1. Introduction to the Ministry of Intelligence
The Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the primary intelligence agency of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, it is the primary member of the Iran Council for Intelligence Coordination (CIC) which comprises all 16 intelligence organisations in Iran. (Source) Information on the organisation is scarce, but there is a notable strong rivalry between the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the intelligence wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Iranian intelligence agencies in the CIC: (Source)
- Iranian Ministry of Intelligence
- Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
- Intelligence Protection Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
- Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Republic Army
- Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Republic Police
- Intelligence Protection Organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army
- The Commander-in-Chief’s General Bureau for Intelligence Protection
- Intelligence Protection Organization of the Armed Forces General Headquarters
- Cyber Police
- Iranian Public Security and Intelligence Police
- Center for Investigating Organized Crime
Moreover, the Ministry regularly engages in targeted assassinations of political dissidents internally and externally abroad. It remains a key part of the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus, claiming to foil multiple foreign intelligence agencies and terrorist threats. This includes the current protests in Iran, which the republic has labelled as foreign funded and led, putting them once again in the spotlight as the target of foreign sanctions.
2. History of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security
Iran founded the Ministry in 1983 as a continuation of the pre-revolution Shah’s secret police and intelligence service SAVAK. It is unknown how many members it kept from the latter organisation because of loyalty being in question. Some speculate many low-level members were kept because of their level of infiltration within the Baath and Communist movements. (Source)
A peculiarity of the organisation is that Ayatollah Khomeini demanded that the director of the ministry must be a mujtahid (qualified to interpret Islamic law).
There was a large purge inside the MOIS in the late 1990s and early 2000s to cover up controversies surrounding the “Chain” assassinations scandal. This shows the ruthless nature of the organisation.
2.1. Current State of MOIS
There have been five ministers since the founding of the ministry. The current one, appointed in 2021, is Esmail Khatib, an individual who for the last 43 years has been associated with the liquidation of:
- Dissident clerics
- Security personnel
- Anyone considered posing a threat to the Islamic Republic.
He reports directly to Supreme Leader Khameini, demonstrating the importance of the MOIS to Iran’s security. (Source) The US treasury sanctioned the MOIS in September 2022 because of aggressive cyber activities. (Source) This included various cyber-attacks on Albania as retaliation for giving refuge to Iranian political dissidents.
The MOIS is a ministry in name only directly answering to Supreme Leader Khameinei. There is no oversight from the cabinet or parliament, it is above the law, and their budget is classified. The ministry utilises foreign embassies as bases for intelligence operations. This is a fairly common activity for most intelligence agencies.
However, what sets the agency apart is its involvement with over 450 terrorist attacks abroad since its founding in the 1980’s. Likewise, its internal recruitment is just as brutal, with handpicked members from other security agencies often having to “prove” themselves by torturing and executing dissidents to secure a place in the MOIS. (Source)
The Structure of the CIC places the MOIS as the primary intelligence organisation of Iran. This council compiles intelligence dossiers on national threats and is under the supervision of the minister of intelligence. Also, this council has also exacerbated the intense rivalry between the MOIS and the Intelligence wing of the IRGC, who are still allowed to operate with impunity.
Many reformist politicians within Iran and members of the security service have criticised the IRGC for extending their role in intelligence matters. Furthermore, the split nature of these organisations and the refusal to work with each other leaves the Iranian intelligence services worse off as resources are not efficiently allocated. The former intelligence minister Mohammad Reyshahri even criticised the arrangement, saying one central agency would better serve the regime under the supervision of the supreme leader. (Source)
4. Equipment of the MOIS
Because of secrecy, information regarding its equipment scarce. We can assume they have a wide selection of weapons available to them, such as that used by high-level counter terrorism units in the Iranian police or armed forces. Equipment used likely includes:
- Various Heckler and Koch MP5 models.
- Domestic clones of models such as the Glock 17 (as Iran is fond of cloning firearms without a licence).
- AK-103’s gained by Iran for use by special forces units. (Source)
MOIS is also one of the largest intelligence agencies in the Middle East with over 30,000 members. Recruits come from existing agencies or are recruited from specific universities related to security studies. The MOIS takes three times as many applicants as spaces, then weeds them out through a series of brutal tests. They even recruited members of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) outside of Iran to spread disinformation about the group. (Source)
5. Notable Operations of the MOIS
The MOIS partakes in targeted assassinations both internally and abroad, perhaps most infamously being the “Chain” assassinations which caused great controversy.
5.1 The “Chain” Assassinations
The “Chain” assassinations/murders were a series of murders and disappearances of Iranian dissident intellectuals between the period 1988-98. The victims numbered over 100: poets, dissidents, writers and ordinary citizens and were killed in a wide variety of ways such as:
- Poisonings made to simulate heart attacks
- Car crashes
- Staged robberies (Source)
It is highly suspected that these were politically motivated killings related to a reformist struggle between moderate elements of the government and the IRGC/MOIS.
The Iranian president Khatami was forced by internal pressure to launch an investigation after originally blaming external enemies of Iran for the murders. In January 1999, the Iranian Government attributed the killings to rogue elements of the MOIS with the ringleader (a former minister of intelligence) dying conveniently in custody before trial. They sentenced three other members of the MOIS to death before sweeping the incident under the rug. Every suspect involved claimed they were acting directly under orders from the head of the ministry. (Source) It is likely that this element within the MOIS was not so rogue after all.
5.2 Other Activities
The MOIS are just as willing to kill Iranian dissidents abroad as they are at home and frequently operate out of Iranian embassies to do so, such as in Turkey in 2019. On the 14th of November 2019, an opposition figure, Massoud Molavi Verdanjani, was shot dead on a street in Istanbul. Upon questioning, the gunman claimed to be acting on direct orders from Iranian intelligence agents at the embassy. (Source)
MEK is also a frequent recipient of MOIS targeted killings because of their nature as a relatively organised dissident group. In 2018, for example, Belgian police foiled an attempt by an MOIS agent attempting to use explosives at a MEK rally in France. (Source) In 2019, the Albanian police uncovered a paramilitary plot to target MEK dissidents in Albania by two MOIS agents. (Source) These examples show how MOIS can operate both internally and externally to silence dissidents and in a manner which goes above the law.
MOIS frequently arrests or eliminates so-called foreign agents as well, for example on the 20th of April 2022 claiming to have arrested three Mossad agents operating within Iran. (Source)
With the recent protests within Iran, the MOIS is actively arresting people claiming they work for the CIA. (Source) It seems a deflection method for the regime to claim the dissent is caused by its enemies.
With the recent riots in Iran and the MOIS taking more of a role in countering them, the organisation is more visible than ever. They have shown frequently they will strike enemies of the regime no matter where they lie, such as MEK, or even resort to exceedingly brutal measures such as with the “Chain” assassinations. They are likely to remain secretive for the foreseeable future, but with the renewed spotlight on them because of the riots, this might change. In the end, it is clear the MOIS is an extremely important part of the regime’s security apparatus in the Islamic Republic and will stop at nothing to ensure its survival.