Iran’s Malign Intelligence Activities

Malign Domestic Activities

Iran's intelligence agencies are concerned first and foremost with preserving Iran’s internal stability, which they achieve primarily through repression and cultivating a climate of fear and intimidation. The Islamic Republic’s regime perceives the main threats to Iran’s revolutionary order as stemming from ethnic separatist movements and political dissident movements. Since the controversial 2009 election, which saw Khamenei and his principlist backers blame the MOI for failing to prevent and adequately crack down upon the Green Movement protests, the MOI has largely ceded responsibility for domestic security to the IRGC’s intelligence apparatus. While the IRGC has taken the lead, both organizations continue their efforts to surveil and harass ethnic and political opposition, to exert domination over the media landscape, and increasingly, to tighten the regime’s control over cyberspace. While it is not possible to fully prevent the proliferation of new technologies such as Telegram and other social media tools that Iran’s citizens use to circumvent censorship and mobilize against the regime, Iran has worked to ensure that the only social media applications that work properly are those that they can electronically infiltrate.

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Combating Ethnic and Religious Dissent

One of the primary challenges facing Iran’s revolutionary regime is maintaining unity in a nation fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines. While Iran is commonly perceived as a Shia Muslim and Persian nation and its ruling regime governs on this basis, in actuality, only around 60% of Iran’s population are ethnically Persian. Roughly 8% of the population is Sunni. Iran’s ruling regime views the country’s ethnic diversity as a weakness and therefore seeks to enforce control by imposing its revolutionary religious ideology and ethnic nationalism on its variegated populace.

 

Iran is unique in that its 80 million people are largely concentrated in mountain regions, as its lowlands are largely uninhabitable. Iran’s mountainous terrain provides a natural buffer for the country’s large numbers of ethnic groups seeking to retain their distinctive cultures and characteristics and resist absorption and assimilation efforts by the centralized state.

 

Some of Iran’s non-Persian citizens regularly face political and economic discrimination and human rights abuses from Tehran. Minority communities on the country’s periphery, such as Iran’s Kurdish, Arab, and Baloch provinces are largely administered by outsiders, lag behind the industrialized core economically, suffer from uneven distribution of welfare and social services, and are subject to harsher applications of justice and a disproportionate number of executions. This state of affairs fuels anger against the central government, providing ideal conditions for subversion and ethnic separatist movements to flourish.

 

Despite the patina of rights provided by parliamentary representation, Iran treats demands for equality from its ethnic and religious minority populations as a threat to national security, and Iran’s typical response to outward expressions of discontent is repression. One of the core duties of MOI officers is to “surveil and infiltrate Iran's ethnic minorities, especially the Baluchs, Kurds, Azeris and Arabs, in search of dissident elements.”

 

Iran’s intelligence services play a role in upholding a state policy known as gozinesh, which forms the basis of state discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, preventing them from full participation in Iranian civil life. Gozinesh is an ideological selection procedure that requires Iranian citizens to declare and demonstrate allegiance to Islam, the Islamic Republic, and velayat-e faqih as a prerequisite to becoming a state official or public sector employee. In many instances, the gozinesh process is also used to prevent minorities from opportunities in the private sector and from furthering their education. Intelligence officials from the MOI and IRGC are reportedly tasked with conducting ideological purity tests of minority citizens seeking things such as permits to open a business or a place in a public university, denying those who are determined to be insufficiently loyal.

 

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom, Iran’s government “continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahais, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities and regulated Christian religious practices closely.” The report indicates that Iran’s revolutionary regime views all religious expression that deviates from the official state-sanctioned Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as threatening its grip on power, and frequently uses the intelligence services for intimidation purposes. The regime is particularly harsh when it comes to allegations of proselytization by religious minorities.

 

Among the report’s findings, MOI harassment and intimidation of Sunni clerics in Kurdish provinces led the Council of Sunni Theologians of Iran to suspend its operations in July 2017. The state puts up barriers to the construction of Sunni mosques, driving Sunnis “underground” to ad-hoc prayer rooms and rented spaces. Intelligence and security officials regularly raid these unauthorized sites. Intel officials reportedly sealed one of the nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran in June 2017, preventing its 1000 regular attendees from praying there.

 

Sufis have similarly been largely driven underground by Iran’s clerical regime. Numerous abuses at the hands of Iranian intelligence services have been documented, including arbitrary arrests and attacks on Sufi places of worship. MOI agents stand accused of keeping detained Sufis in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, harsh interrogations, and limiting bathroom usage and feedings to once a day. An August 2017 report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran further found that Sufi university students and professors were “reportedly victims of attacks carried out by security forces and subjected to threats by the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards.”

 

Bahá’ís and Christians face similar persecution by the regime and its intelligence services. Considered the most persecuted of all of Iran’s religious minorities, the Bahá’í are routinely victimized because their beliefs are perceived as “deviant” and entirely contrary to Shi'a Islam as interpreted by the Iranian theocracy. Since 1979, Iranian authorities have killed more than 2,000 Bahá’í leaders, arrested and imprisoned thousands more, and dismissed more than 10,000 Bahá’í from government and university jobs. The Bahá’í are subject to arbitrary arrest, officially for “security reasons,” because government officials claim they are “an organized establishment linked to foreigners, the Zionists in particular.”

Evin Prison. Evin Prison.

MOI and IRGC intelligence agents reportedly conducted frequent raids targeting Bahai homes and businesses. As of September 2017, 97 Bahais were imprisoned by the Iranian clerical regime on the basis of their professed faith and at least 15 of the prisoners were transferred to a prison section “equipped with added security features, including surveillance cameras and microphones in toilets and showers.” MOI agents arrested a prominent Bahá’í singer upon returning to Iran from a concert tour in Europe for allegedly celebrating the life of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Bahai religion. The singer was charged with “propaganda against the state,” “disturbing public opinion” and “membership in the illegal Bahai organization.” He was held in solitary confinement for a month in the MOI’s wing, Ward 209, in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, and was interrogated 20 times for three to four hours at a time during his ordeal.

The regime is apprehensive over the growing – yet still less than one percent – number of Christians in Iran, which it fears may influence Muslims to convert (in Iran, a Muslim that converts away from Islam is an apostate that faces the death penalty). IRGC and MOI intelligence agents have arrested hundreds of Iranian Christians since the 1979 revolution. Christians in Iran have been driven largely underground by the regime’s harassment and persecution regime. Official reports and state media have characterized the networks of house churches that have arisen to serve Christian communities as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Authorities have moved to close churches and restrict Farsi-language services, only nominally permitting worship in the Armenian and Assyrian languages.

The government is especially suspicious of Protestant and evangelical groups, which the state does not recognize as Christian. According to the State Department, evangelicals, particularly converts from Islam face “disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance.” Both MOI agents and plainclothes IRGC intelligence officers have raided and arrested worshippers attending services at home churches in the past several years.

Combating Political Dissent

In addition to repression of religious minorities, one of the primary preoccupations of Iran’s civilian and IRGC intelligence services is stifling reformist/counterrevolutionary political dissent. In the immediate post-revolutionary period, the IRGC took the lead in cracking down on MEK, communist, and pro-monarchical violent counterrevolutionary elements. The regime ultimately purged thousands of prisoners, the majority of whom were MEK members, over a five month period in 1988. A four-man judicial panel was tasked with administering the executions, and the MOI’s representative at Evin prison, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was one of the members of the so-called “death committee.” Pourmohammadi would go on to serve as President Rouhani’s minister of justice during his first term in office. Ebrahim Raisi, the main principlist presidential candidate in 2017 and a possible potential successor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, served on the panel as well.

“Chain Murders”

With the MEK, communist, and pro-monarchical threats minimized or driven outside Iran’s borders, the next challenge facing Iran’s intelligence apparatus was confronting calls for more political and cultural openness by the reformist camp. During the years 1988-1998, more than 80 prominent writers, dissidents, and intellectuals outspokenly critical of the velayat-e faqih regime were killed or died in suspicious circumstances. The deaths, spread out over the course of a decade, were carried out in a variety of ways and were designed to be seemingly unrelated.

 

The first apparent victim of the killings was Dr. Kazem Sami Kermani, an Islamic nationalist politician and physician who opposed the Shah, and later, the Islamic Republic. Sami served as health minister in the provisional post-revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, resigning his post when Bazargan stepped down. He was then elected to the first majles (parliament), where he criticized the Islamic Republic and Khomeini’s policies. In 1982, Sami penned an open letter to Khomeini castigating him for not ending the Iran-Iraq War. Sami was murdered by an axe-wielding assailant posing as a patient in his medical clinic in November 1988.

 

In 1990, a religious intellectual critical of the regime’s ideological innovations to Shiism was summoned to the MOI for questioning and was not heard from again until his body was found on a rural road with a bullet in the head. In December 1994, a Christian apostate sentenced to death was released by Iran due to an international outcry, only to be found dead seven months later. A group of 134 writers published an open letter in 1994 calling for the abolition of censorship; many of the signatories subsequently died in mysterious circumstances. Other apparent victims died in suspicious car accidents, falls from high buildings, and heart attacks (which were later found to be brought on by injections of air or other toxins). One such heart attack victim was Ahmad Khomeini, the Ayatollah’s youngest son who went into cardiac arrest in March 1995 at the age of 49. Ahmad Khomeini’s death occurred a month after he gave a speech criticizing the regime’s principlist backers.

 

Finally, in late 1998, a series of connected murders known as the “chain murders” took place which led to the exposure of the MOI’s role in the decade-long serial killing of intellectuals and dissidents. After Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered the closure of a reformist daily newspaper and the arrest of its employees as “enemies of God,” a group of journalists moved to form a writers association. The leaders of the effort were summoned to the Tehran public prosecutor for interrogation in October 1998 and over the next two months, five writers tied to the association were violently killed. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami formed a committee to investigate the murders and it was discovered that Saeed Emami, the deputy intelligence minister when the killings took place, led a team of intelligence agents who carried out the “chain murders” as well as most, if not all, of the roughly 80 suspicious deaths during the prior decade. Emami had carried out several of the murders himself, including that of Ahmad Khomeini, according to the military prosecutor who tried his case.

 

The MOI was forced to issue an unprecedented statement affirming its role in the targeted assassination campaign, but it sought to portray the killings as the actions of rogue elements. The MOI’s January 1999 acknowledgement pinned the blame on “a small number of irresponsible, misguided, headstrong and obstinate staff within the Ministry of Intelligence, who are no doubt under the influence of rogue undercover agents and acting towards the objectives of foreign and estranged sources when committing these criminal acts.”

 

The time period of the serial killings coincided with a concerted targeted assassination campaign against Iranian dissidents abroad, leading many to believe that the domestic and external killings were linked. Investigative reporting by Iranian journalists Akbar Ganji and Emad Baghi revealed that many prominent figures in the regime had knowledge of and backed the “chain murders,” including former President Rafsanjani and his intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian. Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who would later serve as intelligence minister during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term, was involved as well, according to Ganji.

 

Emami and his subordinates in the assassination ring were imprisoned when their culpability came to light. In June 1999, Emami died by suicide while in regime custody, by ingesting a hair-removal cream, according to official reports. However, according to famed Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer for one of the families killed in the chain murders, the compound variant sold in Iran that Emami allegedly ingested would not have been lethal. The suspicious nature of Emami’s death has led to speculation that he was killed to cover up knowledge of the actual masterminds of the chain murders or knowledge of other MOI operations that could have implicated high-ranking regime officials.

 

The regime went on to target the journalists who played a part in exposing the systematic campaign of assassinations of regime critics and the involvement of higher-ranking officials. Emad Baghi served a three- year prison sentence for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic" and "divulging state secret information." Akbar Ganji served six years in Evin prison. He alleged during his trial that during his pre-trial detention, he had suffered torture and abuse by guards, was placed in solitary confinement for three months, and was denied visitation by his family and lawyers. Authorities banned three reformist newspapers – Salam, Khordad, and Sobh-e Emrooz – for reporting details of the chain murders period. The editor of Khordad was jailed for three years and Saeed Hajjarian, the editor of Sobh-e Emrooz, survived an assassin’s bullet to the face in March 2000 that left him wheelchair-bound for life. The assassination attempt seemed to indicate that the remnants of the intelligence community behind the chain murders remained at-large.

 

Following the exposure of the intelligence community’s role in a decade-long assassination campaign inside and outside of Iran, President Khatami fired Fallahian’s successor as intelligence minister, Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, whose appointment had effectively been imposed on him by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Najafabadi had carried on the assassination campaign inaugurated by Fallahian and was in charge of the MOI when it carried out the “chain murders” of 1998. The black eye suffered by the exposure of the targeted assassination campaign led Iran’s intelligence ministry to draw back from pursuing such prominent operations, but its general repression, harassment, and intimidation of dissent continued unabated.

1999 Student Protests

The exposure of the chain murders, the crackdown on reformist news outlets, and general dissatisfaction with President Khatami’s failure to deliver political and social reforms catalyzed an unprecedented protest movement in Iran centered on universities. On July 7, 1999, the regime shuttered the reformist daily Salam, triggering student demonstrations that grew to be the largest witnessed in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

 

The intelligence offices of both the IRGC and the MOI played a leading role in suppression of the 1999 student demonstrations. As the uprising crystallized, IRGC officers sent a letter to President Khatami signaling their intent to crack down on protestors, warning they would not tolerate "hypocrites and opponents...gathering in regiments in the name of 'students.'… "With complete respect and endearment toward His Excellency [Khatami], we declare that our patience has come to an end, and we will not permit ourselves any more tolerance in the face of your inaction."

 

The violence surrounding the 1999 student uprising began during the early morning hours of July 9, 1999. The previous day marked the start of the protests, with groups of Tehran University students peacefully demonstrating against the closure of Salam. Shortly after midnight, around 400 baton wielding anti-riot police and plainclothes MOI operatives stormed a student housing complex of Tehran University and began wantonly attacking students and destroying property. At least five students were killed, some of whom were reportedly thrown off balconies, and 200 were arrested.

 

The dorm room attack catalyzed five days of student-led anti-regime protests which spread to 18 Iranian cities. The protests began losing steam by July 13, by which point the regime had begun conducting widespread arrests among the pro-democracy activists. President Khatami disowned the protests and called for them to end, issuing a statement that the demonstrations were an attack on the foundations of the regime and accusing its leaders of harboring “evil aims.” Despite Khatami’s disavowal, the protestors returned to the street where they were violently confronted by law enforcement, MOI anti-riot special units, and thousands of Ansar-e Hezbollah members. The following day, the regime mobilized tens of thousands of supporters – many who were reportedly government workers given the day off and bussed to Tehran – for a countervailing demonstration and show of force. The counter-protestors succeeded in taking back the streets, and many of the pro-reformist demonstrators who showed up were beaten and/or detained. Notably, current-President Hassan Rouhani, then the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, addressed the counter-protestors, vowing to punish the “rioters” and threatening them with the death penalty.

 

The regime detained at least 1,200–1,400 students during the course of the protests. Some of those detained were beaten and tortured and forced to sign confessions. Several detainees were sentenced to Evin prison and at least one of them, Akbar Mohammadi, died there. Mohammadi was released from Evin in 2004 due to health complications that arose from torture but was rearrested without warning in 2006. He underwent a hunger strike to protest his rearrest and died within a week. Several detained individuals remain missing.

2009 Green Movement Uprising

Women of the 2009 Green Movement Uprising. Women of the 2009 Green Movement Uprising.

After the student protests were pacified, Khamenei and his conservative clerical allies were critical of the MOI for fostering an environment too lenient on dissent. Khatami’s chosen intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, was despised in conservative circles for perceived liberal views, and for seeking to rein in corruption within the MOI. According to a Stratfor analysis, the supreme leader curtailed the MOI’s influence and “gave the IRGC control of the former MOI intelligence officers and networks.” Following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascendance to the presidency, the MOI reestablished its independence under the leadership of intelligence minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a figure suspected of backing the “chain murders” campaign. Ejei oversaw a crackdown on reformist dissent during his tenure.

Despite the ongoing repression of reformists, the 1999 mass student movement crystallized forces in Iran that were not fully purged but lay dormant for a decade. In 2009, the former student movement, in concert with elements of the reformist movement and disaffected middle class Iranians coalesced in the form of the Green Movement, a massive protest movement that formed in response to Ahmadinejad’s victory over reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in a highly irregular election.

The regime was caught off guard by the groundswell of opposition that emerged and was initially slow to react, taking two weeks to develop a strategy to quell the protests. The IRGC’s newly upgraded intelligence organization (see Section 1) was tasked with the leading role in suppressing the Green Movement protests. On the day of protests, the regime would exert the maximum amount of violence without killing protestors to scare people off the street. The Basij Security Directorate, acting under the aegis of the IRGC intel organization, served as the primary authority arresting demonstrators, bringing many to temporary prisons and beating them up violently. The Basij would then release most of the detained protestors, who would go on to warn their family and friends of their mistreatment, slowly reducing the amount of people willing to take the risk. The Basij also shot protesters with live ammunition and rubber bullets, fired tear gas and pepper spray at them, and hit them with clubs, batons, and baseball bats. Over time, the IRGC intelligence organization identified the network nodes of the Green Movement, which was predominantly organized online. The IRGC arrested many of the movement’s leaders and sought to coerce their cooperation by threatening long prison sentences.

The IRGC detained political prisoners in ward 2A of Evin Prison, which it controls and operates in extreme secrecy. According to a Wall Street Journal report, “Lawyers have said the ward is off-limits to prison guards, the judiciary and even the intelligence ministry. Journalists working in Iran during the election protests were warned by the information ministry that the Revolutionary Guard had taken over security. If arrested, reporters were told their contacts at the intelligence ministry wouldn't be able to locate them or help release them.”

The Iranian regime admitted to detaining 4,000 protesters during the 2009 demonstrations. The actual number of detentions remains unknown. Those detained included dissident politicians and clerics, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, students, and other activists. Iran’s chief of police admitted that detainees were tortured, with reports alleging rape, beatings, sleep deprivation, and other atrocities. Several detainees died in custody. With its brutal tactics, the regime effectively suffocated the Green Movement, preventing its reemergence to present day.

Under Hossein Taeb’s leadership, the IRGC intelligence organization’s power has continued to grow since the Green Movement protests were suppressed. Capitalizing on fears of western infiltration, the IRGC intel organization has broadened its interrogation and arrest powers, and subsequently abused its newfound powers to investigate and arrest thousands of Iranian citizens accused of ties to Western intelligence agencies.

Iran’s intelligence agencies moved to tighten their control over Iranians’ Internet access in the wake of the Green Movement protests, which relied heavily on social media (a relatively new phenomenon at the time) for coordination. The IRGC severely curtailed access to mobile communications and the Internet in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. Tehran first shut down internet access entirely and then restored it with diminished bandwidth. Iran also operated filters that blocked access to social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and blocked proxy servers that Iranians used to evade internet controls.

The IRGC’s role in surveillance and Internet censorship has expanded since the 2009 protests. Iran privatized its Internet sector in 2009 and the IRGC used a shell corporation, the Mobin Trust Corporation, to acquire a controlling stake in the Telecommunication Company of Iran, the nation’s primary service provider, giving the IRGC the ability to effectively monitor Iranians’ Internet communications. According to a report in the Journal of Strategic Security, “The IRGC has also launched its own official website, Gerdab, which it uses to track the activities of suspected dissenters and to post public denouncements of them. Moreover, the IRGC also controls the Center for the Surveillance of

Organized Crime and the Working Group for Determining Criminal Content, powerful groups with broad powers to censor and track Internet users, through the IRGC Intelligence Organization’s Cyber Defense Command.”

2017-2018 Protests

In late December 2017, a new Iranian protest movement crystallized as demonstrations broke out in the city of Mashhad over rising inflation and unemployment and spread throughout the country. The demonstrations included elements of previous Iranian protest movements, but also, for the first time, featured many elements that did not previously protest and were assumed to be natural regime supporters, such as low-income families that are dependent on social welfare benefits. The MOI and IRGC intelligence organization both played a role in combatting the unrest. The IRGC sought to block access to the Instagram and Telegram social-media platforms, which Iranians were using to share information about the protests. MOI agents reportedly arrested more than 90 individuals during the protests, primarily university students.

 

Some detainees were reported being held in solitary confinement and denied contact with lawyers, and there were also reports of sentences being handed down based on coerced confessions. A 23 year-old man, Sina Ghanbari, died in custody in Evin prison. Officials claim he hanged himself, but it is impossible to corroborate their version of events. Another protestor, 24 year-old Saro Ghahremani, was arrested at a demonstration in Iran’s Kurdish province. Eleven days later, his corpse was returned to his family showing signs of torture. His father was subsequently forced to issue a coerced confession on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) claiming that his son was part of an outlawed armed Kurdish faction, a charge which his family denies.