The Intelligence and Security Services of Iran

Posted in Iran | 20-Nov-10 | Author: Octavian Dumitrescu

The international reputation of Iran's intelligence and security services was confirmed in this spring by two events: the complicated cross-border rescue operation of an Iranian diplomat captured in Pakistan (at the end of March 2010) and the apprehension in Kuwait of some intelligence agents that worked for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (at the beginning of May 2010). Although the rescue operation of the Iranian diplomat has been presented in an exaggerated manner, according to a special report of STRATFOR released on 21 June 2010, "it does not reduce Iran's reputation for having an intelligence organization take care of the militants abroad - in the name of the preservation of the regime".

The leadership of the country is quite obscure for the observers abroad, and thus, Iran's intelligence services, collateral and incumbent, are more efficient. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - one of the Iranian intelligence services, is a complex combination of institutions - army forces, intelligence services, undercover and special operations forces, police, paramilitary forces and business groups with implications at a global level. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) - another Iranian intelligence service, is more traditional and has both foreign and domestic intelligence responsibilities. The "secrecy" that characterizes the Iranian regime and organizations is specific to the intelligence services too. The president has more authority with the MOIS, one of the ministries of the government, while the IRGC has become a national institution under the leadership of Iran's Supreme Leader. Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) - the state official organization that makes foreign and military decisions and Supreme Leader's Intelligence Unit are two semi-collateral organizations that gather all the intelligence authorities. Their decisions must ultimately be approved by the Supreme Leader.

The modern history of Iran's intelligence services begins in 1953, after a coup d'├ętat followed by the gradual accession of Pahlavi. His force was based on the efficiency of the National Intelligence and Security Organization - SAVAK (the abbreviation of Sazeman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar), whose director was under the authority of the prime minister. With Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the new Islamic Guard, more than 700 followers have been initiated in Lebanon and served at the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on 5 May 1979. After 1981, SAVAK was dissolved (61 high rank intelligence officers were killed) but its successor, SAVAMA (Sazman-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Melli-e Iran) took over its responsibilities. It was reorganized by the Military Revolutionary Court in 1984 and became the current intelligence ministry - MOIS.

I. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), known as VEVAK (Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar), is the first domestic civilian intelligence service of the country with approximately 15,000 employees (in 2006). MOIS is a ministry of the government and the director of this service is a minister in the government of the country, under the authority of the President. Thus, the Iranian President, elected by people's vote and approved by the clerics, has considerable powers over the intelligence activities of MOIS. The minister of intelligence is a member of the Supreme National Security Council and is always a cleric, which means that the Supreme Leader has a great influence in his appointment and closely watches his performances.

MOIS officers are recruited only from the Shiites, true believers of the doctrine "velayat-e-faqih". According to STRATFOR sources, their loyalty is often tested during their training in the centers form the north of Teheran and Qom. Before training, all the recruits are thoroughly "cleared out", which, in most of the cases refers to the careful check up of their past, performed by counterintelligence officers. After training, intelligence officers are sent to undercover posts, as it happens with all the intelligence services in the world. Iran has important intelligence departments in all its foreign missions and embassies. Foreign agents can hold official positions within MOIS and IRGC and they are recruited mostly from other Muslim communities. To this purpose, there are special departments of MOIS that recruit agents from the Persian Gulf, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Europe, South and East Asia, North and South America.

The domestic responsibilities of MOIS are more important than the foreign ones. In fact, IRGC has taken over most of the domestic security and MOIS maintained a few collateral responsibilities. For example, MOIS officers supervise the ethnical minorities from Iran and infiltrate within secret demonstrations and protests. They have in view mostly Balochi, Kurds, Azeri and Arabs and, according to STRATFOR, they try to identify the dissidents. Another domestic MOIS mission is to monitor drug trafficking though the organization is less involved in narcotics than the IRGC.

The foreign operations of MOIS in the gathering of intelligence are done according to the methodology of SAVAK, learned from the CIA and Mossad. MOIS also performs misinformation campaigns, learned from the KGB after the Islamic revolution. The priorities of MOIS in foreign operations are: to monitor, infiltrate and control dissident Iranian groups; to initiate connections and networks for an increased influence; to carry out terrorist and military operations; to identify any type of foreign threat, especially the ones connected to Iran's nuclear program and presently focusing on Israel and USA; to disseminate false intelligence (misinformation) in order to protect Iran and its future interests; to acquire new technologies for defense as well as spare parts for the existing equipment.

Iran's misinformation operations have a wide range of manifestations. They are called "nefaq" - which means discord in Arabic, and are used in order to discredit reformist and opposition groups from other countries as well as to draw attention and create confusion within foreign powers about the Iranian military and intelligence capacities.

The foreign responsibilities of MOIS also included the assassination of dissidents abroad but, presently, this responsibility has reduced. New responsibilities occurred, referring to subversive activities and the export of revolutions abroad. Iran currently extends its connections with groups from Algeria and with the Taliban group from Afghanistan. Despite the ideological differences, they use similar tactics and have common global goals as far as the fight against the non-Islamist influence is concerned.
The present Iranian minister of intelligence is Heidar Moslehi, a former IRGC officer. He was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the elections and protests from June 2009, being a close ally of the current President.

II. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is called in Arabic "Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami", namely "The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps". It is Iran's second intelligence service. According to STRATFOR, it is as powerful as MOIS and possibly even more powerful than the other service. IRGC was founded in 1979 by a decree issued by Ayatollah Khomeini as a guard of the new regime. According to Article 150 from the Constitution of Iran, IRGC operates as a "guarantor of the Revolution and of its achievements". For that purpose, the Supreme Leader placed under political control all the levels of the organization.

This Iranian intelligence and security service comprises three elements: the Quds Force, the Intelligence Office and the Basij Force. From the point of view of its organization, IRGC is more like a military force than a security and intelligence service since it includes air forces, navy forces and ground forces. At the same time, IRGC is a social, political and business organization, which, according to STRATFOR, can be identified in the entire Iranian society, produces a large number of political and business leaders and is involved in various domains from the Iranian economy. The intelligence departments of IRGC appear to be more active at a domestic level while at an international level, the Quds Force is the key operational group. After KGB, this group could be the most efficient group in subversive operations. The IRGC holds a singular position - an elite military organization with major intelligence capabilities - and therefore it is regarded as the military backbone of the state. Before 1984, when MOIS was completed, the IRGC was the most active Iranian intelligence organization both within the country and abroad. After the creation of MOIS, IRGC remained in the "shadow" of the intelligence organization, with a security division that operates mostly as a unit of domestic intelligence by monitoring and arresting dissidents and separatists and sending them to prisons controlled by IRGC.

The Quds Force is one of the elements of IRGC that performs undercover foreign operations. It is known as the organization "beyond frontiers" (Birun Marzi) or "The Department 9000". The force was created by Article 154 from the Constitution of Iran. The word "al-Quds" is the Arab name of Jerusalem and the name given to the force refers to the fact that one day it will liberate the holy city. The operations of the force are led by the General Staff of the Quds Force for the Export of the Revolution, a group that includes numerous directorates responsible for operations in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, North Africa, the Arabic Peninsula, the former Soviet nations, western countries including the United States of America, France, Germany and Holland. According to STRATFOR, the Quds Force also performs counseling operations in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Ethiopia. One of the most important missions of IRGC - the Quds Force is to train Hezbollah's special operations department, which is the elite force of the movement. In the recent years, the Ouds Force deployed important operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The intelligence element - the Intelligence Office of IRGC - (Ettalaat-e-Pasdaran) had 2,000 personnel (in 2006, but the number of personnel is on an ascending route). This element of the IRGC is responsible for the security of the Iranian nuclear program. This means that it monitors all scientists, leads the security forces from the nuclear installations, provides guard against sabotages and performs counterintelligence operations in order to prevent the recruit of Iranian nuclear scientists by other countries. The other activities of the Intelligence Department of IRGC are not clear. Apparently, they also include the coordination of intelligence gathering by another element of IRGC - the Basij Force - for domestic security and for the foreign operations of the Quds Force.

The Basij Force is the instrument used by IRGC to implement domestic security measures. The Basij Force also contributes to the gathering of intelligence. Its name comes from "Niruyeh Moghavemat Basij", meaning "The Mobilization and Resistance Force" and it was founded in 1980. At the beginning of the war between Iran and Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree that stipulated that boys older than 12 can serve in the line of duty. Many of these young men were used in suicidal attacks, in human defense or as human mine detectors. Out of a total number of 3 million Basij members that fought in the war between Iran and Iraq, tens of thousands died and those who survived became IRGC agents. It is the case of the current President Ahmadinejad, a former member of Basij and former agent of IRGC. If IRGC is considered to be an elite military force with highly-trained personnel, the Basij Force is more like a paramilitary force of amateurs whose members are almost entirely untrained civilian volunteers, grouped into a large number of units, ranging from surveillance units to a certain type of National Guard. According to the special report issued by STRATFOR in 2006, Hussein Hamadani, the commander of Basij, proudly sustains that the militia has immense intelligence sources, the so-called "36-million intelligence network".

The structure of Basij is slightly similar with the structure of a communist party from certain totalitarian states. There are several levels of society: every Iranian city of a considerable size is divided into two "areas" or "regions" whereas in the small Iranian towns and villages there are "cells" organized as social, religious and governmental bodies. There are also Basij units for students, workers and members of the tribes. Basij also created "Ashura Brigades" for men and "al-Zahra Brigades" for women. As far as their involvement is concerned, the members of Basij are considered to be "permanent", "active" and "special". Their recruitment is done by local mosques by informal selection committees of the local leaders. The leaders of the mosques are considered to be the most influential members of the committees.

According to GlobalSecurity, Basij had 90,000 active members and 300,000 reserves in 2005 with the possibility to augment these troops to 1 million people or more. Due to its success, the force clearly established its role and, de facto, is considered to be the domestic police force of the regime. Iran's official police (Law Enforcement Forces - LEF) could not handle the protests from Ashura in December 2009 and Ayatollah Khomeini was forced to assign missions to Basij Force, being more appropriate to the situation due to the devotion of its members. Nevertheless, the Basij Force is highly adaptable to all existing conditions and to all possible dangers. They are also very familiar to operation areas because the members of the force originated from many of these areas. Consequently, the Basij Force acts promptly and proves increased flexibility in all its missions. STRATFOR analysts consider that since IRGC is said to have a wide range of Basij informers, it turned into "the 911 security force of Iran, capable of gathering intelligence and responding to any incident, at any moment in order to provide safety to the regime"
According to Wikipedia, the current commander of the Basij Force is Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi (since 2009).

From what we have presented above we understand that MOIS and IRGC are parallel intelligence and security services which, although are opposed at a bureaucratic level, ultimately serve for the same purpose: to support the criticized regime from Teheran.

III. Military intelligence. Similar to all the conventional military forces, Iran's conventional armed forces (Artesh) have their own joint military intelligence capability. The structure under discussion is J2 and it is responsible for traditional tactical intelligence, having personnel and officers from all the services of the armed forces, including IRGC and certain law enforcement entities. J2 is also responsible for all the operations of planning, intelligence and counterintelligence, the security of the armed forces and the coordination of intelligence in all the regular services, fighting units of IRGC and police units that have been assigned with military responsibilities.
IV. The Ministry of Interior and the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) also represent other components of Iran's intelligence and security services. The Ministry of the Interior subordinates Iran's police forces, officially founded in 1991, when the urban police of the country, the rural gendarmerie and the revolutionary committees have merged. According to the Iranian law, the Law Enforcement Forces have personnel of 40,000 people and they are officially responsible for domestic and frontier security. In time, these services focused on basic police operations and serve as the first line of defense while the Basij Force is primarily responsible for the suppression of civilian revolts.

In conclusion, Iran's intelligence and security forces represent a conglomerate of civilian, military and paramilitary organizations whose responsibilities are complementary and coincide to a very large extent, which could lead to the idea that none of these services is in complete control over the domain.

The priorities of the Iranian intelligence and security system seem to be directed towards the maintenance of domestic stability, the surveillance of foreign powers that could threaten Iran, the warning over possible actions and redirecting attention from them as well as the procurement of better defense capabilities. As we can notice from Iran's domestic and foreign actions from the recent years, the accomplishment of these priorities depends on the President of the country and on a reduced group of people loyal to the system and it does not have rational limitations. The pressures of the international community and of the global and regional security organizations do not appear to have any of the expected results. An operation under force similar to the one from Iraq taken against the regime from Teheran would not have positive results either. However, the pressures of the international community are far from being played out and we hope that the situation in the region will return to a normal development and Iran will integrate itself in the general development of the international community.