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Covert Terror: Iran’s Parallel Intelligence Apparatus

Two years later, Khatami took advantage of the popular outcry provoked by the Chain Murders to replace Najafabadi with Ali Younesi. Once appointed minister of intelligence, Younesi purportedly purged his ministry of those involved in the Chain Murders.

To counter their loss of influence within the Ministry of Intelligence, conservatives found other state intelligence organs through which to maintain control. They turned to their most trusted and reliable allies: the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, the NAJA law enforcement forces and the Army, each of which has its own intelligence and counterintelligence units. The conservatives used these intelligence units to unlawfully collect and manufacture material incriminating individuals linked to the reformist movement.

The conservative establishment exerted substantial influence over Iran’s Judiciary, and used it as an instrument to counter Khatami and his allies. Within several years of the Ministry of Intelligence purges, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the Judiciary, established three independent intelligence-gathering units. In October 2001, the Judiciary established a special committee to oversee the implementation of the supreme leader’s policies in foreign relations and to prosecute individuals who criticize the Supreme National Security Council’s decisions. In September 2002, the Judiciary established the Intelligence Protection Organization of the Judiciary, a notorious intelligence organization implicated in some of the abuses documented in this report. And in 2004, Shahroudi ordered the establishment of the Social Intelligence Organization, which was charged with gathering information related to public vices.

Operating beyond the purview of the Ministry of Intelligence, these units were ultimately accountable to the supreme leader, who appoints the head of the Judiciary. The head of the Judiciary, in turn, has the authority to appoint the head of the Supreme Court and the chief public prosecutor, who each have the managerial authority to appoint and dismiss their subordinates. The head of the Judiciary also appoints the top judges in the Revolutionary, Military, Clergy, Administrative and General Courts, as well as the justice minister. With the Judiciary almost entirely at the disposal of Khamenei, the conservative establishment exploited the powers granted to judicial authorities to legitimize their political objectives.

The result was a bifurcated system of intelligence operations, one controlled by reformist factions led by Khatami and his minister of intelligence, Younesi, and the other led by Khamenei and the various heads of the newly created subsidiary intelligence units. There is evidence that despite the complex and overlapping structure of Iran’s intelligence agencies, ultimate oversight came from officials at the top of these organizations, including those close to the Office of the Supreme Leader.

This decentralized intelligence structure was susceptible to abuse, and it enabled conservatives and their allies to simply bypass, with virtual impunity, legal constraints protecting fundamental rights enshrined in Iranian and international law. Decentralization in the Iranian political system did not, in fact, lead to separation of powers or a system of checks and balances. To the contrary, the new structure further concentrated power in the hands of the supreme leader and his appointees in the armed forces and Judiciary, all of whom identified with the conservatives’ political agenda.

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