Members of IRGC in a joint ceremony in Boushehr on May 24, 2015. (Tasnim)

By Amir Tomaj

July 20, 2019

Last month, the Islamic Republic of Iran made a new appointment in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO), expanding the scope of its operations abroad focused on the US in order to fight a “total intelligence war.”

The IRGC has furthermore signaled the merging of the IRGC Strategic Intelligence Directorate (IRGC-SID) into IRGC-IO as a component of this expanded mission.

On 18 May, Iranian state media announced that IRGC-IO chief Hossein Taeb will retain his post, and that his new deputy is Hasan Mohaghegh, who was previously the IRGC-SID chief. Outgoing deputy commander Hossein Nejat was demoted to the IRGC Social and Cultural Deputy.

Since 1979, IRGC intelligence has undergone a series of changes, gaining strength at the expense of the Intelligence Ministry (MOIS). After the ascendance of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the IRGC Intelligence and Investigation Unit was primarily in charge of intelligence activities. In 1980, Iraq invaded.

The IRGC expanded its military intelligence operations. In 1983, the internal security units of IRGC intelligence formed MOIS, which also took charge of foreign operations, and the IRGC’s intelligence unit became known as the Intelligence Directorate. MOIS played a major role, often in cooperation with Hezbollah and the IRGC, in a string of some 60 assassinations abroad in the 1980’s and the 1990’s.

Following the war, around 1990, Tehran established the Qods Force as the IRGC’s external operations branch primarily functioning as an unconventional warfare unit and forging ties with militants abroad. Its personnel included veterans of the Intelligence Directorate and Ramezan Base, a hub for orchestrating special operations behind enemy lines during the war and supporting insurgents against Iraq.

After the election of Reformist president Mohammad Khatami and the exposure of the infamous chain murders of intellectuals and dissidents in 1999, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, mistrusting MOIS, upgraded the IRGC directorate into a parallel intelligence agency. In 2005 or 2006, IRGC-SID was established out of the IRGC’s Strategic Center. Following the 2009 post-election protests, officials criticized MOIS for its perceived failure to prevent protests, and spoke about divisions in the ministry. Intelligence officers were purged. The Islamic Republic promoted the IRGC Intelligence Directorate into an organization, expanding its budget and scope of activities. IRGC-IO has primarily focused on counter intelligence and internal security.

The Qods Force reportedly gained more prominence at the expense of MOIS, as well. In reaction to US and Israeli sabotage of the nuclear program in the early 2010’s, the force launched its own international operations group, Unit 400. Alongside Hezbollah’s resuscitated Islamic Jihad Organization, Unit 400 had a low success rate in a string of attempted attacks against American and Israeli targets in the early 2010’s.

IRGC chief commander Hossein Salami has indicated an expansion of the IRGC-IO’s mission, with a special focus on the US. During the inauguration ceremonies of the IRGC chief and his deputy commander, Salami said that IRGC-IO will expand its intelligence activities abroad, and that the organization’s field of operation “is the entire system, [Islamic] revolution and geography of threat against Iran.”

He added that “we are in a total intelligence war against America today, and this environment is a mix of psychological operations, cyber operations, military movements, public diplomacy and spreading fear.” Salami also said that the IRGC must not “for a moment forego the analysis of America’s strategies and behavior.”

Salami also defined the bar of success: “we can defeat the enemy in the intelligence war; if we can neutralize the enemy’s will to use power, this means neutralizing the enemy.”

The merging of SID into IRGC-IO has several implications. IRGC-linked media have reported that the merging was another act concurrent with the appointment of Mohagegh as deputy commander of IRGC-IO. The merging likely happened to reduce competition and better organize the IRGC’s intelligence units in its new mission. Some friction, however, is not hard to imagine as Mohaghegh brings his people on board in IRGC-IO.

There isn’t much information available in open source about the SID, though a pro-IRGC commentary connected the directorate’s activities to Salami’s statement about the complex, multi-faceted environment facing the IRGC. This suggests that the directorate’s mission has involved the generally understood definition of strategic intelligence, which is identifying national-level threats, above operational and tactical levels.

IRGC-IO may be more focused in its approach and be tasked with more critical intelligence missions as it expands its portfolio abroad. The organization may have a greater say in orchestrating such activities in the IRGC aimed at the US. Due to the IRGC’s dominance of the Islamic Republic’s security and military decision-making, IRGC-IO will likely play a more central role in supporting Tehran’s policies abroad.

Threat perception of the US is driving the latest changes in IRGC-IO. In 2017, US media reported that the Central Intelligence Agency established the Iran Mission Center to pool the agencies resources against the Islamic Republic. Salami was very clear that the IRGC considers itself in “a total intelligence war” against the US, which suggests that the IRGC is feeling the pressure.

The IRGC-IO restructuring also follows the US designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). That was probably the reason behind Salami replacing Mohammad Ali Jafari, since Jafari made threats against the US – such as threatening that the US would have to abandon its bases within 1,000-kilometer range of Iran – that put Tehran in a precarious position of a direct fight against the US if it would have backed up the threat.

IRGC-IO’s missions abroad would overlap the most with MOIS. This can create overlap of responsibilities and rivalry, particularly since the Islamic Republic has been an adversary of the US since 1979. This and previous instances of sharp-elbowed rivalries may have been the reason why, in May, Salami chaired a meeting between MOIS and IRGC-IO. He said that the two are the “eyes” of the system and “compliment” each other. The dynamic between the two organizations abroad will likely be a mix of cooperation and competition, with preferential treatment for IRGC-IO.

MOIS has been involved in several failed plots recently, which may have also influenced the decision to boost IRGC-IO. In 2018, authorities arrested or expelled MOIS agents for plots or espionage in Albania, Denmark, and France. The most high profile of these was the plot to bomb an opposition rally in Paris. Netherlands also expelled two Iranian diplomats after concluding that Iran in 2015 hired two criminals to assassinate an individual suspected of being behind the major 1981 Prime Minister’s office. Authorities, however, have not said which agency hired the two.

The outsourcing and subsequent arrests highlight atrophied capabilities particularly compared to some 60 assassinations abroad in the 1980′ and 1990’s, often using Hezbollah operatives as gunmen or logisticians.

IRGC-IO may work alongside the Qods Force to the extent that missions are related to each other, particularly with regards to US targets, though competition may also arise. It is worth nothing that in addition to the Qods Force’s failures in the early 2010’s, authorities have arrested suspected operatives in Germany, and have busted a cell in the Central African Republic. It is unclear whether IRGC-IO will rely primarily on the Quds Force for operations, or develop its own operations division.

The expansion of IRGC-IO’s mission highlighted the IRGC’s dominance in the Islamic Republic’s intelligence community. The effort also reflects a reinvigorate effort to expand an asymmetric intelligence campaign against the US, the goal of which is to deter the US from using its power.

Asharq Al-Awsat

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.