The IRGC v Rohani: spy v spy
Washington - While the United States has pinned its hopes for a negotiated solution to the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme on Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s government, the “shadow government” run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is actively undermining his authority and preparing to reassert its power.
This power struggle, being played out behind the scenes in Tehran, centres on the IRGC Intelligence Organisation’s attempts to subvert the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and thus weaken Rohani.
Since his election in 2013, Rohani, seen in the West as a moderate reformer, has sought to reduce the IRGC’s political and economic power. One way has been to overhaul the Intelligence Ministry, infamous for ruthless crackdowns and assassinating opponents of the state, and make it more professional and thus more acceptable to the populace.
Explaining his programme in parliament on August 15, 2013, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, a middle-ranking cleric, emphasised his preference for “institutionalising durable security without securitising society”. The use of force, he averred, “must always be a last resort”.
Alavi has since welcomed political pluralism, which in spite of the emergence of opposing ideas could help administer the state “under the banner of velayat-e faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist]”.
More significantly, Alavi’s statements have been enhanced by the work of Ali Younesi, a former intelligence minister and now Rohani’s adviser on ethnic and religious minorities. Under Rohani, Younesi has emerged as the foremost proponent of tolerance towards minorities.
The noble words of Alavi and Younesi, which may or may not fully reflect the actual conduct of the MOIS, are in stark contrast to the words and deeds of Hassan Taeb, the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organisation.
Taeb, a 52-year-old Tehran native, was allegedly a former student of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei before he joined the IRGC in 1982. After the MOIS was established in 1984, Taeb worked there as an interrogator, primarily engaged in handling captured members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group that was armed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to fight against the Islamic Republic.
Following his tenure as MOIS chief in Khorasan province, Taeb was promoted to chief of the ministry’s counter-espionage department under the notorious Ali Fallahian, under whose authority the MOIS engaged in the systematic assassination of political dissidents in Iran and abroad throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
However, in 1995 Taeb was caught “fabricating documents” against the children of then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He was dismissed but was promptly appointed head of coordination in Khamenei’s office, which suggests his anti-Rafsanjani efforts were authorised by the supreme leader.
In July 2008, Taeb was appointed Basij Resistance Force chief and achieved notoriety by overseeing the ferocious suppression of anti-government protests triggered by the June 2009 presidential election which critics allege was rigged in favour of the winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At the time, parliamentarian Ali Motahari accused Taeb of deliberately escalating the crisis. Khamenei, on the other hand, unhappy with MOIS’s inability to prevent the unrest, appointed Taeb chief of the IRGC’s Intelligence Directorate in October 2009.
Simultaneously, the department was renamed the IRGC Intelligence Organisation, emphasising the growing rift with the MOIS. When Rohani was elected, he purged the cabinet of IRGC veterans and replaced them with former MOIS officials.
Meantime, the Taeb-led IRGC Intelligence Organisation intensified its operations against “the sedition”, [fetneh], revolutionaries real and imagined, cybercrime and Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities.
As Rohani and his cabinet actively use Facebook and Twitter for propaganda purposes, Taeb’s agents, systematically censor the internet, engage in cyber-warfare and arrest dissident bloggers.
Apart from terrorising the broader public, IRGC Intelligence under Taeb is constantly seeking to undermine Rohani’s negotiations with the US-led world powers by arresting Iranian-American journalists such as Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post.
Informed sources say the IRGC group is attempting to personally embarrass the president by fabricating a pretext to arrest his nephew, Esmail Samavi. Even worse, Taeb’s agents indiscriminately target political activists who belong to Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities.
The IRGC perceives activists demanding economic benefits for the neglected regions on Iran’s peripheral regions, such as Sistan- Baluchistan, and the Kurdish zone, to be separatists. It responds with heavy-handed security crackdowns rather than make an effort to improve living conditions in areas distant from the capital.
This tactic not only exacerbates the conflict between the centre and periphery and creates ethnic tensions, it undermines attempts by Rohani, Alavi and Younesi to reach out to ethnic and religious minorities.
It cannot be determined who will prevail in the struggle between IRGC Intelligence and the MOIS. But if it is the Revolutionary Guards, that could seriously threaten a potential agreement between Tehran and the P5+1, since an IRGC-ruled Iran will not honour commitments made by Rohani’s representatives.