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Covert Terror: Iran’s Parallel Intelligence Apparatus

Interviews and independent research conducted by IHRDC reveal a striking pattern of brutality by PIA agents. The PIA’s goal was to break its targets through the use of various tactics designed to coerce them into confessing to contrived criminal charges. These tactics included unlawful investigations, surveillance, arrests, searches and seizures of property, prolonged interrogations, torture and detention in illegal and often hidden facilities. Many of the coerced confessions were often obtained under the supervision of judges or other influential members of the Judiciary, and were videotaped and broadcast by state-owned media outlets such as the Kayhan newspaper and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

The scope of the crimes committed by PIA agents is breathtaking. An analysis by IHRDC has uncovered widespread violations of numerous articles of the Iranian Constitution, as well as of Iran’s Citizen Rights Law and State Prisons Organizations Law. The breach of international norms is equally shocking: IHRDC’s research has revealed violations of the Convention Against Torture, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, not to mention the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners and Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary.

The lack of accountability for the PIA’s crimes, however, is perhaps best revealed in the fate suffered by Ali Akbar Musavi-Khu’ini. A reformist, Musavi-Khu’ini was appointed in 2001 as head of the Article 90 Commission, a parliamentary body established to investigate the PIA’s alleged use of illegal detention facilities to detain and interrogate political prisoners. His investigation so piqued the conservative establishment that he was imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he remained until after Khatami had retired from office.


Various theories exist regarding the establishment of PIA units, but there is general consensus among political analysts that they came about as a result of the ideological schism between reformist elements encouraged by Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997 and old-guard conservatives fighting to retain control. The conservative establishment found itself on the defensive for the first time since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, as a wave of electoral victories by pro-reform candidates ushered in a period of relaxed social and political restrictions and a gradual strengthening of a vibrant civil society.

Although the election signaled the strength of popular demands for reform, it did not change the basic framework of the Islamic revolutionary system, and did not ultimately translate into deeper social reforms. Khamenei remained the most powerful political figure in the country, and the conservative bloc within the clerical establishment retained control over many state institutions.

The old guard did, however, lose authority and influence over certain key executive posts, in particular at the Ministry of Intelligence, and it was in response that the Khamenei-led conservative establishment created, nurtured and directed parallel intelligence units dedicated to crushing the reformist movement.

In 1998, a number of Iranian dissident intellectuals were brutally murdered in an apparently coordinated campaign that became known as the “Chain Murders.” After the attacks Khatami and his allies launched executive and parliamentary investigations, which eventually revealed an extensive network of alleged rogue intelligence elements linked to the Ministry of Intelligence and several other intelligence units. The minister of intelligence at the time, conservative cleric Dorri Najafabadi, was considered to be close to the supreme leader.

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