Iran, Intelligence and Security

Iran, Intelligence and Security

Iran has a number of intelligence and security organizations that include the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (known as VEVAK for its initials in Farsi), as well as the group called the Pasdaran, or Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Up to 1978, Iran was controlled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, who maintained power through a state security organization, SAVAK. His overthrow led to the establishment, in 1979, of the world's first major Islamic theocracy under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Thus was born a new form of police state in contrast to the Soviet, Nazi, or nationalist models—a state in which security forces are often directed toward the enforcement of religious law.

In accordance with the theocratic nature of government in a country officially known as "the Islamic Republic of Iran," the nation's "supreme leader" is a religious authority: first Khomeini and then, after Khomeini's death in 1989, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. The "supreme leader" sits on the Joint Committee for Special Operations, an Iranian organizational equivalent of the U.S. National Security Council.

Other members of the Joint Committee include the nation's president (its top secular official), and representatives of the Pasdaran, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Security and Intelligence. The Joint Committee coordinates international activities of Iranian operatives, which include intelligence-gathering, attempts to obtain special weapons technology by clandestine means, and efforts to control the community of Iranian exiles—as well as alleged enemies of the revolution—overseas.

VEVAK. Iranian leaders' legendary hatred of the United States is rooted in history. The Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow the government of Mohammad Mossadeqh in 1953, and provided support to his replacement, the Shah. U.S. and Israeli intelligence helped train the hated SAVAK, which included some 15,000 operatives and practiced torture using electric shock and other brutal methods. Ironically, when the new regime established its replacement for SAVAK—initially known as SAVAMA, and later retitled VEVAK—it needed experienced intelligence operatives, so it brought in former low-ranking officers of SAVAK and the Shah's military.

VEVAK operatives overseas use a number of covers, posing as bankers, students, laborers, or employees of Iran Air. These operatives help oversee an international terror network that claimed well over 1,000 lives in more than 200 terrorist attacks during the first two decades after the revolution. At times their work is assassination, as when they conducted a worldwide manhunt for author Salman Rushdie after the publication of his allegedly blasphemous 1989 novel The Satanic Verses.

In 1997, a German court convicted four assassins linked with Iran for the slaying of three Kurdish dissidents and their translator at a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. Much of the Iranians' operations in Germany took place through their diplomatic mission, from which they monitored some 100,000 Iranian expatriates throughout the country. Iran also used its diplomatic mission as cover for efforts to procure nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons technology.

Iranian and Iranian-sponsored terrorists have been involved in an array of worldwide terrorist activities including: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983; bombings in Paris in 1986; at the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994; and at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1995. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korean "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech.

The Pasdaran. Western analysts argue that sponsorship of terror in the name of Islam is one of the few things Iran has in common with Iraq, against which it fought what became the longest and bloodiest war anywhere in the world since WWII. Among the notable aspects of the grisly 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war were the Bajeef (volunteers), young men without military training who volunteered to go to the front on suicide missions. After the war, they were incorporated in a larger force that had existed since May 1979, when Khomeini established it by decree: the Pasdaran.

Former Bajeef members, and other Pasdaran with lower levels of training, were detailed to perform the functions of a theocratic police force—harassing or arresting women who wore makeup or inappropriate attire, and seizing forbidden items such as videotapes, photographs, pork products, and alcohol. At the more sophisticated end of Pasdaran operations are its activities overseas, including those of the Qods or Jerusalem Force, which in the mid-1990s allegedly trained terrorists in Sudan and elsewhere.

Exporting the revolution. Iran sought to export its revolution through support of Sh'ia Muslim factions such as Hizballah in Lebanon, but its leadership did not necessarily resist alliances with Muslims of the larger Sunni sect. Hence, during the mid-1990s Iran sought to build ties with Bosnia—ironically, a country known in the West for the relative moderation of its Muslims. Still, Iran succeeded in placing several hundred agents in Bosnia, where they even penetrated U.S. efforts to train the Bosnian army.

Another branch of the Pasdaran consisted of some 12,000 Arabic-speaking operatives of many nationalities working with Hizballah, Kurdish groups, and other armies in central Asia. In a particularly stunning example of the continued international flavor of terrorism, the Pasdaran "Operation of Liberation Movements" attended a coordination meeting in Beirut in April 1995 with representatives of Hizballah, the Iraqi Da'Wah Party, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Armenian Secret Army, and the Japanese Red Army.



Daughtery, William J. In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Roosevelt, Kermit. Countercoup, the Struggle for the Control of Iran. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.


Karmon, Ely. "Counterterrorism Policy: Why Tehran Stops and Starts Terrorism." Middle East Quarterly V, no. 4 (December 1998).

Samii, Abbas William. "The Shah's Lebanon Policy: The Role of SAVAK." Middle Eastern Studies 33, no. 1 (January 1997): 66–91.


Iran—A Country Study. Library of Congress. < > (March 26, 2003).

Iran-e-Azad: Supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. < > (March 26, 2003).

Iranian Intelligence Agencies. Federation of American Scientists. < > (March 26, 2003).


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