The recent departure of a top Iranian military intelligence chief, supposedly over security lapses and bad decisions, reveals regime weakness in an area key to its survival: espionage and state intelligence.
LONDON — The removal in Iran of the Revolutionary Guards' head of intelligence, Hossein Taeb, was the important event of recent weeks in the Islamic Republic. Taeb was replaced in late June by General Muhammad Kazemi. Three days later, Ibrahim Jabbari was made head of personal security for the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
These changes can be considered from several angles. Taeb's removal was important as he was a powerful figure seen as close to Khamenei and his older son, Mujtaba Khamenei. It also raises the question of the future of the intelligence department he ran in parallel, and often at odds, with other intelligence agencies like the Information Ministry.
Confidante of the Supreme Leader
Hojjatoleslam Taeb has been a member of the Revolutionary Guards for four decades, with a track record in intelligence and working with the Basij (street) militia. The Guards intelligence agency was formed 13 years ago in response to mass protests against the results of the 2009 presidential elections, with Taeb as its head. In the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Taeb had forged close ties with conservative figures like Mujtaba Khamenei, whose father became supreme leader in 1989.
That made him a confidante of the supreme leader and regular visitor at the Leader's Household (Beit-e rahbari). In the late 1990s, when Khamenei was reportedly displeased with the work of the then intelligence minister, (the leftist) Ali Yunesi, Taeb joined a team to create parallel intelligence bodies. His appointment as head of the Guards intelligence office gave him a free and often decisive hand over all intelligence activities, nor did he hesitate to invade the prerogatives of the Information Ministry, which is part of the executive branch.
That produced tensions and disagreements in several cases. For example, when the Information Ministry arrested several individuals on suspicion of involvement in the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, the Guards intelligence unit voiced doubts about the veracity of their confessions, and insisted until it had the case closed. The suspects were released, except for one who had been executed early on.
His ruthless response to corruption prompted some to say he was bringing the regime into disrepute.
In contrast, the Information ministry refused to corroborate the charges thrown at several environmentalists, in a case handled by the Guards intelligence office. Unconfirmed reports suggest the ministry has tried to have the environmentalists released.
Taeb was also behind a number of corruption cases involving high-profile individuals like Mehdi Hashemi-Rafsanjani, son of a former president, two former vice-presidents Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai and Hamid Baqai, and Hussein Fereidun, brother of the former president Hassan Rouhani. The cases led to big fines and prison terms for the accused, though Taeb's supposedly ruthless response to corruption prompted some conservatives to say he was bringing the regime into disrepute.
Taeb was also actively involved in the pre-electoral vetting process that usually sifts the majority of aspirants to political office out of elections, and is meant to be done by the Guardian Council, a body of jurists.
"Military and security officials have concluded unity and cohesion are needed to fight suspected acts of sabotage, hacking or digital attacks."
"Discovery" of a plot
The election of very conservative Ibrahim Raisi appears to have improved coordination between the executive branch and judiciary, and ended the need for intelligence organs working alongside the Information Ministry. The proliferation of security operatives may indeed have weakened state secrecy and thus security, as military and security officials have concluded unity and cohesion are needed to fight suspected acts of sabotage, hacking or digital attacks.
Taeb was becoming superfluous then, and a pretext was found for his removal, namely the "discovery" of an Iranian plot targeting Israeli citizens and travelers in Turkey. The New York Times recently reported on this as a failed project attributed to Taeb, which was giving the Islamic Republic a diplomatic headache. Taeb, it stated, had also failed to thwart Israel's unrelenting efforts to undermine the regime's security.
After years of sanctions, the regime can barely pay for basic functions.
Whether or not this was accurate, Iranian security displayed multiple shortfalls. Taeb's successor, Muhammad Kazemi, has a lengthy track record of intelligence work and is expected to close the loopholes, though there is no assurance of course that the new team are not themselves incompetent or treacherous. The regime's problem at present is, in any case, not the intelligence failings of a couple of agencies, but multiple challenges threatening its existence.
Nuclear talks stalled
These include international diplomatic and financial isolation, a half-collapsed economy, the ruin of millions of households, the destruction of Iran's environment and resources, and an angry population fast losing its fear of the instruments of repression.
After years of sanctions, the regime can barely pay for basic functions. And with multilateral talks on the 2015 nuclear pact at a standstill and the U.N. Security Council reopening Iran's dossier for suspected breaches of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, Iranians may have to prepare for more sanctions.
This regime keeps boasting of its intelligence prowess, yet its enemies have apparently penetrated the heart of the state and its scientific agencies, and shown an ability to strike at personalities and installations inside the country.
Over four decades, the Islamic Republic might have worked to strengthen the country's institutions and capabilities, instead of devoting itself to propaganda, meddling abroad, terrorism and money-laundering. It has turned Iran into a laggard in the march of history, and must now await the people's verdict.
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