On January 1, 24-year-old Saru Ghahremani attended one of Iran’s nationwide protests and vanished. Eleven days later, agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) delivered his corpse, marked by signs of torture and beatings, to the home of his parents. They detained the father. A few hours later, state-run television broadcast a forced confession by the elder Ghahremani declaring that his son died in a shootout with security forces, not in an MOIS facility. Tellingly, the MOIS then forbade the father from giving any other interviews.
This story is hardly unusual: Since the 1980s, the MOIS has violently neutralized ideological opponents of the regime both at home and abroad. In response, the Obama administration sanctioned two previous MOIS ministers as well as the MOIS itself. To date, however, its current minister, Mahmoud Alavi, has escaped Washington’s attention. The latest demonstrations in Iran highlight the urgency of renewed U.S. scrutiny. Because Tehran views the MOIS as a linchpin of its revolutionary ambitions, sanctioning Alavi would bolster the Iranian people’s own challenge to the regime’s legitimacy.
In 2016, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, characterized the MOIS as the Islamic Republic’s “hard outer shell,” which helps “protect the system’s soft inner core of values.” It’s an apt description: The MOIS values conformity to Iran’s militant Islamist doctrine with the same gravity as it does physical security. In the regime’s view, Western nations, acting in part through their intelligence agencies and through Sunni Arab states, threaten Iran not only with foreign troops but also with foreign values that aim to discredit and hence subvert its religious rule. Consequently, Khamenei declared, the MOIS — more than any other government agency — must “pay greater attention to strengthening key elements such as faith and spirituality.”
Alavi has offered a more dramatic synopsis of the ministry’s objectives. All MOIS personnel, he said in April, “announce their readiness to stand up to the cronies of the global hegemony led by the U.S., which is seeking domination over the world, the criminal Zionism, and the infant-killing Al Saud regime, and to safeguard the ideals of the Islamic Revolution to the last drop of their blood.” This battle, he asserted in 2015, “is not limited to a hot or cold war. It is also a hard and soft war.”
Appointed in 2013, Alavi succeeds intelligence ministers with storied pedigrees of terrorism and repression that reflect this worldview. Under his forerunners, the MOIS, in conjunction with other Iranian paramilitary organizations, frequently arrested and tortured journalists, human-rights activists, political opponents, and ethnic and religious minorities. It helped promote pro-regime propaganda on state-run media, including the coerced confessions of political prisoners. It played a key role in stifling the 2009 Green Revolution through force.
According to a Pentagon report in 2012, the MOIS committed numerous assassinations and terrorist attacks against Iranian dissidents in the diaspora. It helped plan the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively. It provided support to Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It maintained a presence in the Persian Gulf countries, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Europe, East and South Asia, and North and South America. It acquired military technology and monitored threats to Iran’s nuclear program. “If not for the Intelligence Ministry, our nuclear industry would have not been at the level it is today,” Iran’s deputy nuclear chief, Ali Asghar Zarean, said in 2014.
The Ministry of Intelligence and Security has reserved special animus for Iranians with Western ties.
Under Alavi’s leadership, the MOIS’ malign behavior shows no sign of receding. Its global networks remain operational. It continues to provide material support to Iranian proxies. Its human-rights abuses proceed unabated. And it has worked to stymie the widespread demonstrations that began in December 2017.
Examples of such repression abound. On June 11, the judiciary imposed eight-year prison sentences on student protesters Sina Darvish Omran and Ali Mozaffari, on the basis of coerced confessions by MOIS interrogators, for acting against “national security” and waging “propaganda against the state.” In May, the MOIS conducted a wave of arrests targeting members of the Baha’i faith, which the United Nations has described as Iran’s “most severely persecuted religious minority.”
The MOIS has reserved special animus for Iranians with Western ties. In March 2016, it arrested Iranian national Aras Amiri, a London-based employee of a British cultural-relations organization, when she visited her family in Iran. The MOIS accused her of “assembly and collusion against national security.” The following month, it incarcerated disaster-medicine expert Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian citizen and Swedish resident, on espionage charges while he was visiting the country at the invitation of Tehran University.
In this context, the MOIS’s work often overlaps with the efforts of the more well-known Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard — including the operations of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which spearheads Tehran’s regional aggression, and of the IRGC’s own intelligence arm. In fact, the IRGC and the MOIS routinely collaborate, though turf wars remain common. While the MOIS often operates covertly, and although Alavi lacks the name recognition of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the public face of Tehran’s campaign of aggression across the Middle East, the MOIS remains indispensable to Iran’s efforts to subjugate its neighbors.
The Trump administration should act accordingly. In October 2017, it sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety for its support of terrorism. This move built on earlier sanctions, by the George W. Bush administration, of the IRGC for its proliferation activities and of Soleimani and the Quds Force. Sanctioning Alavi for the vast range of his nefarious conduct would complement these steps, sending Tehran — and the Iranian people — the message that Washington remains committed to defeating the full spectrum of actors responsible for advancing the clerical regime’s belligerent policies.