Iran’s Intelligence Agencies Are Clashing Over Impact of Deadly Floods, Analysts Say

By Natasha Phillips

APR.5 – Tensions are rising between Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Intelligence Organization as sanctions and nationwide damage from floods impact the country’s economy, analysts say. 

President Hassan Rouhani and IRGC Commander in Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari clashed last week on Iran’s State TV as well as on social media on the subject of the country’s floods, which have left at least 62 people dead. 

Footage of President Rouhani criticizing the IRGC Commander at a meeting was aired on March 29 by Iranian media outlet Akharin Khabar. In the meeting, Rouhani implied that the IRGC chief had failed to solve the water crisis, and that the guard corps had simply moved water from one place to another. The IRGC’s relief efforts made no difference to the affected areas in Iran, Mr. Rouhani said, citing reports that he had received from officials monitoring the flooded zones.

The following day, in a video clip shared on Twitter, the IRGC Commander called Rouhani’s comments “insults.” He said the water had been diverted to the Caspian Sea, which was the only place that the floodwater could go. 

The unprecedented hostilities between the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Organization could ultimately undermine public confidence in the government as well as in the Supreme Leader, according to Ali Alfoneh, a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

The IRGC, which was established in May 1979, was originally set up to counter opposition to the Islamic revolution. Yet the organization’s rise inside Iran as a dominant economic actor has created an imbalance which Alfoneh believes could cost Khamenei his position. 

Alfoneh, whose research examines civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the IRGC, made the comments in an article published in October 2017 by the Middle East Institute.

Heightened levels of tension between the Ministry of Intelligence — which President Rouhani oversees — and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization highlight the latter’s substantial influence in government, said Dr. Shahriar Ahy, co-founder of the campaign group Unity for Democracy in Iran, in an interview with Kayhan Life.

FILE PHOTO: Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (3rd R) monitors an area as he attends a war game in the Hormuz area of southern Iran. Reuters

The balance of power “is tilting towards the IRGC at the moment, because of economic pressures and a growing weakness within central government, which has led to the prioritization of security issues over domestic policy concerns.” Dr. Ahy explained.

“Whenever there is a fear of protests and a breakdown within law and order, security becomes the primary concern, so the IRGC’s think tank becomes the dominant decision center for immediate security issues, which override everything else,” Dr. Ahy added.

The significant weight given to the IRGC’s wishes by Iran’s Supreme Leader — who has final say on all matters — can be seen in the economic sphere too, Dr. Ahy said, where the IRGC had sometimes concealed evidence of its own wrongdoing. 

“The IRGC is actively burying evidence showing that it may be responsible for things, and this is the main area of conflict between the two intelligence departments,” he noted.

Dr. Ahy said that while in the past the Ministry of Intelligence had a free hand to bring economic wrongdoing to the attention of the Supreme Leader, this was no longer the case.

“The IRGC is in a much stronger position to veto economic reports going up the chain of command,” he said. 

The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization also investigates government officials, Dr. Ahy told Kayhan Life. The agency increasingly advises the judiciary on which politicians to probe, he said, with most reports now coming from the IRGC’s intelligence body rather than the Ministry of Intelligence. 

Instances of rivalry between the two organizations have been publicly aired through Iranian media outlets in recent years. 

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei (3R)
Source: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In 2017, Judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ezhehi was reported to have announced a five-year jail sentence for Abd al-Rasoul Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian dual national who represented the Central Bank of Iran during the nuclear negotiations. According to the Young Journalists Club, Ezhehi claimed that Esfahani had been sentenced for spying on behalf of two foreign intelligence agencies. 

Three days later, Tabnak news reported that Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi had dismissed the Judiciary’s claim, and cleared Esfahani of any wrongdoing. The minister said Esfahani had cooperated in full with the Intelligence Ministry. 

Disagreements like this one demonstrate a new level of coordination between the IRGC and the Judiciary to undermine the government-led Ministry of Intelligence, according to Alfoneh. 

Historically, Iran’s Supreme Leaders have tried to maintain a balance between the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence, seeing the two wings as part of a dual system in which manageable levels of conflict were thought to act as shock absorbers inside government.