Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry and Khamenei’s IRGC Widen Crackdown Ahead of Election
The number of arrests carried out by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, operating under the control of President Hassan Rouhani, increased in the last few months leading up to Iran’s May 2017 presidential election.
Research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) indicates that since January 2017, the ministry has increasingly targeted civil and women’s rights advocates, journalists, dual nationals, ethnic and religious minorities, environmentalists, the administrators of social media pages, and relatives of protesters killed during the state’s crackdown on peaceful protestors following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The increasing arrests may be the result of a growing rivalry between the Intelligence Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization, which has also stepped up its arrests.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei set up the organization, which the office of the presidency has no control over, in 1997 after the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Amid the protests against the contested presidential election in 2009, Khamenei expanded the organization’s powers.
Rouhani would not have been elected in 2013 without the support of reformists and civil society, both of which are being targeted by Khamenei’s security apparatus and that of a president they helped to elect.
While there are several possible explanations for why the Intelligence Ministry is stepping up its arrests at this particular time, the widening crackdown proves to the Iranian people that Rouhani—who will be seeking a second term on May 19—has failed to carry out his campaign promise of freeing political prisoners and loosening the Islamic Republic’s tight grip on civil society.
Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry: Protector or Aggressor?
“A desirable Intelligence Ministry is the hopeful home of the oppressed,” Rouhani told the ministry’s staff on January 21, 2014, less than a year after his election. “Respecting the rights of citizens, as well as ethnic and religious minorities is an unavoidable necessity.”
“Your primary duty is to protect people’s dignity and privacy and preserve public trust at the highest level,” he said, emphasizing that his administration “believes in transparency and telling the truth to the people as our patrons.”
“We insist on the principle of plurality of views and tastes in society,” he added. “Supporting the rights of citizens is part of the ministry’s duties.”
The Intelligence Ministry’s record under Rouhani has not only shown a failure to realize that vision, but also a continuation of oppressive policies now being conducted in parallel with the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
When Mahmoud Alavi was introduced to Parliament as the new minister of intelligence on August 7, 2013, he told legislators that he would carry out his responsibilities in a manner that would “build public trust” while being “accountable to relevant authorities, watchdog agencies and public institutions.”
He added that he would “interact with the elite, academics, political parties, mass media organizations and lawful groups;” “avoid the creation of a security climate;” “restore the ministry’s duties within a lawful and natural framework in accordance with the Constitution;” “support and recognize criticism in political, social and cultural fields;” and “respect the rights of citizens, including ethnic and religious minorities.”
Alavi also promised that under his management, the Intelligence Ministry would “make an effort to rebuild the country’s political landscape in regards to human rights issues” and “withdraw from irregular missions that do not conform with the ministry’s stature.”
However, the Intelligence Ministry has arrested the following individuals for their peaceful activism and personal beliefs since December 2016. One activist predicted she would be arrested as part of a “campaign” by hardliners.
Hengameh Shahidi: Before she was arrested in the Iranian city of Mashhad on March 8, 2017, the political activist said she was being targeted “as part of a project to arrest political activists and journalists before the presidential election so that the designated candidate (of the hardliners) would be guaranteed a victory, just like in the 2009 election.” In the hand-written letter, posted on March 13 on her Instagram page, Shahidi also said she would go on hunger strike as soon as she was taken into custody. Shahidi was an adviser to Mehdi Karroubi, a former presidential candidate and opposition leader who has been under house arrest since 2011. She was also a journalist for his party’s newspaper, Etemad Melli.
Sepideh Ghoulian: The civil rights activist was arrested at her home in Ahwaz, Khuzestan Province, on February 24, 2017 and released on bail several days later. She has not been charged, but informed sources believe she was arrested because of her Instagram posts about child labor and environmental issues.
Farzaneh Djalali: The civil rights activist was arrested on February 23, 2017 in the city of Kermanshah. In 2010 she was banned from continuing her graduate studies for having previously engaged in peaceful activism while she was an undergraduate at Tehran University. She was arrested on March 13, according to a post on her Facebook page.
Mehrnaz Haghighi: The medical doctor and civil rights activist was arrested at his home in Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province, on February 19, 2017. No information is available about the charges, if any, have been issued against her.
Mohammad Kab-Aomair: The seventeen-year-old ethnic Arab environmentalist was violently arrested on February 8, 2017 at his home in the city of Ahwaz. His left arm was broken while he was being arrested.
Shahnaz Akmali: The mother of Mostafa Karim Beigi—who was killed by a bullet wound to the head in 2009 during what came to be known as the “Ashura protests”— was arrested on January 25, 2017. She was released on bail on February 19.
Zeinab Karimian: The Rouhani supporter and former reporter for the state-funded Mehr News Agency was arrested on January 23, 2017. She has had limited contact with her family since being detained. Very little information is known about her condition or case.
Saleh Deldam: The film director and producer was arrested in early January 2017 and charged with “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
Tahereh Riahi: The social affairs editor of the state-funded Borna News Agency was arrested on December 27, 2016 and accused of “propaganda against the state.”
“Cyrus Day” Fans: On October 28, 2016, more than 70 people were arrested for publicly celebrating the unofficial birthday of the founder of the Achaemenid Emperor. Some allegedly shouted slogans calling for an end to Iran’s theocratic government and a return to pre-Islamic values. Branch 1 of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court sentenced the defendants to prison terms ranging from three months to eight years. Upon appeal in February 2017, many of the defendants had their sentences reduced to less than a year in prison or they were released for time served.
Ahmadreza Djalali: The Iranian-born resident of Sweden was arrested in April 2016 after being invited by Tehran University to share his expertise on emergency and disaster medicine. He has been charged with “collaborating with enemy states.”
Social Media Site admins: On January 20, 2017, the Intelligence Ministry announced the arrest of “anti-revolutionaries aiming to penetrate and organize online networks inside the country” through a channel they had created, called the “Immortal Guards,” on the popular Telegram messaging application.
By arresting individuals for their peaceful activities in cyberspace, the Intelligence Ministry is alienating Rouhani’s moderate and reformist supporters who are active online.
Until recently, the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization or the Cyber Police (FATA) carried out most arrests of cyber activists. The Intelligence Ministry may have stepped up its role in this area to assuage hardliners who accuse the government of not doing enough to censor the internet.
The publication of a forced confession of one of the alleged members of the Immortal Guards on February 2, 2017 on several far right websites also serves as a reminder that the ministry has no intention of abandoning the practice of extracting confessions under the threat of or actual torture.
The growing number of people arrested by the Intelligence Ministry for their peaceful political or civil activities is taking place despite Rouhani’s declaration on April 20, 2016 that “state agencies should not be controlling people whenever they feel like it.”
“You cannot limit people’s freedom with directives and the arbitrary taste of some individuals or organizations,” he said during a speech. “People’s freedoms cannot be curtailed by anything other than the law. Not even the government or the judiciary can limit them.”
Intelligence Ministry vs. the IRGC
Towards the end of February 2017, Iranian media reports began hinting at the growing rivalry between the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
On February 24, the acting commander of the organization, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Nejat, claimed that his agents “were able to arrest 15 terrorists who were planning sabotage and explosions at the rally (in Tehran) celebrating the anniversary of the revolution on February 11.”
Two days later, an “informed Intelligence Ministry official” denied Nejat’s statement.
“The team of terrorists that had entered the country to carry out operations against national security on February 11 was exclusively under the surveillance of the Intelligence Ministry from start to finish and they were arrested by the Intelligence Ministry,” said an unnamed official on February 26, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).
“Despite the immense respect we have for our dear and exalted brother, Commander Nejat, we needed to clarify matters for the public,” added the official.
The official also said the Intelligence Ministry should be credited for the 2010 arrest of Abdolmalek Rigi, the former leader of the violent Baluchi Jundallah separatist organization, and for playing a leading role in the negotiations over the exchange of prisoners between Iran and the US in January 2016.
“The Supreme National Security Council asked the Intelligence Ministry to conduct the negotiations for the repatriation of one billion and 710 million USD from the US during the negotiations for the release of the prisoners,” he said.
“Every stage of the negotiations was carried out by a representative of the Intelligence Ministry with the cooperation of the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the president’s Legal Affairs Office,” he said, adding that “no other agencies were involved in any of those three cases.”
The next day, Nejat retorted: “The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization is in complete harmony with the Intelligence Ministry and we won’t complain if the press gives credit to the ministry for any of our activities.”
He also claimed that Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was part of the US-Iran prisoner swap, was arrested by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, “which eventually led to the release of a portion of Iran’s assets” by the US.
“The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization is an active member the Intelligence Coordination Council, which convenes regularly under the chairmanship of the minister of intelligence, and if there are any differences of views, they will be discussed and resolved there,” he added.
The Intelligence Coordination Council was formed by Article 2 of the law for the establishment of the Intelligence Ministry.
Its members include the intelligence minister, prosecutor general (representing the judiciary), minister of interior, the heads of the IRGC’s Intelligence Security Organization and Intelligence Organization, the heads of the army’s Intelligence Security Organization and Intelligence Organization, the head of the Police Intelligence Security Organization and the foreign minister.
The council’s mission includes “discussion about intelligence-related topics and operations, exchanges of views about how to delegate and pursue intelligence operations within the legal boundaries of each agency, and decisions on the responsibilities and powers of each agency within the law.”
It is also supposed to “coordinate parallel cases with the National Security Council” and “establish intelligence crisis groups in times of emergency.”
In October 2014, the Fars News Agency, which maintains close relations with the IRGC, reported that “the Intelligence Coordination Council had entered a new chapter,” adding that “based on available information, the council’s members had collaborated to establish common intelligence and security assessments on different topics.”
The report added that “one of the most important things the council did (in the Iranian year ending March 21, 2014) was assess the damaging and threatening aspects of cyberspace, the security situation in various parts of the country, and intelligence threats and operational intelligence exchanges while coordinating and following up on joint intelligence operations by members of the intelligence community.”
Increasing Arrests: Why Now?
The Intelligence Ministry has stepped up its arrests of peaceful activists and dissidents ahead of the May 2017 presidential election for three possible reasons.
First, a close examination of the decisions made by the National Intelligence Council during the Rouhani era indicates that some of them could have resulted from recommendations by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization or the prosecutor general as a representative of the judicial branch.
In other words, the Rouhani administration could be bending to the wishes of hardliners.
Second, hardline core members of the Intelligence Ministry may be initiating the arrests against the wishes of Alavi and Rouhani, both of whom promoted moderate agendas at the beginning of the president’s first term.
A similar power struggle occurred in 1998 under Khatami when his intelligence minister, Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, inherited an organization controlled by hardliners who were secretly assassinating dissident politicians and intellectuals.
The action plan Alavi published when he became intelligence minister in 2013 stands out as the third possible explanation for the growing number of arrests.
In the document’s section on domestic security, Alavi describes a need to “revive the role of the ministry in the country’s intelligence community while cooperating and interacting with other agencies and preventing parallel actions.”
The most important intelligence agency operating in parallel with the Intelligence Ministry is the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
Rouhani and his intelligence minister may be initiating more arrests to prevent the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization from becoming more powerful and to reduce its dominating role in carrying out widespread arrests of political and civil rights activists.
However, if the Intelligence Ministry has stepped up arrests simply to compete with the IRGC for power, Rouhani will likely lose the crucial base of support he had among civil society during his first term.
That crucial voting bloc of opinion-influencers, including activists, university students, academics and artists, are now being repressed by two major security organizations under Rouhani’s watch.