The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was created in 1979, and it has grown to be the most powerful segment of the ruling establishment. The IRGC exercises considerable influences in Iran’s political, security, and economic structures and has also developed significant intelligence activities.
Since its formation in 2009, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps – Intelligence Organisation (IRGC-IO) has gained increasing dominance over the domestic security sphere in Iran. Under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it has targeted officials, journalists, lawyers, activists, and dual nationals, severely undermining the policies and status of successive elected governments.
In doing so, it has encroached upon, and in many respects side-lined, the government’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). A major reason behind the increase in IRGC-IO powers was the inability of the MOIS to contain the 2009 Iranian uprising. The rivalry between the Rouhani administration’s Intelligence Ministry and the revolutionary guards’ IRGC Intelligence Organization was highlighted recently when the IRGC contradicted Iran’s Intelligence Ministry on arrest of US-based terror ringleader Jamshid Sharmahd. On August 1, Iranian official news agency IRNA quoted Iran’s Intelligence Ministry as saying that it had arrested “the ringleader of a terrorist group known as Tondar which is based in the United States”, and that Iran has dealt a “heavy and severe blow” to a terrorist group based in the US.
On August 2, the IRGC linked newspaper Javan reported that he was arrested in Tajikistan and was subsequently handed over to Iran. The IRGC-IO’s expansive view of what constitutes a danger has been effective in cowing political activists, but has come at the expense of further eroding the system’s legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the public.
Furthermore, although many of the cases that it has instigated against officials and their families- particularly in relation to corruption – may well be rooted, in fact the IRGC-IO is widely seen as a tool of the regime to intimidate particular political factions, including supporters of the current President, Hassan Rouhani, in power since 2013. Although much remains opaque about the IRGC-IO’s organisation, exiled scholars and news organisations such as IranWire report that it was created with a number of divisions.
These divisions included a newly formed Cyber Defence Command, Khamenei’s personal intelligence office – known as Department 101, the Internal Security Directorate – which had previously been the sole responsibility of the MOIS, the Security Directorate of the Basij paramilitary force, and other plainclothes and paramilitary police units, such as the Sarollah Headquarters of elite IRGC and Basij forces tasked with confronting protests and civil unrest within Tehran province.
Crucially, the IRGC-IO leadership was made to report directly to the office of the Supreme Leader, meaning that it bypassed even the leadership of the IRGC.
The steady accretion of power by the IRGC-IO since its formation in 2009 has deliberately come at the expense of the government’s intelligence arm – the MOIS.
Rouhani’s Minister of Intelligence, Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi, has attempted to push back against the IRGC-IO’s more controversial cases, and his failures have highlighted the government’s diminishing influence in the domestic security sphere.
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