Esmail Khatib: Islamic Republic of Iran Minister of Intelligence

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In August 2021, the Islamic Consultative Assembly ratified President Ebrahim Raisi’s selection for Minister of Intelligence and Security, Esmail Khatib, a mid-ranking cleric who has attained the title of Hojjat ol-Eslam, which means “proof of Islam.” Khatib has decades of experience in Iran’s civilian intelligence apparatus, holding senior positions in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Judiciary branch’s counter-intelligence department. Khatib’s revolutionary credentials date back to his seminary studies at Qom, where he studied under the disciples of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ali Khamenei was among Khatib’s teachers, and his appointment to the sensitive post of intelligence minister is indicative of their close relationship.   

Early Career

Born in 1961, Khatib began his seminary studies in the holy city of Qom in 1975 or early 1976. An official government account states that he studied under Grand Ayatollah Mojtaba Tehrani, a senior cleric who supported Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers during Tehrani’s funeral in the 2010s, demonstrating that Khamenei held Tehrani in high regard. At some point, Khatib also studied under Khamenei, but it’s not immediately clear when.

Following the 1979 Revolution, Khatib engaged in propaganda activities, and enlisted in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. According to a parliamentary report, he joined the IRGC intelligence and operations unit at the behest of founder Hassan Baqeri. He sustained a severe injury in combat that ended his deployment to the front. Khatib’s brother and brother-in-law were also killed in combat.

In 1985 or early 1986, Khatib joined MOIS, which was established in 1983 and was the premier intelligence service at the time. Parliamentarian Mohsen Zanganeh credited Khatib with overseeing the investigation and prosecution of Mehdi Hashemi, commander of the IRGC Office of Liberation Movement, who was convicted and put to death on charges related to treason in 1987. Hashemi was related through marriage to Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, the designated successor of Khomeini. Hashemi’s conviction led to Montazeri’s ultimate removal from consideration for the post. As scholar Ali Alfoneh has documented in his book “Political Succession in the Islamic Republic,” the networks of then-President and future Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then-Parliament Speaker Akbar Rafsanjani, and Hassan Khomeini, the founder’s son, were behind Montazeri’s removal. Another investigator in the notorious Hashemi case, Qolam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, is the current Judiciary chief. Khatib also appears to have served in the foreign directorate section in various capacities, for instance, as an analyst.

Senior Intelligence Posts

Khatib’s tenure as MOIS Qom Province director was a contentious subject during Parliament ratification debates. One of his detractors, who belongs to the hardline Steadfastness Front faction, accused Khatib of not doing enough to “predict and prevent” the “conspiracies” in Qom seminaries like “non-revolutionary and anti-Revolution” activities. One of his defenders stated that working in intelligence in Qom requires deftness, and credited Khatib and agents for preventing the success of “the Dominant System [West] and internal collaborators so that the anti-thesis of the revolution rises from Qom.” That is a reference to clerics who, for example, support a greater degree of separation between religion and politics.

Khamenei’s trust was further demonstrated when the Supreme Leader approved Khatib’s appointment to the Office of Supreme Leader Protection Organization in 2010. That unit would be in charge of facility and personnel protection for Khamenei’s inner circle. In 2012, then-Judiciary chief Sadegh Amoli Larijani appointed Khatib as director of the Judiciary branch Intelligence Protection Center, one of the intelligence agencies in the Islamic Republic theoretically overseeing Judiciary personnel. However, some critics have pointed out that the intelligence unit was formed without “approval in the Islamic Consultative assembly and outside the authority of the Judiciary branch,” and that it interferes with the duties of the Intelligence Ministry.

Khatib’s tenure in the Judiciary intelligence unit was also the subject of criticism in the Parliament. Critics charged him with failing to do enough regarding prominent corruption cases like that of Akbar Tabari, deputy to former Judiciary branch chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani. After Raisi was selected as Judiciary branch chief in 2019, he led the prosecution of Tabari on corruption charges.

Khatib was appointed Minister of Intelligence and Security in August 2021 under President Ebrahim Raisi's administration. However, appointment to the intelligence ministry post and the ministry’s priorities is a negotiation, at best, between the Presidency and the Office of the Supreme Leader.

A significant difference between Khatib and his predecessor Mahmoud Alavi is that Khatib has actual experience in the ministry. Alavi admitted that he had no intelligence experience when former President Rouhani sought to appoint him. Khatib comes in with the most hands-on experience compared to all past intelligence ministers. In addition to the above-mentioned intelligence roles, Khatib formerly served as head of security at Astan Quds Razavi, a wealthy endowment in charge of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.

Khatib’s tenure as Minister of Intelligence and Security comes amid questions swirling significant intelligence failures in recent years, namely the assassination of military commander and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and sabotages against nuclear facilities, acts carried out by Israel, which led to a blame game between MOIS and the IRGC.

On September 9, 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Khatib pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13694, a presidential mandate that expressly authorizes the U.S. government to sanction individuals engaging in malicious cyber activities. Under Khatib's leadership, the Treasury Department determined that “the MOIS directs several networks of cyber threat actors involved in cyber espionage and ransomware attacks in support of Iran’s political goals.” The press release also stated that the Iran-sponsored threat actors have engaged in attacks against the U.S. government, private sector organizations, and critical infrastructure. The MOIS was also, at the same time, designated under E.O. 13694.

The catalyst for these sanctions appeared to be multiple rounds of Iran-sponsored cyberattacks against Albania, including against the government’s computer systems. However, the MOIS’s involvement in malign cyber operations has long been on the U.S. government’s radar. In September 2020, APT39—another entity owned or controlled by MOIS—was designated under E.O. 13553.

In addition to these sanctions, the U.S. government announced another round of sanctions against Khatib on September 22, 2022. Alongside Iran’s Morality Police and its senior leaders, Khatib was added to the Treasury’s list of individuals designated under E.O. 13553, which targets human rights offenders. (The MOIS was already designated under this authority in February 2012). The human rights designations were a response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman in the Morality Police’s custody for improper hijab when she was beaten into a coma. She is mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the Treasury’s press release.

As the Minister of Intelligence, Khatib also fulfills propaganda aims. He disseminates the view that the protests in Iran are the result of enemy infiltration. This narrative likely does not pacify the anti-regime movement because participants in the movement do not view the West as the enemy. The protesters view their rulers as the chief obstacle to a better life. In response, Khatib has framed those opposed to the regime’s conspiratorial narratives as agents of the West, particularly the U.S. To the extent his statements sway popular opinion in Iran, this narrative pits staunchly anti-Western regime supporters against proponents of secular democracy. It also justifies a harsh crackdown against protesters, because they can be charged with committing treason in seeking to overthrow the revolutionary government.

Khatib has also blamed Saudi Arabia for the unrest, saying in November 2022 that Iran’s “strategic patience” was running out and that it may decide to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for its support for the protest movement. Khatib’s complaint was elucidated in an interview published on Tasnim news, where he said that Saudi Arabia provides the “expenditures” for the anti-regime movement and backs “the London-Saudi-American [media] trio (BBC Persian, Saudi International, and Manato).” Iran has long harbored suspicions of Saudi news media, including the London-based Iran International, a major source of news programming for anti-regime protesters in Iran, which allegedly receives Saudi funding. According to some reports, Saudi Arabia might reduce content critical of the regime as part of the March 2023 Chinese-brokered normalization of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet, no indication exists that Iran International has changed its journalistic practices.

Finally, Khatib has regularly accused Israel of running intelligence operations in the country to undermine the regime. In May 2023, Khatib said that an Israeli-linked “terrorist group” had been apprehended near the western borders of Iran, though the circumstances were not immediately clear. The arrests were nothing new, as the MOIS regularly targets Kurdish opposition groups near the border with Iraq. In particular, in July 2022, Khatib singled out the Komala Party as “a mercenary of the Zionist regime.”

What We Can Expect From Khatib

Khatib detailed his top four priorities as Minister of Intelligence in briefing the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. He pledged to “intelligently confront” the “main partners and movements of economic, social, culture, etc. corruption.” Accordingly, under Khatib’s leadership, the MOIS has increased its violence against activists, journalists, and members of religious minority communities. Secondly, Khatib proposed to make “maximum use of revolutionary forces in the ministry with priority of revolutionary and hezbollahi [phrase for Islamic Republic supporters];” to “strengthen and activate hidden diplomacy for effective intelligence exchange, increase the system’s strategic depth and influence with allied countries inside and outside the region, and support Islamic movements, Hezbollah, and cooperate with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps Quds Force to strengthen the Resistance Front.” He also vowed to confront “the infiltrating movement in the government especially the country’s sensitive and vital centers and sites.”

In his speech in the Parliament, Khatib called for “transformation in the hidden intelligence formations” and for the ministry to “produce intelligence and oversight in providing security and awareness in monitoring all aspects of complex and various security layers at the national, regional, and global levels.” In recent years, the ministry has been weakened compared to the IRGC Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO). Overlapping responsibilities between MOIS and IRGC-IO have led to clashes that have spilled into the public. For example, MOIS disagreed with IRGC-IO when it arrested several environmentalists on espionage charges.

Khatib has cultivated deeper trust in Khamenei and his office, which have a symbiotic relationship with the IRGC. It remains unclear how Khatib would navigate the power struggle between the Islamic Republic’s competing intelligence organizations, but it would be hard to imagine the IRGC-IO losing ground anytime soon. In theory, Khatib could try to reduce friction between MOIS and IRGC-IO to increase efficiency in the face of external and internal threats, but overlapping responsibility inevitably leads to some fighting.

At a meeting convened by the Supreme Leader on June 16, 2023, several top-ranking military and intelligence officials gathered to discuss the interagency competition, hoping to reduce friction. Khatib called for joint strategies and information sharing between his ministry and the IRGC-IO. The MOIS’s mandate—in short, to preserve and protect the Islamic Republic of Iran—also overlaps with the IRGC’s hardline mission, so cooperation in some areas between the intelligence agencies is possible. The MOIS likely took on new responsibilities with regard to Iran’s regional proxy and partner network, particularly after Qassem Soleimani’s death in January 2020, though this is generally the IRGC’s purview. While the IRGC’s Quds Force takes the lead in building up its proxy and partner’s military capabilities, especially in Iraq and Syria, the MOIS may take on a supportive role.