The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Forty years ago last week, a group called Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage. Iran’s new revolutionary government, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dubbed the embassy the “den of espionage.”
The ensuing hostage crisis cast a long shadow over Iran’s relations with the United States—one still visible today. Perhaps less remarked upon in Washington, however, is the lasting influence of the event and its symbolism on the Iranian government’s view of intelligence and counterintelligence.
From the time of the embassy takeover, the Islamic Republic would spend decades looking for spies and infiltrators wherever there was a strong trace of the West. The mentality, which revolutionary ideology served to bolster, was one that ultimately directed the suspicions of the security apparatus toward individuals and institutions associated with the elected components of the postrevolutionary state—the “republic” part of the Islamic Republic, which derived its power from mechanisms that looked uncomfortably similar to those that prevailed in Western democratic states.
Perhaps for the first time since the 1979 revolution, this mentality has started to change, within both intelligence circles and the public. The “maximum pressure” campaign of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed Iran’s otherwise factionalized political system toward homogenization and consensus over matters of security and survival. And egregious intelligence failures—including the one that allowed Israel to extract more than half a ton of Iran’s “atomic archives” from a warehouse in Tehran last year—coupled with shrinking state resources as a consequence of sanctions have triggered rare soul-searching in the Iranian intelligence and security apparatus.
Confronted with growing military threats abroad and daunting prospects of unrest at home, Iranian leaders seem to have concluded that they can no longer afford to overlook the possible presence of moles and spies—not in the country’s elected offices, such as the presidency and the parliament, to which reform-minded politicians have traditionally had better access, but in the state’s most revolutionary and anti-Western institutions.
Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s minister of intelligence, raised the alarm on live television on August 24. Never before in the life of the Islamic Republic, Alavi intoned, had “enemies gotten so close to the insiders” as today. He alluded to hard-line centers of power such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which runs its own parallel intelligence organization. The country’s top authorities were “astonished,” said Alavi, when they received his ministry’s reports on “where [within the government] we discovered spies.”
Alavi went on to announce the formation of a “directorate of infiltration” within the Ministry of Intelligence whose main task, he suggested, would be to closely monitor “fixed” (or unelected)—as opposed to “changing” (or elected)—parts of the state. These were the branches where Alavi believed hostile elements, backed by foreign intelligence agencies, had planted themselves over a shockingly long duration—20 years, he indicated—in a slow-burning strategy of infiltration.
Rooting out spies, Alavi suggested, would primarily be a matter not of finding those who seemed openly sympathetic to foreign states but of scrutinizing their opposites: “Infiltrators usually adopt the hottest [revolutionary] slogans and accuse others [of wrongdoing] very quickly before they are subject to the slightest suspicion and cynicism themselves,” Iran’s intelligence minister explained.
Not long before Alavi gave the interview, the IRGC, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly oversees, had reshuffled some high-profile commanders. The changes were meant both to strengthen Iran’s offensive posture in the region and to address previous security lapses. Iranian intelligence had after all failed to foresee or prevent several significant losses: of the country’s “missile father,” General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, in a 2011 explosion near Tehran; of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists who were assassinated between 2010 and 2012; and, more recently, of a treasure-trove of top-secret nuclear documents that Israel made off with in a historic heist. Such failures suggested that all was not locked down as it should be within the most secretive organs of the state.
A new narrative has started to take hold with the Iranian public—one in which hard-liners could be spies.
A new narrative has started to take hold with the Iranian public—one in which hard-liners could be spies and the most revolutionary state bodies might harbor the real “dens of espionage.” The notion gained further credence when Amir Tohid Fazel, an Iranian journalist with the hard-line Moj News Agency, defected to Sweden in late August. Fazel boasted strong hard-line credentials, and influential figures and organs within the security apparatus trusted him to use his media ties to advance their political interests amid fierce factional rivalries. His appeal for asylum in Sweden raised questions about the faithfulness and reliability of hard-liners in the government’s inner “revolutionary” circles.
Within days of Fazel’s defection, a number of religious eulogists—popular personalities who celebrate the achievements and martyrdom of historic Shiite figures—were arrested on suspicion of espionage for Israel. Two years earlier, three other eulogists linked to the Basij militia had been arrested on similar charges. Notably, religious eulogists often have close ties to hard-line governmental bodies, such as the Office of the Supreme Leader, and are central to the Islamic Republic’s campaign to win hearts and minds at home. They have not been the usual targets of counterespionage sweeps.
Even more unexpected was the story of Mohammad Hossein Rostami and Reza Golpour, colleagues at a hard-line, IRGC-affiliated website called Ammariyon. The two were jailed in late 2016, also on charges of espionage for Israel. And they, too, were trusted insiders with special access and close ties to senior IRGC officials. Rostami had previously served as a paramilitary fighter in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the IRGC. Golpour had published a book in 2002 titled Eavesdropping on Phantoms, which criticized the performance of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami. According to one well-placed source within elite hard-line circles, the IRGC tasked Golpour with a “sabotage mission” to undermine the credibility of the Intelligence Ministry, which the IRGC saw as a rival and distrusted. Such an agenda would have been extremely sensitive and required a high degree of trust.
For this reason, the espionage charges not only came as a shock to many but raised questions about the credibility and competence of the IRGC itself, which had apparently allowed a “traitor” to work within its innermost ranks for years. In retrospect, it appears Golpour was not technically a spy but perhaps leaking sensitive intelligence with an Israeli audience in mind in order to gain a personal or organizational advantage. Hard-line media outlets most likely publicized the charges against him with the IRGC’s blessing in order to put similar potential leakers or infiltrators on notice.
Iran’s top leadership has not embraced the view that Iran’s real “dens of espionage” lie in the hard-line bastions of the state. Rather, Iranian leaders fear that suspicion of hard-liners will weaken the Islamic Republic’s base of support and loosen its grip on power. Khamenei has made a point of reinforcing the prestige and mandate of the hard-line power centers of the state. In a September 26 speech, the supreme leader urged Iranian authorities to employ “devout and revolutionary forces” in “critical centers” of the state, as they are, in his words, “the same people who entered the scene” in defense of the Islamic Republic during popular protests in 2009 and 2017–18 and “frustrated the enemies.”
The 2009 protests, known as the Green Movement, expressed the widespread view that Iran’s presidential election that June had been rigged to favor the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Opposition both to the election’s outcome and to the state’s violent repression of the protest movement was so widespread that officials had serious concerns about systematic defiance or even a coup within Iran’s security and intelligence system. On Khamenei’s orders, the IRGC dealt with this possibility by developing its own intelligence unit into a larger organization that could serve as a counterweight to the Ministry of Intelligence.
Khamenei appointed a senior cleric named Hossein Taeb to head the newly empowered IRGC intelligence organization. A trusted associate of the supreme leader’s from the early postrevolutionary years, Taeb had a background in counterintelligence as well as close ties to Khamenei and the IRGC. These qualifications, along with his hard-line track record in dealing with antirevolutionary elements, rendered Taeb particularly fit for marshaling the intelligence and security campaign to quell the “Green sedition,” as the Iranian government officially termed the post-election protests in 2009.
Backed by the supreme leader for its ostensible revolutionary credentials, and inspired by a highly ideological view of national security, the IRGC intelligence organization has helped guard the hard-line establishment—or what is locally referred to as the “deep state” or the “hard core of power” in the Islamic Republic—against political and security threats at home and abroad. In so doing, the organization has arguably pursued a demonstrably political agenda, centered around empowering the revolutionary pillars of the state and marginalizing its challengers. Iran’s rival intelligence agencies do cooperate over vital matters of national security. But to the IRGC intelligence organization has fallen the job of preventing systematic nonconformity, defiance, and even revolt within the government’s intelligence and military ranks—or, put another way, of safeguarding the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary core.
To the IRGC intelligence organization has fallen the job of preventing systematic nonconformity, defiance, and even revolt within the government’s intelligence and military ranks.
The Ministry of Intelligence, which since Khatami’s presidency has drawn closer to the moderate wing of the establishment, has periodically “manufactured” spies for political purposes, lest it fall behind in the unrelenting struggle for the revolutionary mantle of the Islamic Republic. But the current counterespionage campaign focusing on characteristically revolutionary forces is something new. For an agency as vital as the IRGC intelligence organization to suffer repeated security failures comes at great political cost to the entire Iranian leadership—so great, in fact, that letting these failures go unanswered would risk eroding the authority of hard-line institutions and their revolutionary narratives. And so the IRGC intelligence apparatus has responded, mainly by scapegoating others, such as Kavous Seyed-Emami, a widely respected environmental activist who was killed in jail last year, and eight of his conservationist colleagues who remain behind bars on shaky espionage charges. What the IRGC intelligence organization has not done is deny that enemies have infiltrated its ranks.
Four decades after the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, the Iranian leadership seems determined to keep alive the revolutionary spirit of anti-Westernism within the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus and governance structure. The fight to uproot the Western “den of espionage” and its perceived local incarnations remains the symbolic narrative Khamenei wants to project about Iran, at home and abroad. But an increasing number of Iranians—including some within the intelligence establishment itself—are telling a very different story.
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