Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO)
(Sazeman hefazat va ettela’at-e sepah-e pasdaran-e enghelab-e eslami, SHE)
The IRGC Intelligence Organisation (IRGC-IO) was created by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 1997 after the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami and the presidency has no control over this institution. Amid the protests against the contested presidential election in 2009, Khamenei expanded the organization’s powers.
An April 2018 article by Radio Farda, the Persian-language broadcaster at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), notes that the IRGC-IO is “closely tied to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” and “operates parallel to President Hassan Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry” (Radio Farda, 22 April 2018). A November 2015 article of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) provides an historical overview of the IRGC Intelligence Organisation (IRGC-IO) [called “IRGC Intelligence Directorate” up to 2009, remark by ACCORD]:
“The IRGC-IO was established by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1997 after the election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami as an alternative organization with functions that parallel the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The IRGC-IO has largely taken over domestic security, though MOIS shares responsibilities for actively thwarting reformists and preventing internal unrest. Shortly after its establishment, the IRGC-IO appears to have been instrumental in suppressing the 1999 student uprisings. […]
"After the contested 2009 presidential elections, Khamenei directed a major reorganization that expanded the IRGC-IO’s intelligence and security powers. In July 2009, Khamenei appointed regime loyalist and close confidant Hossein Taeb, formerly MOIS deputy commander of counterintelligence (1989-1997) and commander of the paramilitary Basij (2008-2009), to head the IRGC-IO. Taeb had been Khamenei’s student in the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and befriended Khamenei’s son during the Iran-Iraq War.” (WINEP, 25 November 2015)
Increasingly, Taeb became Khamenei’s enforcer given his direct access to and personal ties with the Supreme Leader. Under Taeb’s leadership, the IRGC-IO has arrested and interrogated thousands of Iranians accused of being part of a Western-fomented ‘velvet revolution’ to topple the Islamic Republic. The IRGC-IO used the threat of Western infiltration to justify broadening its interrogation and arrest powers, increasing its supervisory role over the media, and tightening regime control of cyberspace. As a senior MOIS official, Taeb developed a reputation as one of the regime’s most violent interrogators of counterrevolutionary and ‘seditionist’ elements.
A June 2015 article of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) (authored by Ali Alfoneh), states that Taeb was appointed head of the IRGC Intelligence Directorate in October 2009 after overseeing the violent crackdown on anti-government protests earlier the same year as commander of the Basij Resistance Force. According to the article, this reflected the Supreme Leader’s dissatisfaction with the Ministry of Intelligence’s “inability to prevent the unrest” (FDD, 19 June 2015). At the same time, “Khamenei issued an edict promoting the IRGC intelligence apparatus to the level of an organization practically on par with the government’s Intelligence Ministry” (Radio Farda, 22 April 2018). The Intelligence Directorate was thus renamed “IRGC Intelligence Organisation” (FDD, 19 June 2015).
A May 2018 CRS report even states that in 2009, the Supreme Leader “gave the IRGC’s intelligence units greater authority, surpassing that of the Ministry of Intelligence.” (CRS, 23 May 2018, p. 19)
The November 2015 WINEP article points to the “IRGC-IO’s lack of accountability to normal government oversight”. It is also noted that there is a “longstanding bureaucratic rivalry” between the IRGC-IO and the MOI. While President Rouhani has control over the MOI and appoints its senior ranks, the president “exerts no authority over the IRGC-IO or the IRGC commander”. (WINEP, 25 November 2015)
In a May 2018 interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), Walter Posch states that the IRGC has an intelligence organization of its own which acts in a very independent manner and over which even the IRGC Commander has very limited control as it reports directly to the Office of the Supreme Leader (DW, 11 May 2018). As noted by Saeid Golkar in his 2015 book Captive Society, “the intelligence branch of the IRGC’s activities has increased dramatically since 2009” (Golkar, 2015, p. 90).
As the same article notes, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated in September 2015 that no other organisation bears the “institutional responsibility to protect the Islamic Revolution like the IRGC” and called on the IRGC-IO to “constantly monitor all issues and identify threats” to the existing political order. Later the same year, the IRGC-IO “led the investigation and subsequent arrest of Iranians accused of ties to Western intelligence agencies” and “spearheaded a drive against a ‘new wave of sedition,’ arguably the largest state crackdown since 2009”:
“It has arrested at least nine journalists, activists, and businessmen. On October 16, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency reported that Gerdab -- an outlet of the IRGC-IO’s cyber division used to publish pictures and identify protestors during the 2009 crackdown -- had arrested another 170 individuals associated with social media websites accused of spreading anti-regime propaganda.” (WINEP, 25 November 2015)
The same article goes on to say that “[t]he Taeb-led IRGC Intelligence Organisation intensified its operations against ‘the sedition’, [fetneh], revolutionaries real and imagined, cybercrime and Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities”, noting that agents of the IRGC-IO “systematically censor the internet, engage in cyber-warfare and arrest dissident bloggers” (FDD, 19 June 2015).
The November 2015 WINEP article states that “under [Hossein] Taeb’s leadership, the IRGC-IO has arrested and interrogated thousands of Iranians accused of being part of a Westernfomented ‘velvet revolution’ to topple the Islamic Republic”. It is noted that the IRGC-IO “used the threat of Western infiltration to justify broadening its interrogation and arrest powers, increasing its supervisory role over the media, and tightening regime control of cyberspace”. (WINEP, 25 November 2015)
The CHRI reported that increasing numbers of arrests were carried out by the MOI ahead of the May 2017 presidential elections which may reflect a “growing rivalry between the Intelligence Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization, which has also stepped up its arrests” (CHRI, 16 March 2017).
The April 2018 Radio Farda article notes that “analysts and legal experts” including the deputy speaker of the parliament, Ali Motahari, “maintain that the existence of the Intelligence Organization -- and specifically its interference in cases related to espionage -- explicitly violates the Iranian Constitution”. (Radio Farda, 22 April 2018)
Radio Farda notes that the IRGC-IO “has detained several people charged with espionage, including Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian accountant and member of Rouhani’s delegation in Tehran’s nuclear talks with global powers that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015”. Moreover, the organisation “detained several prominent environmentalists on January 24 , including the Iranian-Canadian founder of Iran’s Wildlife Heritage, Kavous Seyyed-Emami” who was found dead in Tehran’s Evin prison two weeks later. It is noted that “Seyyed-Emami and his fellow environmentalists were charged with espionage, while the chairman of the parliamentary Environment Faction, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, cited top officials of the Intelligence Ministry as dismissing the allegation”. (Radio Farda, 22 April 2018)
The January 2018 WINEP article (author: Saeid Golkar) notes similarly to the MOI’s Herasat network, the IRGC-IO “has its own broad social network, the Basij intelligence staff (stead-e khaberi-e Basij), whose members are present throughout Iran’s estimated 4,000 Basij districts”. It is noted that “[m]uch like the Herasat, Basij intelligence officers act as the regime’s eyes and ears by monitoring citizen activities and keeping files on local activists.” (WINEP, 5 January 2018)
In a 15 September 2015 speech to IRGC commanders, Rouhani claimed that the IRGC is not the sole guardian of the Islamic Revolution, stating that ‘the very same duty has been defined for the representatives of parliament, the Supreme National Security Council, the armed forces, and other institutions.’ Rouhani’s attempts to limit the IRGC’s role in domestic politics, while carefully avoiding the Supreme Leader’s redlines on opening the country’s political atmosphere, met obstinate resistance from hardliners.
In November 2016, intelligence forces arrested women’s rights activist Alieh Motlabzadeh for attending a workshop in the nearby country of Georgia. She was released on bail and was awaiting further court proceedings. Motlabzadeh was among at least 20 women’s rights activists interrogated by authorities for participation in this workshop. Earlier in 2016, several women, who had been involved in the 2015 campaign for increased representation of women in the parliamentary election were summoned for long, intensive interrogations by the Revolutionary Guards.
In the attack on the Islamic Republic’s growing fashion sector, a court in Shiraz sentenced 12 industry professionals in December 2016 to prison terms ranging from five months to six years. An investigation by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran revealed that the crackdown on the sector was led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Intelligence Organization in concert with Iran’s Judiciary, and follows a decree by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei against all forms of perceived western culture. Following raids organized by the Guards, dozens of people were interrogated about alleged ‘modeling networks’ while businesses have been shuttered in the cities of Tehran, Qazvin, Arak, Shiraz and Zahedan.
According to the Campaign’s investigation, the Revolutionary Guards and Judiciary’s joint crackdown on the fashion industry began in Tehran in September 2015, escalated in March 2016, and then spread to Mashhad and other cities. After questioning, many ‘suspects’ have been referred to court for prosecution for simply engaging in their profession. In most cases, arrests are followed by the forced closure of their digital and social media pages as well as physical places of business. Intelligence agents of the Revolutionary Guards have been especially busy intimidating and rounding up members of the fashion industry in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city. In addition to Tehran and Mashhad, fashion businesses and professionals in the cities of Qazvin, Arak and Zahedan have also been targeted by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization.
On 15 March 2017, Ali Motahari, a member of parliament from Tehran, told ISNA News agency that he had been informed about the arrests of some 12 Telegram channel administrators by a ‘military intelligence organization.’ Motahari emphasized that he had asked the Minister of Intelligence to provide information about which agency arrested them. Mahmoud Sadeghi, another Tehran parliamentarian, tweeted on March 16 that he had been unsuccessful in finding information on who made the arrests. Sadeghi also shared a screenshot of a complaint he received from a constituent. She described how her husband was arrested by authorities who at first claimed to be representatives of the prosecutors’ office, but then showed an ID card from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The IRGC officers have been behind a series of controversial arrests, including those of dual nationals, academics, and environmentalists on often vague and unproven espionage charges that have followed warnings by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about alleged “infiltration” efforts by the enemies of Iran.
In June and July 2019, Iranians were glued to their state-controlled televisions watching a team of highly competent and devoted intelligence officers catch spies and toss corrupt officials in prison. The secret agents and foreign spies are among the main characters in a popular counterintelligence series that appears to be trying to upgrade the sketchy image of the feared intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
In the series' first episode a suspected spy, the son of a government official, is arrested with a suitcase full of dollars and gold coins after security agents force the commercial flight he’s on to land at an Iranian airport with the help of fighter jets.
The series, which claims to be based on true stories, features an Iranian-American spy whose character, the series producers say, is based on Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was jailed in Iran in 2015 after being convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial.
Javad Afshar is the director of the series titled Gando -- named after Iran's short-muzzle crocodiles known for their patience and tenacity. He said Gando is based on information from “security bodies that are responsible for the country’s security.” Afshar said the series was ordered by the Martyr Avini center, which says on its website that it is affiliated with the Basij center of state-controlled television.
Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says the series is “ultimately a product on behalf of and in consultation with the IRGC’s intelligence and security organization” to shape the narrative, blame foreigners for the country’s problems, and also undermine the government of President Hassan Rohani.
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