Iran’s Malign Intelligence Activities

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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.  

The US 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 current intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, has not yet been designated, 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. 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.

The complex interplay between Iran’s two main intelligence branches is 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 at present, the IRGC-IO’s greater portfolio and authority 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. Despite the ongoing power struggle between the IRGC and MOI, Iran’s 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.