Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has famously promised “moderation” in Iran since being elected president of the Islamic Republic this summer. His intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, appears to have similar visions for Iran’s intelligence apparatus. However, the first 100 days of Rouhani’s presidency reveals that he may be failing in this regard.
Iranians have long been divided about the role of the intelligence services. For example, former Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi notes in his memoirs that former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani criticized Younesi’s attempts at reining in the secretive apparatus. “The methods you are using in the Intelligence Ministry have reduced it to a municipal office: an ineffective organization nobody fears!” Rafsanjani charged. Defending his record, Younesi retorted: “Everywhere else in the world, this is called intelligence methodology. We must see to it that the Intelligence Ministry is in the service of the public.”
Then, as now, the debate rages over the role of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS). In the one camp are those who, like Rafsanjani, see the MOIS, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and vigilante groups, as instruments of the state to terrorize the public into submission. The other camp includes the likes of Younesi and Saeed Hajjarian, MOIS co-founder turned reformist theoretician, who seek to centralize and professionalize the MOIS.
Rouhani’s new intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, has staked out a position in the second camp. Asking for a parliamentary vote of confidence on August 15, Alavi declared his desire to, “institutionalize durable security without securitizing the society.” He expressed his belief in the sanctity of private life of citizens “as long as there is no conspiracy,” and concluded that the use of force always must be a last resort. Last month, Alavi raised similar themes.
The Islamic Republic’s intelligence community however, appears to be out of step with Alavi’s declared program. A recent report submitted by Ahmad Shaheed, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, concluded that there is a “deepening human rights crisis” in Iran. While the report did not raise accusations against specific government agencies, press reports from the last couple of days identify the perpetrators. Intelligence ministry agents beat up the daughters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 presidential candidate who still is under house arrest, and they continue to imprison Iranians of the Bahai faith and converts to Christianity because of their religious beliefs. Alavi, despite his state policies, has himself declared war on ideologically non-conformist journalists whom he accuses of being foreign agents. More broadly, his intelligence services continue to seek out purported foreign spies and saboteurs.
Alavi now finds himself in a position similar to that of Rouhani. Even if he wishes to change the policies of the Islamic Republic, he lacks the authority. Such decisions remain in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC. Thus, the intelligence services are likely to remain what they have long been in Iran: a force for domestic terror and intimidation.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.