Iran’s primary intelligence agencies, the MOI and IRGC-IO, have participated in assassinations and terror attacks, both domestically and internationally, and facilitated repression of religious and political dissenters. Nevertheless, given the slate of Iranian officials who have died in recent years in Iran proper and the strikes inside the country targeting nuclear, drone, and missile bases, the intelligence services still suffer from counterintelligence and security difficulties, and are not omnipotent.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the MOI in 2012 for its role in domestic human rights abuses, material support for terrorist groups, and for advising Syria’s Assad regime on technical aspects of suppressing the Syrian opposition. The previous intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, was designated by OFAC in November 2020 for his role in Iran’s human rights abuses and suppression of the November 2019 protest movement. The current intelligence minister, Esmail Khatib, has not yet been sanctioned although the MOI’s malign conduct has continued unabated throughout his tenure. The Treasury Department sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety in October 2017, and designated IRGC-IO head Hossein Taeb in 2010 for human rights abuses. Iran’s supreme leader’s deputy chief of staff in charge of intelligence and security Asghar Mir-Hejazi has also been sanctioned.
Although the MOI and IRGC have been targeted by sanctions for years, the scale and scope of their continued malign conduct indicate that sanctions have thus far been insufficient to compel changes in Iran’s behavior. Sanctions should be ratcheted up to a degree that compels debate within the regime over whether it can risk further destabilization by carrying on in the same vein. If sanctions alone are insufficient, the US should pursue law enforcement, intelligence, and policy coordination with allies to disrupt Iran’s malign intelligence activities.
In May 2019, IRGC commander Hossein Salami praised Iran’s intelligence organizations, declaring, “Today, we are engaged in a serious, global round-the-clock intelligence war with enemies. He likened the MOI and IRGC-IO to “the two sharp eyes” of the Islamic Revolution which “complement each other on the battlefield.”
Salami’s comments were an attempt to paper over the complex interplay between Iran’s two main intelligence branches, one of the key bureaucratic and political power struggles in Iran today. Both agencies serve the domestic and foreign policy imperatives of the supreme leader and the revolutionary regime, but the IRGC-IO’s greater portfolio and authority in recent years are indicative of the weakened position of Iran’s president and elected government relative to unelected security, clerical, and economic leaders connected through patronage to Supreme Leader Khamenei. With the ascension of Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency, Khamenei’s hardline ideological allies are positioned for a complete takeover of Iran’s elected and unelected power centers, cementing the IRGC as the dominant force in Iran for years to come. Iran is therefore likely to accelerate its repressive, confrontational trajectory, and its intelligence apparatus shows no signs of curtailing its malign domestic, regional, and international conduct in furtherance of preserving and expanding the Islamic Revolution at home and abroad.