In February 2010, Iranian spies had Tehran’s most wanted man in their sights. Their target, Sunni Islamist militant Abdolmalek Rigi, had killed an Iranian general and was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in Iran from across the Pakistani border. After Rigi boarded a commercial flight to Dubai that took him through Iranian airspace, secret agents on board appeared, ordered the plane to land, and then arrested Rigi. He was later executed.
That’s just one operation in recent years by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS. According to a new report by the Federal Research Division at the Library of Congress, the spy agency counts as “the most powerful and well-supported ministry among all Iranian ministries” (.pdf) in terms of finances and support. The report, first obtained by Bill Gertz at The Washington Free Beacon, describes a 30,000 strong army of spies — the largest intelligence agency in the Middle East — responsible for assassinating political opponents, espionage, and, above all, crushing potential rivals to Tehran’s ruling elite.
But first note that the MOIS is distinct from the Quds Force, the combination special forces and CIA-styled intelligence wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. According to the report, the MOIS is mainly a domestic agency directed at infiltrating regime opponents inside Iran — as well as dissident groups organized by Iranian expatriates around the world. It’s currently headed by cleric Heydar Moslehi, who the U.S. government has sanctioned for being allegedly responsible for “beatings, mental abuse, and sexual abuse” carried out against Iranian political prisoners.
That makes it distinct from the Quds Force, Iran’s combination of foreign intelligence service and special forces units. The Quds Force — led by the mysterious Gen. Qassem Suleimani — is responsible “for the most part” in carrying out “extraterritorial operations such as sabotage, assassinations, and espionage.”
The MOIS is also opaque by nature, and it’s worth treading cautiously with the report’s claims, some of which are quite alarmist. There are allegations Iran works with al-Qaida against the U.S., but the report is scant on the details aside from attempts by Osama bin Laden to approach Iran during the 1990s. The claim also belies evidence, in recent years, that the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida has been characterized more by hostage trading and hostility rather than working together as allies.
The report claims the MOIS and Iranian Quds Force are using Hezbollah agents in Latin America to wage “asymmetrical warfare against the United States,” though this is likely overstated. The former U.S. military chief for South America, Gen. Douglas Fraser, said last March that Hezbollah was expanding into South America but that its operations were mainly confined to fundraising and “illicit activities” tied to the drug trade, not terrorist attacks.
But the report still presents a detailed look at its history and organization. The MOIS was birthed after the Iranian revolution of 1979, but the agency’s roots go further back, to the time when Iran had a pro-U.S. government headed by the dictatorial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Brought to power in a CIA-backed coup, the Shah built a secret police force called SAVAK to spy on, arrest and execute opponents of his regime. At the time, the main targets for SAVAK operations were Persian communist groups, and the agency became notorious for assassinating political dissidents and torturing thousands of political prisoners. Ultimately, SAVAK failed to protect the regime, which was overthrown in the 1979 revolution that brought the current Islamist regime to power.
SAVAK was disbanded and its director, General Hassan Pakravan, was executed shortly after the revolution. But the new regime needed spies of its own. The regime created several new spy agencies, but these were a complicated hodge-podge of groups with little centralized control. What did the regime do? They took three of the new agencies, combined them into the MOIS under the direct authority of the Ayatollah, and granted amnesty to former SAVAK agents needed to help staff it.
Reactivating the former agents was partly born out necessity: Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, and Tehran needed experts to root out Iraqi spies. But SAVAK tactics would also go on to be used against the regime’s opponents more broadly, including assassinations of dissidents inside and outside Iran. The agency has even created a team called Oghab 2, or Eagle 2, to protect Iran’s nuclear program against sabotage. But they don’t seem to have been particularly effective.
Today, according to the report, the MOIS considers the exiled Iranian terrorist group Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK, to be “the most serious dissident organization with regard to the Revolution.” Once supported by Saddam Hussein, the MEK has in recent years sought to build ties to prominent American lobbyists and figures from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to ex-CIA director Michael Hayden, and successfully lobbied the Obama administration into removing their group from the State Department’s list of known terrorist groups. The MEK hasn’t launched a terrorist attack in some time, but is still known for cult-like behavior and indoctrination rituals.
Iran treats the MEK more seriously than it may deserve, perhaps given the group’s ties to Washington insiders. But the MEK is a fringe cult and has scant support among Iranians. If the regime’s spies should feel threatened by anyone, it should be the Iranian public.