IRGC’s intelligence agency in Iranian power grab
Tyrannical regimes always collapse years — and perhaps even decades — before their downfall is officially announced. In a state like Iran, fears about, and hedges against, downfall represented a focal point in the thoughts of its founding father Ayatollah Khomeini and his loyalists such as Morteza Motahari, Mahmoud Taleghani and Mohammed Kazem Shariatmadari.
They believed that any future collapse of the regime would be caused by external pressures, so they focused on ways to handle them. They were heedless of any potential adverse interactions at home, believing that the mere existence of the Islamic Republic would result in all the Iranian people submitting and becoming obedient servants of the Vilayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) system.
During its early days, the Iranian regime managed to wipe out all its domestic opponents through assassinations, arrests and even mass executions, such as the 1988 slaughter of tens of thousands of leftist dissidents. This led to many leading opposition figures fleeing Iran. Despite this wiping out of opponents, even the most ardent regime loyalist must have wondered if it would be possible for any single Iranian faction — primarily the clerics — to cling to absolute power for decades without facing any serious competition from other factions within society.
It was expected that the regime’s military branch, particularly given its strength and weapons arsenal, would be the most likely potential rival. The regime pre-empted this possible threat by placing the zealously loyal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the same footing as the national army and implementing a cultural and intellectual societal transformation program, through which clerics managed to wrest control from the once-mighty military establishment.
In recent years, however, it has become increasingly apparent that a new reality is taking shape, confirming that the era of Vilayat-e Faqih has ended and the reign of Iran’s intelligence services controlling the country has begun.
The authority of the guardian jurist has gradually declined in the face of the increasing clout of the IRGC’s intelligence agency. The latter has gained its strength and pre-eminence through its long-standing dispute with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. Although this dispute dates back to when the IRGC’s intelligence agency was established in 2009, the significance and effects of this tense relationship have only become apparent in the past three years.
The IRGC’s intelligence agency was established as an apparatus directly affiliated with the IRGC. Unlike the Ministry of Intelligence, it cannot be questioned or controlled in any way by the president or parliament. It is wholly under the direct authority of and answerable solely to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This agency coordinates with the IRGC’s chief commander and the supreme leader’s office. While it is not under the authority of the IRGC’s chief commander, it coordinates with him.
All of this means that this agency, which was only formalized as an institution in 2019, represents the supreme leader’s direct tool for gathering information at home and overseas. It prepares the required reports to make decisions without intermediate intervention, either from the presidency or from the commanders of Iran’s regular military establishment.
The most recent indication of the advent of the “intelligence state” in Iran and the end of Vilayat-e Faqih appeared to be when Sadeq Larijani — the chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council and the former head of the judiciary — complained about the disqualification of his brother, Ali Larijani, who was formerly the speaker of the parliament for four consecutive terms, from last week’s presidential election following a decision by the Guardian Council, of which Sadeq remains a member.
In his complaint, Sadeq asserted that the Guardian Council’s decision cannot be defended; whether regarding the candidates who were approved or the ones who were omitted from the presidential race. The reason for this blunder was the high level of interference by Iran’s security services and their issuance of reports that completely ignore reality. The Ministry of Intelligence rushed to dismiss as groundless any suggestion of its involvement in this matter. Sadeq said: “In this bizarre time and amid such bizarre behaviors, I turn to God Almighty and complain to Him. I seek refuge with God from all that His faithful servants sought refuge.”
Sadeq’s complaint — which carefully avoided directly addressing or mentioning the supreme leader, even in the form of a plea, despite his closeness to him — suggests in coded terms that he is aware that Khamenei is now overpowered by the institution that prepared the reports in which his brother is mentioned. The Guardian Council took these reports into consideration when making its decision.
Shortly after this statement, Sadeq retracted his comments after realizing the potential grave danger that such an outburst might place him in. Even the supreme leader could not remain heedless of this situation and stated plainly that some candidates were vehemently wronged — specifically referring to Ali Larijani — but did not level any direct criticism at the Guardian Council, reiterating instead that it had simply performed its duties. This, of course, raises the question: Which apparatus wronged Ali Larijani?
On the issue of the election, Khamenei repeatedly emphasized the importance of public participation. Thus, it was noticed that, while he had favored the relatively youthful IRGC candidate Saeed Mohammad, the Guardian Council’s decision dashed any hopes of there being a high or even an average turnout for the election, let alone electing any younger figure to the presidency. This demonstrates that the supreme leader’s instructions and preferences no longer take automatic precedence, as they did previously. Instead, “deep state” forces are now shaping Iran’s political realm and its future.
If we look to the past to prove this point, we will stumble across multiple examples, including the disqualification of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the presidential race in 2013. This may also be the reason why Rafsanjani failed to win the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts. Heydar Moslehi, Iran’s intelligence minister in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, announced that he prepared the reports submitted to the Guardian Council, which led to Rafsanjani being disqualified from the presidential race. He said that disqualifying Rafsanjani was — from his viewpoint — in the interest of the regime.
The era of Vilayat-e Faqih has ended and the reign of Iran’s intelligence services controlling the country has begun.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
At that time, the Ministry of Intelligence still had the upper hand in the intelligence arena. Since then, however, the IRGC’s intelligence agency has assumed this pre-eminent status after dealing several blows to the ministry, both inside and outside Iran. This has reached the extent that each of the two agencies exposed the other’s agents overseas, with this war between the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC’s intelligence agency leading to clandestine Iranian espionage networks being dismantled and their members arrested.
In short, the supreme leader’s inner circle has undermined his authority, with the real power in Iran now divided between Khamenei and the IRGC’s intelligence agency. This indicates that the latter is effectively monopolizing power in Iran to the extent that the country is ruled by a jurist without guardianship, marking the start of the agency’s era as the real power in Iran.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami