Iranian hardliners launched a brazen political offensive in recent weeks, arresting two American citizens and at least five reformist journalists and dimming U.S. officials’ hopes that the nuclear deal would temper Tehran’s belligerent behavior.
The media have correctly observed that the arrests reflect Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s efforts to ensure that the regime’s balance of power remains with his own hardline factions. Few Western media outlets, however, have documented the source of that power play: the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its director Hossein Taeb.
In his annual address to IRGC commanders last month, the supreme leader specifically called upon Taeb and his organization to be vigilant against “enemy infiltration.” Indeed, Taeb has increasingly played the role of Khamenei’s enforcer.
The 52-year-old cleric is reportedly a former student of Khamenei. A three-decade veteran of the IRGC, he was seconded to the Ministry of Intelligence upon its establishment in 1984, where he earned a reputation as one of its “most violent interrogators.”
In 1995, Taeb rose to the position of Khamenei’s chief of staff. In 2008, he became head of the Basij paramilitary, where the following year he oversaw the ruthless suppression of popular protests over alleged fraudulent presidential elections. With the Green Revolution snuffed out, Khamenei rewarded Taeb with the post of IRGC intelligence chief.
Under Taeb, IRGC intelligence has intensified its fight against “sedition,” counterrevolutionaries both real and imagined and “cyber crimes.” Taeb has warned that the Internet is a potential avenue of sabotage for the West, which he accuses of plotting a “soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic” through “attraction, employment and coercion.” His organization’s agents are now the leading edge of the regime’s efforts to silence critical content on the Web.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in 2010 the U.S. Department of the Treasury placed Taeb under sanctions for human-rights abuses, and the European Union followed suit the next year. Both sanctions remain in effect.
The nuclear deal has indeed brought a shift in Iranian politics, but not the one its framers intended. Tehran’s newfound economic and diplomatic clout has not empowered those factions willing to contemplate a less bellicose international presence. Rather, it has emboldened men like Hossein Taeb and others who are most committed to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary, illiberal and anti-Western ideology.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh