The Ayatollah’s Den of Espionage

How Iran Came to See Its Revolutionary Core as Compromised

Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy march during a parade in Tehran, September 2011 Reuters

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

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