Analysis: Some Fear Reversal Of Reforms At Iranian Intelligence Ministry
By Bill Samii
Iran's Intelligence and Security Ministry earned a reputation for persecuting and killing dissidents in Iran and abroad and for economic corruption in the first 15 years of its existence (1984-99). An apparent purge of the ministry in 1999, after some officials were linked with the serial killings of dissidents, apparently helped to rehabilitate its reputation.
As the reformists' eight years in the executive branch wind down, there is room for speculation over whether the reform of the ministry will be reversed.
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met with senior Intelligence and Security Ministry officials on 1 February and expressed his pride and happiness with their performance, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He noted that the ministry contributes to the public's sense of security, and said that only spies and traitors need to fear it.
Former Iranian parliamentarian Ahmad Salamatian, who now lives in Paris, told Radio Farda that Khatami is contrasting the ministry's lawful behavior now with its excesses in the past, such as the serial killings of dissidents and economic corruption. This also contrasts the current leadership of Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi with that of Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani (1989-97), Salamatian told Radio Farda.
The big question, Salamatian said, is whether the ministry will resume its old ways once the Khatami presidency ends. Will the reforms that Khatami and Yunesi brought about in the ministry remain?
Reining In Rogue Elements
The big change in perceptions of the Intelligence and Security Ministry occurred in 1999, when alleged rogue elements in the ministry were arrested for murdering dissidents and intellectuals. The minister at the time, Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, resigned, and many other officials were purged from the organization. The former ministry officials allegedly went on to create parallel intelligence and security bodies that are affiliated with other state institutions, such as the judiciary, or the police's Public Establishments Office (Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi). The Intelligence and Security Ministry, meanwhile, came to be seen as an institution that was apolitical and less corrupt than it had been in the past.
Fighting corruption is a good way to make enemies. Intelligence and Security Minister Yunesi said in December that the prevalence of competing institutions hindered the fight against corruption, "Sharq" reported on 11 December. "The majority of these struggles were carried out as a result of political or factional considerations or even by personal will. They were surrounded by a ballyhoo, and sometimes they got to the point of execution but then the struggle would be stopped abruptly." Yunesi described corruption as a threat to all institutions, including the Intelligence and Security Ministry. He said many of the businesses associated with the ministry had been closed down, although this met with a lot of resistance and resulted in a loss of revenues. Yunesi said the government has compensated for these shortfalls, adding that the ministry is now fighting land speculation, a prevalent form of corruption in which people trade land that actually belongs to the government but which is not accounted for properly.
More recently, Yunesi dismissed the justifications used to close the Imam Khomeini International Airport in spring 2004 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 April and 17 May 2004). Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel closed the airport on its first day of operation, on the grounds that a Turkish firm's role in operating the facility posed a security risk. The legislature interpellated Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram after the airport's closure for giving the contract to the Turks, and the legislature is considering scrapping the contract altogether. The airport still is not in use. Yunesi said on 23 January that there are no security concerns, IRNA reported, and he referred to the closure as "a mistake that will be made up for."
There was little that Iranian hard-liners could do about these seemingly contrarian views and actions. But after the 2004 parliamentary elections, conservative domination of the legislature resumed, and with it came efforts to regain control of the Intelligence and Security Ministry. In November, Ardabil Province parliamentarian Hassan Nowi-Aqdam said the legislature was considering a bill to separate the Intelligence and Security Ministry from the executive branch, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. "The [ministry] has lost its awe and power," Nowi-Aqdam sai, "The ministry is no longer in control of the security units in various state departments and other ministries; the intelligence material passed to the [ministry] by these units are unreliable; moreover, the security units are more loyal to the departments where they work, instead of being loyal to the [ministry]."
This proposal met with a great deal of resistance. Former Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi warned on 26 November that approval of the bill would eliminate supervision of the Intelligence and Security Ministry, ISNA reported. Retaining its status as a ministry under the executive branch means that it is supervised by the legislature, Abtahi said, adding, "While such decisions are being made parallel intelligence bodies are undermining the activities of the [Intelligence and Security Ministry]."
Tabriz parliamentarian Akbar Alami said on 26 November that such a development would turn the Intelligence and Security Ministry into a frightening institution, ISNA reported. He explained that the ministry cannot turn against the people if it is supervised by the elected president and parliament.
After that initial furor, little came of the plan to make the ministry some sort of stand-alone institution. Yet some of the initially informal parallel entities have now become more institutionalized. "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 December that the Department for Social Protection now has a formal charter. Its responsibilities are almost identical to those of the Organization for the Propagation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice (Amr be Maruf va Nahi az Monker). Its personnel will gather intelligence, an Intelligence and Security Ministry responsibility, and also engage in activities that are normally the responsibility of the police and the Basij.
President Khatami told a boisterous student audience in a 6 December speech that the ministry is "the most trustworthy source of security in your system," state television reported.
From a comparative perspective, this might be true. But there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case if a hard-liner wins the June 2005 presidential election. And even if the ministry continues on its current path, the so-called parallel organizations might well continue on theirs.
Bill Samii is a regional analysis coordinator with RFE/RL Online and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report." He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. His research articles have appeared in the "Middle East Journal," "Middle East Policy," and the "Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal." He has contributed to several books about the Middle East.
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org