The commander of IRGC, Hossein Salami, attends a ceremony on the first anniversary of the death of the Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP)

By Scott Peterson

May 13, 2021

A veteran of 5,000 hours behind bars, accumulated during repeated bouts in prison and months in solitary confinement, Iranian Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour is very familiar with the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and with its obsessions.

So when the political activist was summoned for questioning in March – just days after being warned by the IRGC to stop helping reformists find a consensus candidate for June 18 presidential elections, or face jail – he expected arrest. He quickly posted a video on social media.

Describing himself as an “unimportant and low-impact citizen, whose activities are not even worth mentioning,” Mr. Jalaeipour said, addressing his interrogator: “I’m surprised at your tyranny; at least do it in an effective way!”

He added, “You put me in solitary confinement many times, and you realized every time that it does not work.”

At a moment when Israeli agents and its allied operatives appear to regularly penetrate Iran and freely target its nuclear program, the episode highlights the fixation of the IRGC’s intelligence branch instead on domestic activists and dual citizens it accuses of espionage, providing a window into its threat priorities.

The latest alleged Israeli attack, an explosion at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant April 11 that destroyed thousands of centrifuges – the second devastating strike on Natanz in less than a year – comes after Iran’s well-protected top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in broad daylight last December.

The disconnect between the attacks and the IRGC’s focus is raising questions – even among staunch loyalists of the Islamic Republic – about how an authoritarian regime obsessed with “infiltrators” has become so vulnerable to external threats.

For Iran, one root issue appears to be the cost of an ideological military force that sees itself as much more. The often hubristic self-image of the IRGC, created to “protect” the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has outstripped its capabilities.

“Looking for an easy win”

Analysts say the IRGC is overburdened, having assumed more and more functions of the state. As the IRGC fails repeatedly to prevent sabotage widely attributed to the Mossad, they say, it seeks to compensate by hitting domestic targets.

“The IRGC at times loses sight of its main mission, due to its ever-expanding portfolios,” says Ali Alfoneh, an analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Incapable of preventing Mossad operations in Iran, the IRGC creates the illusion of intelligence superiority by hitting soft targets such as Iranian dual nationals,” says Mr. Alfoneh, the author of two books on the IRGC’s rise.

“They are distracted, and also I think myopic. They are looking for an easy win,” says Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “They go after small-potato dissidents, or just invent them to begin with, because it’s something they can show the regime [and] everybody else.

“But what they have not developed is a real unity of effort, and a real articulation of what the danger is,” says Dr. Ostovar, author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.”

Other inherent security vulnerabilities, say experts, are created by widespread economic discontent and inefficiencies in overlapping and redundant state institutions.

Iran’s economic hardship and corruption, says Mr. Alfoneh, “eases recruitment of the citizenry by foreign powers.”

Protesters burn the U.S. and Israeli flags during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 28, 2020. (Reuters)

It’s “not just them looking in the wrong places [for threats], but … really discounting how much discontent there is within Iran … within the ranks of the government, the armed forces, the civil servants,” says Dr. Ostovar. “This isn’t all political discontent, but it leaves people more susceptible to inducements that foreign intelligence services can offer them.”

Even Mossad derived a benefit from Iran’s many intelligence distractions, according to the London-based Jewish Chronicle. In a detailed account of the Fakhrizadeh killing published in February, citing intelligence sources, it said a team of more than 20 spies – both Israeli and local Iranian agents – spent eight months getting close to their target and smuggling parts of a remote-controlled gun.

“The audacious operation … succeeded partly because Iranian security services were too busy watching suspected political dissenters,” the Chronicle reported.

Survival tactics

Those dots have been connected in Tehran, too, raising questions like never before about IRGC priorities.

“Another fire at the Natanz nuclear facility… isn’t it a sign of how serious the issue of infiltration is?” asked former commander of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezaei, in a tweet. “The country’s security apparatus is in need of cleansing.”

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went further, asking about Iran’s $1.2 billion-per-year security apparatus: “How is it that, instead of fighting off the enemy, you are standing against the people? How is it that the people have turned into the threat?”

The political rationale might be simple.

“The regime leadership is aware of the substandard performance of its institutions in the intelligence wars against foreign powers,” says Mr. Alfoneh. “But I also suspect they are content as long as those same institutions display full competence suppressing the domestic opposition, which has hitherto secured the regime’s survival.”

The IRGC’s broadening remit includes a major role in the sanctions-strapped economy; supporting regional proxy forces from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen; building an expanding ballistic missile and drone program; and fighting a shadow war against the United States and Israel.

Yet it has also found time for lethal crackdowns on protests that left hundreds of Iranian citizens dead; made spectacles of arresting dual nationals and successfully luring dissidents within kidnapping range; and stepped into Iran’s vicious political fray.

Political drama

The IRGC even produced an expensive TV series called “Gando,” a spy thriller that portrays it as invincible, while insinuating that the centrist President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sellouts to archenemies America and Israel.

Mr. Zarif dismissed “Gando” as a “lie,” but sparked controversy in an interview leaked in late April when he said Iranian diplomacy was “sacrificed” to IRGC military interests. In the interview, for a government oral history project, he said the Guard’s much-revered Qods Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in an American drone strike in January 2020, sought to scupper the 2015 nuclear deal.

Days after the leak, IRGC intelligence agents reportedly raided the offices of President Rouhani and of Mr. Zarif, and carried away documents.

The political firestorm is the latest example of how Iran’s “deep state of security and intelligence forces,” which report to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continue to “have power without accountability” and dominate the “weak state,” writes Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“While the Guards’ use of fear and coercion might be able to indefinitely sustain the Islamic Republic’s internal contradictions, this should not be mistaken for popular legitimacy,” Mr. Sadjadpour wrote in The Atlantic in March. During four decades, the Islamic Republic “proved adept at surviving but, like many revolutionary regimes, incapable of reforming.”

And that creates a systemwide lack of unity that can lead to vulnerability.

“The regime itself is a compromise, between the ruling institutions and the supreme leader who sits on top of it,” says Dr. Ostovar. Mr. Khamenei “has not found a way to become a dictator and just impose a king-like efficiency to the system, and there’s also an indigenous looseness to the system that … allows these cracks and these fissures that can be exploited by Israel and whomever else.”

IRGC efforts are complicated, too, by the scale of “taking on the world, or at least a significant part of it, as an enemy,” says Dr. Ostovar. “It’s difficult for them to keep up. It’s got to be exhausting, because their foot is on the pedal all the time.”

The Christian Science Monitor

About Track Persia

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.