Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the clandestine power behind the throne of Islamic revolutionary Iran since its establishment 25 years ago, is being swept up by a seismic shift in power.
Operating traditionally under the control of the Jurists, supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's private intelligence arm, the ministry (MOIS or VEVAK – short for Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar) has been taken over.
In 2007, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term in office, Khamenei transferred some of this intelligence behemoth's extravagant powers, huge budget and vast manpower resources to the president, awarding him control of intelligence operations, Iran-sponsored Middle East extremist organizations, securing the nuclear weapons program and protecting top regime figures.
But now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources reveal, this undercover nerve center of the regime, has passed to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC – Pazdaran) in a bold takeover orchestrated by its commander, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, with the supreme ruler's nod. All at once, Jafari has leapt to the top of the pyramid alongside Ahmadinejad. This nuanced power play makes Ahmadinejad increasingly dependent on the IRGC, his old alma mater, instead of its pre-eminent representative and champion in the presidential palace.
Gen. Jafari's takeover of the intelligence machine is also the key to a radical overhaul of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the revered guardian of the Islamic revolution of Iran.
Under his master-plan, the Guards are not just moving in on the Ministry of Intelligence, but recreating it from the bottom up: More than 60 percent of its tens of thousands personnel have been sacked, some sent home, others pensioned off or reassigned to other government ministries.
The reins of clandestine power will transition in stages in the coming months. But already, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose, the still nascent body was this week given immediate orders for its first direct showdown with the CIA's covert agents operating in Sistan-Baluchistan against the regime in Tehran.
Promoted from ballot stuffing to intelligence takeover
Soon after they were put in charge of the ongoing reorganization, the two new men were ordered to activate the MOIS's special operations section and the Guards al Qods Brigades in Sistan Baluchstan without delay.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly names the pair as Hojjatoleslam Hossein-Taeb and Gholamhossein Ramezani.
Hossein-Taeb, formerly an intelligence ministry staffer, now becomes the IRGC's intelligence director.
Ramezani serves as the Guards' counter-intelligence and security director.
Both took a hand in falsifying the 2009 vote which gave Ahmadinejad a second term as president in June and provoked violent street protests.
The priority assigned them by the three men who rule Iran today, Khamenei, Ahmadedinejad and Gen. Jafari, is to boost the Guards' intelligence-security arm by swallowing up the assets of the Intelligence Ministry. This is to be part of the secret reorganization of the Revolutionary Guards Corps into 29 sections, some of which will operate inside civilian government.
The IRGC's takeover of the Intelligence Ministry may be compared to the earthquake of a possible American CIA seizure of all sixteen US intelligence agencies, the sacking of more than half their workforce and their substitution by a single undercover agency ruled by Special Operations commander Lieut. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr. He would be answerable to the Central Intelligence Director and only through him to the President of the US.
So what is happening in Tehran is much more than an organizational shakeup; it is a Revolutionary Guards intelligence coup.
Has civilian government lost control of central intelligence?
These shadowy shifts are radical enough to generate major uncertainties.
The incumbent minister of intelligence, Hojjatol-Islam Heydar Moslehi, appointed as recently as August 5, does not know where he stands. Up in the air too is the status of the undercover agencies operating around the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions in flashpoint places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. Our sources report that even top regime officials in Tehran are not clear who is in charge of what at this moment.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Tehran sources offer three striking instances of the state of flux in Iran's sprawling intelligence machine:
1. The top-level Joint committee for (Reviewing and Approving) Special Operations no longer functions.
Made up of the president (Ahmadinejad), its top religious authority (Khamenei) and other senior security officials, including representatives of the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Foreign affairs and the Ministry of Security and Intelligence, it is responsible for coordinating the gathering of intelligence and special weapons technology, including nuclear weapon abroad.
So will the Pazdaran cut out its partners and run the show solo from now?
2. Two more key intelligence committees have stopped operating: the Committee for Foreign Intelligence Abroad and the Committee for the Implementation of Action Abroad. These committees commanded the foreign operations of the Revolutionary Guards and the al-Qods Brigades, which run terrorist operations and train Islamic fundamentalist groups in intelligence-gathering for targeting and planning attacks, under the command of Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
The largest of Pazdaran's arms, al Qods is manned by approximately 12,000 Arabic-speaking Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese Shiites and North Africans who are trained in Iran, Sudan and Lebanon.
The two committees also manage the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Their enforced idleness raises the question of whether these quasi-military organizations have lost their civilian oversight and passed to the sole jurisdiction of their commanders, who refer directly to the supreme ruler.
Thousands of Iranian spies may be on the loose
3. The spies and agents of the potentially defunct Ministry of Intelligence are attached to Iranian embassies and consular offices under diplomatic cover, serve with the Ministry of Guidance and Propaganda, fly with Iran Air, or masquerade as students, business executives, mechanics, shopkeepers, bank clerk or even members of dissident groups.
The MOIS often places agents in the foreign branches of Iranian state-controlled banks using them also to bankroll terrorist operations.
Today, no-one in Tehran knows for sure what has happened to the functionaries controlling these complex espionage and security networks, including possibly their members.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources date this state of limbo to mid-November, when the Revolutionary Guards seized control of Iran's entire communications system. The national telephone, cellular phone and internet services were each given a special department with an IRGC overseer: For instance, Gen. Mehdi Omidi now heads the unit for fighting Internet crime.
The IRGC's takeover of Iran's intelligence machinery was presaged by its grab of the Iranian Navy in the last three months. The Guards' naval units pushed the Navy's fleets of big warships and submarines out of the entire Persian Gulf region and over to the less sensitive Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.
This was discovered by Western intelligence agencies monitoring Iran's large-scale air defense exercise in the third week of November.
IRGC commanders maintain the Navy is incapable of defending Iranian interests in the Persian Gulf or even its shores because its warships are obsolete and slow, whereas the Guards are armed with the necessary resources for these missions: swift-boats, midget submarines, boats that can be packed with explosives and marine units. Not a single craft not belonging to the Revolutionary Guards remains in the Persian Gulf
Pazdaran commanders used the same reasoning for seizing control of Iran's intelligence branches, claiming its methods of operation were passe and not up to defending the Islamic Revolution any longer.
One by one, the Revolutionary Guards Corps have been appropriating arms of government on Iran's borders and now at the heart of the regime in the capital itself.