Iran floods highlight rivalry between IRGC and spy agency

Rohani’s decision must be considered an attempt by the government to steal the limelight from Iranian Major-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Calculated moves. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L) flies above areas affected by floods in the country’s north-eastern Golestan region, March 27.(Iranian Presidency)
Calculated moves. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L) flies above areas affected by floods in the country’s north-eastern Golestan region, March 27.(Iranian Presidency)

Following massive floods that inundated much of Iran, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured, Iranian President Hassan Rohani curiously tasked his intelligence minister to visit Shiraz.

This sparked speculation and even mockery among Iranian social media users. After all, why did the president not send the Roads and Transportation minister or the Energy minister, whose authorities have more bearing on the problem?

Rohani’s decision, however, was by no means accidental and must be considered an attempt by the government to steal the limelight from Iranian Major-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who shamelessly used the natural disaster as a public relations campaign against the government.

“Had other governmental organisations used their resources in the same manner as the popular volunteers, the Basij, the Revolutionary Guards and other armed forces, it would have been helpful,” Jaafari complained on live television while visiting the disaster zones.

Iranian Intelligence Minister Seyed Mahmoud Alavi displayed great empathy when facing the victims of the floods, calling the incident “the bitterest event of the year” and abstaining from responding to Jaafari’s criticism.

He even showed magnanimity by not commenting on the obvious mistakes of the IRGC’s effort, in particular, the failed attempts to channel excess water from the disaster areas, but praised the crisis management of local authorities in Shiraz.

Alavi’s competition with Jaafari for public attention symbolises the deep inter-agency rivalry between the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC intelligence organisation. Overlapping fields of responsibility between the two organisations keep them in a constant state of rivalry for authority, funding, personnel and the like.

In recent years, the Intelligence Ministry suffered several humiliating defeats to the IRGC.

Despite the expressed opposition of the Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC Intelligence Organisation arbitrarily arrested Iranian administrators of the cloud-based instant messaging system Telegram Messenger. The Iranian Judiciary, ignoring the Intelligence Ministry, usually sentences the administrators to prison.

In another public humiliation, contrary to the expert assessment of the Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC Intelligence Organisation arrested Abd al-Rasoul Dorri Esfahani, who represented the Central Bank of Iran in the nuclear negotiations, on espionage charges. Again ignoring the Intelligence Ministry, the Judiciary sentenced Dorri Esfahani to five years in prison.

Just as damaging to the Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC Intelligence Organisation, in another attack against the Intelligence Ministry’s portfolio, appears increasingly engaged in intelligence operations against the Iranian opposition abroad. Assassinations and failed bombing plots in the Netherlands, Denmark and France point to the competition between the two agencies for control over foreign operations.

Under Alavi’s stewardship, the Intelligence Ministry has embarked on structural changes to compete with its bureaucratic nemesis and rival. As apparent in the budget of the fiscal years 1397 and 1398 (March 21, 2018-March 21, 2020), the Intelligence Ministry is divided between internal and external services, which may reflect the need for compartmentalisation.

However, the budgets include a line titled “Establishing external intelligence and security infrastructure,” which may reflect increased funding for the ministry’s activities abroad.

The budgets display several lines concerning “enforcement of information technology sovereignty,” “improved cybersecurity,” “securing vital [cyber] infrastructure” and the like. This not only indicates a natural response to digital threats to the regime but also an attempt to compete with the cybercrimes unit and the IRGC’s so-called cyber army, which increasingly unleashes its forces against the opposition both at home and abroad.

Amid the massive floods, both agencies would be wise to forget their rivalry, at least for a moment, and help the victims but that probably is too much to ask of arch-rivals.

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