intelligence failures that contributed to the downfall of the shah. That is not to say the Islamic republic is at risk — indeed, its intelligence efforts have been quite successful at controlling dissent — only that that directing national intelligence functions from the House of the Leader can create a myopic view of reality. This will be an issue to watch as the country's intelligence capabilities continue to evolve. The balance between the MOIS and the IRGC on any given day depends on how the ruling clerics feel about internal threats and the external powers supporting them. (Iranian leaders and the state-controlled media insist that the United States is waging a "soft war" on Iran and encouraging domestic revolution.) Recent as well as historic shifts in the intelligence balance can also be explained by the ongoing tension within Iran's intelligence and security apparatus. No one organization is allowed a monopoly over intelligence, so the equilibrium among competing agencies is constantly shifting. Today the IRGC appears to be gaining the advantage, in keeping with its growing involvement in so many aspects of Iranian life in addition to national intelligence. This, too, will be an evolution to watch.
Special Series: Iranian Intelligence and Regime Preservation