THE SECURITY STRUCTURE THAT UPHOLDS IRANIAN THEOCRACY
When the Shah of Persia was dethroned after the Islamic revolution the hated instrument of repression called Savak ("Sāzemān-e Eṭṭelāʿāt Va Amniyat-e Keshvar", "National Organization for security and information”) disappeared with him. This organization's goal was the elimination of dissidents through the use of torture, brutal interrogations and abuses of all sorts. Right or wrong as it may be, it was considered to be one of the most feared and efficient organizations of the kind in the Middle East. It carried out secret police operations (internally) and intelligence operations (espionage, counter-espionage, covert operations). Its members were trained by the USA and it represented the main support for the monarchy of Pahlavi until its end.
The flight of the Shah and the arrival in Teheran of the Ayatollah Khomeini had determined the dismantlement of the organization and the banishment or assassination of many of its members (esteemed to be between 3 and 5 thousand) that were hiding throughout the country. Some of them were re-utilized to re-create the new security structure.
The dismantlement of the Savak coincided with the constitution of various gevernment security agencies that in the year 1980 were regrouped under the umbrella of the “Ministry of Information and Security” (“MOIS” or “Sazman e Ettela'at Va Amniat e Melli” - therefore the acronym SAVAMA) that, true to the Savak philosophy, adopted its uses and abuses.
The Ministry is – just as the Savak was – a mix between secret police and intelligence service. Hierarchically speaking, it is under the command of the Supreme Council for National Security (CSSN), a council introduced by the constitutional changes of 1989 (article 176). Until that year the council was named Supreme Council of Defense. The CSSN is presided by the President of the Republic, it has its own secretary general and has an ample jurisdiction (i.e. security policy initiatives regarding the internal, foreign, social, economic and cultural life of the country). However, each one of its decisions was subordinated to the specific approval of the Supreme Guide.
Its composition, apart from the aforementioned President of the Republic and the Secretary General (designated by the Supreme Guide), includes many of the top figures of Iran: the President of parliament, the head of the judicial system, the foreign and interior ministers, the director of the MOIS, the heads of the armed forces (upon call if required), the head of the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, the minister of Defense, the inter-force chief of staff (aka the head of the Supreme Council for the Command of the Armed Forces), the head of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran, upon call), the vice-President of the Republic with duties of economic planning, the minister of energy, the minister of scientific research, the vice-supervisor of supplies, the vice-supervisor for the nuclear program, two counsellors (non necessarily deputies designated by the Supreme Guide), the diplomatic representative for the UN, the first vice-President of the Republic and experts in planning and foreign policy.
If substance, all of the government and military articulations are represented in this organization that not only decides, but coordinated as well. It is not a hazard that the nuclear program – presently the object of external threats – is represented within the organization. The CSSN is comprised of several sub-committees according to the issues. In many cases it operates with a lighter configuration, called the “Council of Security” presided by the President of the Republic and assisted by a limited number of political figures.
However, in the field of security, compared to the other structures, the MOIS is first among equals. Thus, on paper, these structures depend upon the MOIS (or operate in its shadow):
- The internal security service
- The foreign security service named Vevak (Vezarat-e Ettela'at Va Amniyat-e Keshvar)
- The intelligence apparatus of the armed forces
- The intelligence service of the Pasdaran
- The intelligence apparatus of the Al Quds (elite militia of the Pasdaran)
- The intelligence apparatus of hte Basiji (paramilitary volunteer structure)
Apart from its espionage activity, the MOIS' duties comprise counter-espionage, internal and foreign security and other activities that have made its infamous reputation: the organization of terrorist activity, the elimination of dissidents both in Iran and abroad, the exportation (violently or not) of the revolution in other countries. All of the above intelligence structures concur in these last three duties, but the most dedicated and efficient in undoubtedly the Vevak (that's why the MOIS is sometimes mistaken for the Vevak) which, differently from other intelligence agencies, is part of the MOIS structure.
Another MOIS also has duties of “procurement”, that is the acquisition of technology and machinery that is mostly used for the development of the nuclear program and in the missile projects (thus the compendium that there is a responsible for such activity within the CSSN). Presently it is an activity of vital importance for a country that is facing sanctions and boycotting.
The Vevak is thus in the full operative availability of the MOIS, yet the other structures are not. The MOIS only provides coordination for the latter. These structures have, in virtue of the internal political balance, a certain level of independence. For instance, the Pasdaran and the Basiji answer to the orders of the Supreme Guide, not to those of the President of the Republic, who is hierarchically speaking in charge of the MOIS.
The Ministry has its head office in Teheran and has important financial means. It's balance is secreted and the structure can count of approximately 4-6000 men (part of whom are Pasdaran) on the national territory and in structures (diplomatic and non) abroad.
Internally speaking the MOIS also administers a few prisons which it uses for its activity of repression against the opposition.
The MOIS is also in charge of censure, disinformation, ideological training, the control and surveillance of foreign diplomats and the control of offices and government personnel. It also has an intelligence academy and administers all of the offices inside the ministry itself.
THE OTHER SECURITY STRUCTURES
The MOIS is no doubt the main structure – or umbrella organization – on which rests the security of Iran, yet there are other organizations that operate in the same field, both within the coordination of the MOIS and outside of it. In 2005 there was a proposal to unite all Iranian intelligence and security structures in a single structure, yet the project was abandoned for two reasons: the fear (and correlated threat) that too much repressive and authoritarian power may be concentrated in a single organization; the interest of various political lobbies – military and religious – to maintain control over their representing structures. Thus, within the operative hierarchy of security that sees the Vevak and the Pasdaran at its head, there operate a myriad of other structures, sometimes together, sometimes pit against each other.
There is Military Intelligence Service that is under the control of the inter-force chief of staff, through the commanders of the various armed forces. It carries out the same activity carried out by similar structures around the globe: military espionage, security of military structures, counter-espionage activity within military units, procurement of equipment and armaments, control of the air and naval traffic in the areas of operative interest (ex. The Gulf, today Syria, yesterday, Iraq), administration of military attachés abroad.
Then there is the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards, a military unit created after the Islamic revolution. The Pasdaran unit (“Sepah and Pasdaran” or “Pāsdārān e Enqelāb”) can count on c.ca 120-140 thousand men and has its own army, navy and aviation. Compared to the other armed forces, the Pasdaran is considered to have a higher level of loyalty to the Iranian regime and especially to the religious hierarchy. It is sometimes described as a sort of religious army. Through their commander, the Pasdaran answer – albeit only virtually – to the inter-force chief of staff. The reality is that they are under the control of the Supreme Guide. According to the constitution (article 150) they are also supposed to act in defense of the revolution. The same is said in the unit's charter from 1980. The Pasdaran control industrial defense structures, preside over the missile program and have become an economic power to be reckoned with, a great power within power. Apart from their military activity, they encompass other, less orthodox, activities: the fight against opposition and dissidents of the regime and the control over police operations tout court.
There are other security structures within the Interior Ministry (Internal security service) that have become more important after the merger, in 1991, of the 3 pre-existing structures: The Gendarmes, the Police and the Komiteh (acronym for “Revolutionary Islamic Committees”, a structure that supports the revolution and that was founded in the time of Khomeini and ratified by parliament in 1983. The Komiteh was initially created within the Mosques and later authorized to operate in the country like a police force in the fight against drugs, opposition groups and “immoral behavior”, thus being a religious police/militia). The Internal security service, together with the Pasdaran, carries out activities of counter-espionage and control over the diplomatic structures with its own special units.
There are also those within the Foreign Ministry that carry out intelligence activity through the diplomatic network and its foreign ramifications. The Ministry works in close contact with the MOIS, has its own analysis and strategic evaluation structure and occasionally provides support for the operations of other organizations (Pasdaran, Basiji, Al Quds) that wish to operate abroad in subversive actions or in the hunt (or rather elimination) of dissidents abroad. In substance the Ministry's role is one of support and complicity in favor of other security structures within the confusing mix between diplomatic and intelligence activity that often plagues totalitarian regimes.
There is the intelligence and security structure of the Basiji, that operates on the national territory together with the Pasdaran. Their operative presence is especially strong within universities, in government offices and in Mosques. Seen as the commander of the Basiji is among the closest collaborators of the Supreme Guide, the security and control activity of this structure follows the direct commands of Khamenei. The Basiji was a paramilitary organization that gained international renown through the martyrdom of many youths that were used to clear mined fields in the war against Iraq. It now exists within the framework of the Pasdaran. The Basiji have inherited from the Komiteh their function of religious police in the fight against so-called “immorality”. In addition to this they have functions of public order (against demonstrations by the opposition), civil defense, religious indoctrination and repression of dissidents. At the local level the Basiji are commanded by the Shia hierarchy (especially the Mullah) and are comprised, in their activity of control/repression, by distinct cells depending on their jurisdiction: university students, public sector, middle school students, etc.
It is difficult to measure the strength of the Basiji in terms of numbers because together with the volunteers there are the full-time members of the organization and the ones (men and women) that operate within the framework of the Pasdaran. The Iranian regimes emphatically attributes a force of about 13 million affiliates to the Basiji, which equals about 20% of the Iranian population. This is both because these numbers demonstrate a strong consensus for the theocracy and because within the ranks of the Basiji are teachers, students, schools and government employees. The roughness of the Basiji is well documented in reports by Amnesty International that speak of abuses, torture, vanishings, beatings and the likes.
It is finally necessary to include in our count, especially regarding police functions, other structures that operate in the control of the masses. We are speaking of true religious police forces (the Basiji are only partially religious) such as the Sarollah (“the path of Allah”), the Jund Allah (“the soldiers of Allah”), the Ya Zehra (from the name of the Shia meditation techniques).
The Al Quds force, elite unite of the Guardians of the Revolution (Pasdaran) is in practice its armed faction used in operations – sometimes dirty ones – conducted especially abroad. Created for the war in Iraq, the Al Quds have been used as an instrument of expansion of the Iranian policy in crisis zones. It allegedly counts about 12-15 thousand units, presently deployed in many countries as armed support, military consultants and for the training of foreign troops (their presence has been reported in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq). Although they are part of the Pasdaran, because of the sensible and dangerous nature of their operations, the Al Quds force has founded its own intelligence service.
Then there are the intelligence services of the armed forces and those of the joint chiefs of staff – commonly called J2 in the international jargon – just like every other country in the world. In Iran they became less important after the destitution of the Shah for whom the armed forces played a vital role. With the advent of Khomeini their role/power was decreased sensibly. This minor role remains such in the present, with their intelligence activity suffering the interference of the Pasdaran, of the Al Quds force and of the Basiji.
AN EVALUATION OF THE SYSTEM
If we count and analyze all of the security structures that work together in supporting the Iranian theocracy we find that there are quite a few of them, each with its operative independence, with different institutional referents, yet all of them with a tendency to report, in most cases, to the Islamic hierarchy. This tendency has been accentuated in time not only to guarantee the power of the Ayatollah, but also to contrast the external threats coming from Israel and, in a hidden form, from the various Sunni regimes of the Gulf. There are thus two specific kinds of threats: internal threat and external threat.
The external threat has made it so that the license to operate on a non-conventional level abroad has been granted to quite a few structures. This could theoretically determine a waste of energies and a lack of coordination. On paper this synergy should be guaranteed by the MOIS, but in fact this doesn't happen because of the political struggle between the main pretenders to the Iranian power: The Supreme Guide Khamenei and the President of the Republic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We aren't speaking of a clash between religious and secular power, because this distinction is quite evanescent in today's Iran, but rather of a clash between two figures who are legitimated one by the religious hierarchy and the other by the popular vote.
Control over the security structures is considered an element that allows the two contenders to exercise their political power with more emphasis or, in its negative connotation, to guarantee their political survival. It is in this context that the diatribe between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad over the head of the MOIS, Heydar Moslehi, began. Moslehi was designated by Ahmadinejad in 2009 at the beginning of his second Presidential term and fired by Ahmadinejad in 2011 only to be later re-installed by Khamenei.
Internally speaking Iran's control over the masses is exercised with instruments of repression rather than through consensus. It is for this reason that each of the contenders tends to have his own instrument of control to be used against that of the other.
The proliferation of Iran's security structures leads us to two more considerations: Iran has become a police state, meaning that the regime does not feel solidly at the helm of power.
The Iranian security structures are very efficient in the control of the national territory (even though with brutal methods). On the foreign front it is lacking, as shown by the recent operations conducted on foreign ground (elimination of dissidents, acts of terrorism, infiltration of subversive organizations, arms trafficking, smuggling of missiles, technology procurement for the nuclear program). The counter-espionage activity of the Iranian security structures also appears to be lacking as shown by the myriad of Iranian scientists killed in the past years (Ardeshir Hosseinpou, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, Madjed Shariari, Darious Rezaeineja, Ahmed Rezai, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Mohammed Esmail Kosari, General Hassan Teherani) as well as by the flight abroad of important figures (General Ali Reza Asgari, scientist Shahram Amiri who then repented) and by the series of attacks that have damaged military and nuclear installations (missile base south of Teheran, explosive cache of Bidganeh, the uranium conversion plan of Isfahan, a metal factory in Yazd involved in nuclear production and the introduction of malware and spyware in the Iranian nuclear computer system).