Iran's “Security Outlook”

by Farideh Farhi | published July 9, 2007

Widespread apprehension attended the June 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at least among those Iranians who had approved of the country’s direction under the reformist clerics led by President Mohammad Khatami. Their worries had little to do with Ahmadinejad’s signature campaign issue, the flagging Iranian economy, and much to do with potential reversal of the political and cultural opening under Khatami, now that hardline conservatives controlled every branch of the government. The opening had begun to close long before the hardliners’ accession to power, of course, but many Iranians feared that Ahmadinejad would seal it tight, by shuttering the remaining opposition or independent publications, for instance, or by censoring books, music, film and theater, dismantling satellite dishes, imprisoning political activists and more rigorously imposing an “Islamic” dress code.

For the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, these fears seemed exaggerated. There was a crackdown, to be sure, but it was aimed at a limited number of people—NGO staffers, lay and clerical dissidents, intellectuals, students, unionists and journalists—whose activism the new government and its deeply conservative social base deemed particularly threatening. Though it carefully controlled its more vocal opponents, the government endeavored not to antagonize the vast middle of the political spectrum, those Iranians who, while unhappy with the status quo, bear its burdens quietly. The government also plied the majority of the population with cheap imports and lavish welfare spending made possible by record-high oil prices. Iranian analyst Saeed Laylaz was quoted in an International Crisis Group report calling this policy “the Iranian version of the China model. The difference is that in China economic prosperity is underwritten by economic productivity. In Iran, the middle group is bought off with oil money.”

In the first half of 2007, however, the crackdown has broadened. Criticism of Ahmadinejad’s policies is still common in the pages of reformist and centrist papers, a couple of which were even able to resume publishing in the spring after winning court battles (although one, Ham-Mihan , was reclosed by court order on July 3 amidst popular unrest over gasoline rationing). But the political reins are tightening, with accusations of “action against national security,” “propaganda against the system” and/or spying on behalf of external powers leveled at a prominent Khatami-era official, as well as four Iranian-Americans who were doing civil society work or simply visiting family members in Iran. The government has also lowered the boom on women’s rights, student and labor activists, taking them to court, setting excessive amounts of bail and meting out unusually stiff jail sentences (though many are yet to be implemented). More significantly, socio-cultural repression has accompanied the political, with stepped-up harassment of women wearing “improper” Islamic attire ( bad-hejabi ) in Iran’s major cities and roundups of men identified by the police as “hoodlums and thugs.”

Almost ritually throughout the existence of the Islamic Republic, campaigns to curtail bad-hejabi have commenced at the beginning of summer, with members of the basij militia scanning the streets for form-fitting manteaus and forelocks peeking out from under headscarves. But these efforts have usually been short-lived, appearing and disappearing with little fanfare, and the basij , as a paramilitary force, has lacked access to all the levers of the state. This time around, the campaign has blared from the government-controlled television channels and gendarmes answering to the Interior Ministry, the Security Forces of the Islamic Republic ( Niruhaye Entezami-ye Jomhuri-ye Eslami ), have been fully in command. Extensive television interviews with ordinary citizens portray the clampdowns on both bad-hejabi and “hoodlums and thugs” as professional responses to the genuine desires of the “family-oriented” majority. In its search for alleged miscreants, the Intelligence Ministry has gone so far as middle-of-the-night entries into the homes of young men who have done nothing in particular to be arrested now, but have been blacklisted for past activities. Many families do not know where their sons are imprisoned or the nature of the charges against them.

It remains to be seen whether these public morality campaigns will persist or peter out as summer progresses, as in the past. What is noteworthy, however, is the reality that these campaigns, along with the shrinkage of the political sphere, have created a clear sense even among the competing political elites of Iran that the original apprehensions of June 2005 were justified: A newly security-conscious state, bordering on paranoid, has indeed emerged. Also significant is the fact that this security consciousness is not denied by the government, which sees its tightened grip upon society as a necessary step for countering external (chiefly, US) attempts to undermine not only the government but also the Islamic order itself.

Given Iran’s highly contentious (even if narrowly circumscribed) political environment, the security-oriented approach must prove useful if Ahmadinejad’s allies in the parliament, or Majles, are to retain their seats. Primarily, it must appear to succeed in mitigating the multitude of economic and political pressures upon Iran due to US policies and UN Security Council Resolutions 1737 and 1747, directed at Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, security consciousness has to be marketed as an effective policy, particularly since the hardline conservative deputies in the Seventh Majles are expected to face a hard-fought election campaign in March 2008.

Grasping at Redemption

Economic and social inequality brought Ahmadinejad to power. In response, there has indeed been a change of economic priorities, spearheaded by oil windfall government spending, away from capital accumulation and toward redistribution of wealth. The economy took center stage in the last week of June when mini-riots broke out throughout Iran after the government rather reluctantly decreed rationing of gasoline and raised its price by 25 percent. What lay behind the unpopular decision was the need to reduce gasoline imports and cap budget deficits bloated by state subsidies.

But, economics aside, the salient changes under Ahmadinejad have occurred in the three key ministries of Intelligence, Interior, and Culture and Islamic Guidance, from the top of the chain of command on down. The transformation of these ministries is striking precisely because great energy was spent under Khatami to render them less intrusive in Iranian life. Since Ahmadinejad became the subject of international scrutiny, his background during the Iran-Iraq war in the Revolutionary Guards, founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to safeguard the Islamic Revolution within the Iranian state and without, has fueled assertions of that group’s influence in the president’s cabinet. In fact, it has been three ministers—Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejeii at Intelligence, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi at Interior and Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi at Culture and Islamic Guidance—who have brought into their respective ministries what, in Iran, is called a “security outlook.” Over the past year, these ministries have become the major proponents of the argument that, though the United States has placed the idea of direct military confrontation with Iran on the back burner, it is still trying to unseat the Iranian regime through a “soft and smart” approach. The activities of the Intelligence Ministry, in particular, are worthy of examination because they shed light on the institutional and ideological roots of the changes that have transpired, as well as the tentativeness of the policies pursued.

At the institutional level, the Intelligence Ministry’s security outlook can be considered a reaction to the “cleansing” of this body that occurred under Khatami. During that administration, the ministry was publicly labeled as an institution “kidnapped” by “rogue” elements after revelations of its involvement in the serial murders of intellectuals and political dissidents. Khatami’s first minister of intelligence, Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, was replaced with a second, Ali Younesi, who today has become a leading critic of what he calls “security-oriented interpretations of the atmosphere of society.” Many “cleansed” officials left the ministry, joining parallel security organizations with opaque institutional affiliations . Others stayed, but felt humiliated in front of their families and friends. As such, the aggressive approach taken by Ejeii’s Intelligence Ministry is a grasp at redemption, an attempt to prove to the various power centers in Iran that the spymasters can solve the country’s problems.

This grasp at redemption has taken several forms. In the economic arena, the Intelligence Ministry has used its means of coercion to combat inflation, which is considered to be the most important threat to the economic viability of the Islamic Republic, even more than unemployment. Rejecting the argument forwarded by economists critical of the government, who see the rise in money supply caused by Ahmadinejad’s expansive budgets as inflationary, the ministry has instead blamed individual speculators and smugglers. Several names have reportedly been passed along to the judiciary as a way of breaking the “housing mafia” allegedly responsible for the spiraling prices of real estate. The ministry has taken a similar tack against the fledging private banking system, forcing the resignations of chief operating officers and harrying the banks’ favored clients. It is also said that the Intelligence Ministry discovered a multi-million dollar fuel smuggling network with direct ties to the Ministry of Petroleum, several of whose members were ultimately convicted. But Intelligence’s biggest success story was the capture of Shahram Jazayeri-Arab, a shady businessman imprisoned for kickbacks to several (mostly reformist) politicians. In February 2007, it was revealed that Jazayeri-Arab had escaped from the notorious Evin prison and left the country. It took Intelligence Ministry operatives a month to locate him in a remote village in Oman, presumably with the help of Omani officials, and bring him back to Iran. The scandal led the head of the judiciary to can Evin’s warden, the head of the judiciary’s Conglomerate for Combating Economic Corruption and two judges, as the Intelligence Ministry accepted kudos for its “daring.”

Ejeii’s ministry is also implicated in the drive to restore “social serenity” through the arrest of “sources of social disturbance,” namely the so-called hoodlums and thugs. Intentions are difficult to assess, but the severity of the arrest campaign, which included many widely reported instances of public humiliation of the young men in question, could be considered a calculated step to instill fear in society in preparation for disturbances that were expected to follow the implementation of gasoline rationing that took place at the end of June.   

Finally, the security outlook has made a political impact. In a move that jolted Iran’s political arena, the Intelligence Ministry arrested Hossein Mousavian, a senior member of the nuclear negotiating team under Khatami and the deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Expediency Council. (The Expediency Council is a clerical body empowered to mediate disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council, another unelected panel of clerics that vets legislation for its constitutionality and adherence to Islamic law.) The think tank, which since Ahmadinejad’s election has become a refuge for former diplomats, is headed by Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, and is closely tied to the former president and current head of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Mousavian was held on the charge of passing secret information to foreign powers (reportedly, the United Kingdom and Japan). Although he was released in a few days, presumably after much political pressure, the charge was not dropped and he still awaits trial. The disconnect between the seriousness of the purported crime and Mousavian’s release (on relatively low bail) has forced Ejeii to go before the Majles for a question-and-answer period in which he flatly announced that Mousavian was “guilty as far as the Intelligence Ministry is concerned.” The judiciary spokesman, in turn, pointed out that Ejeii’s opinion has yet to be accepted by the presiding judge who set the bail.

Though there is yet no victor in this tug of war, the mere fact of such a momentous charge against a high-ranking member of the Iranian establishment has created an atmosphere of fear among past and current officials in contact with foreign diplomats. Nervous current officials include senior managers at the Ministry of Petroleum, who are now constantly watched for signs of corruption and are routinely escorted by Intelligence minders when they travel abroad. But the stigma placed upon contact with foreigners goes well beyond the dealings of Iranian diplomats. Finding an excuse in the $75 million sought by the State Department in 2006 for “democracy promotion” in Iran, most of which was allocated by Congress, the Intelligence Ministry has now effectively declared that all interactions with foreigners are suspect unless proven otherwise. In an exclusive news conference in late March with the Islamic Republic News Agency, for instance, Ejeii warned “domestic agents, infiltrators and the enemy's fifth column” that their activities and cooperation with the outside in order to create “psychological war” were not hidden from the Intelligence Ministry. In what was considered an open warning to Iranian academics and intellectuals about contacts with their counterparts in other countries, he continued: “With the information they gather, these domestic agents send the wrong signals to the enemy and unfortunately move according to the desires of the United States and Israel.” At issue was not merely the intentional transfer of secret information, but also publicly available data that could be exchanged unintentionally at academic and policy-oriented conferences, and used by external players hostile to Iran.

Who Pays the Price

The main selling point of the security outlook is the notion that the United States, having lost the political will to go to war with Iran militarily, is nevertheless engaged in an economic, political and psychological “confrontation.” This confrontation is said to have many manifestations, but probably nowhere is it as evident as in Iraq, where repeated US accusations of Iranian armament of insurgents, and the detention without charge of five staffers of the Iranian liaison office in Erbil since January 2007, are very sore subjects for the Iranian leadership. The US posture is also deemed to have many objectives, the most important of which, in the words of Alireza Zaker Esfahani, head of the Strategic Research Center, a think tank affiliated with the Office of the President, is to “undermine the unity and solidarity of the people [of Iran] and the system’s forces.” In a recent interview with Rajanews, a website close to Ahmadinejad, Esfahani identified the threat of military attack, continuously discussed in the American press, as only one instrument of “psychological distress” wielded to keep the Iranian population and political elite off balance. But, in general, he judged the US goal to be infiltration of the Iranian political landscape through “intellectual-political elites and ethnic minorities.” He further argued that movements organized around women’s and workers’ rights are originated and organized, knowingly or unknowingly, to further US aims in fomenting disunity in Iran, while agitation among ethnic minorities is instigated by external forces. Thanks to the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, as well as press reports of undercover US activities in Iran’s border areas, the actual promotion of such destabilization efforts by some neo-conservatives and the proclaimed US desire to weaken the Iranian regime by funding civil society groups, this rhetoric does not sound wild to some Iranians.

Intellectuals and opinion makers are deemed particularly significant by the security outlook, because with the increased economic and financial pressures on Iran and the resultant economic hardship, journalists, writers and academics can and will play a crucial role in propagating the image of an incompetent state rife with factional conflict. Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Saffar-Harandi justified the reclosure of Ham-Mihan , for instance, with the allegation that the paper was assisting “a creeping coup in the press.” As far as Ahmadinejad’s government is concerned, those who exert pressure upon Iran for its nuclear program do so because they believe that pressure will lead Iran to “retreat” and also cause “deep divisions within the country and, ultimately, political turmoil.” External actors have been encouraged in this belief by intermediaries who, in the words of Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, are purveyors of a “strange hope” that inside “the country there will be some sort of change so that [external players] can impose their will on us.” Larijani goes on to say that the Islamic Republic is too “strong to allow a few kids to create disorder.” The irony, of course, is that the Islamic Republic, by harassing journalists, activists and intellectuals who merely offer uncongenial analysis of current affairs, does not appear very strong at all.

By reversing more than a decade and a half of promoting contact between Iranians of various persuasions and expertise and their counterparts outside of Iran, particularly in the United States, through a policy known as Track II, the Ahmadinejad administration looks less than confident. This is an odd image to project at a time when, according to the analysis of Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry, “the enemy’s” perception of what goes on inside Iran directly affects its demands on Iran during nuclear negotiations. Still, members of the Intelligence Ministry and the hardline government continue these policies because they believe that the threat to the Islamic Republic is real, deviously working through the perceptions and analysis relayed by intellectual intermediaries. They also persist with their line because fanning fear and paranoia strengthens them vis-à-vis other domestic players.

This interactive dynamic is clearly articulated in the arrest of two Iranian-American scholars, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh. Esfandiari and Tajbaksh are among the four Iranian-Americans (along with Ali Shakeri and Parinaz Azima) currently charged with “action against national security” or propaganda against the state. Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has simply disappeared in Iran, bringing the total number of Americans held in Iran to five and giving rise to the rumor in Iran that their confinement is a quid pro quo for the US imprisonment of the five Iranian officials in Erbil. Whether or not this rumor is true, there is no doubt that the charges against Esfandiari and Tajbaksh have reverberated widely because of what they were doing (and not doing) before they were jailed.

Both of these scholars have been engaged for years in exchanges of academic research that, under both Rafsanjani and Khatami, would have been considered Track II and, in fact, would have been encouraged, precisely because of the sorry state of official relations between the two countries. Though the overtly adversarial stance adopted by the Bush administration since 2002 soured those relations even further, Esfandiari, Tajbaksh and scores of other Iranians and Iranian-Americans essentially continued to do what they had been doing for the past 15 years. By making these individuals pay the price for the aggressive policies of the Bush administration, over which they have next to no control, the Iranian government has disseminated the intended chill through the halls of universities and even ministries that dispatch personnel abroad. These personnel, according to Ejeii, are purveyors of false information to the enemy (presumably in the same way Hossein Mousavian and the past nuclear team was passing along wrong or secret information). But the cost of such escalated repression is the enhanced belief on the part of decision-makers in the Bush administration that their policy of political and economic isolation is working and what is needed is more, not less, pressure. Hardliners in both Iran and the United States are in a win-win situation. The situation is lose-lose for those who see contact as a means to avoid war and confrontation, and a tragedy for the people taken hostage, whether in Tehran or Erbil, to be pawns in the hardliners’ game of chess.

Paranoia as “Normal” Politics

The Bush administration, Congress and many American pundits are increasingly convinced that the squeeze on Iran, in the form of Security Council resolutions and more so the economic and financial coordination of the United States and its allies, is working. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek , for instance, has written that “the financial measures, aggressively pursued by the Bush administration, have hit where it hurts.” Sharp criticisms of Ahmadinejad’s policies, including his cabinet’s security orientation, are interpreted as a reflection of elite conflict and harbingers of an eventual push toward compromise on the nuclear issue. Recent evidence of Iran’s economic difficulties in the form of gasoline rationing is seen as yet another indicator of sanctions and pressures having the desired impact, despite the fact that rationing and the more general plans to reduce gasoline consumption and, more importantly, subsidies have been in the works for several years. A bipartisan panel in the House of Representatives is even pushing for sanctions against countries that sell gasoline to Iran.

What is missing from this type of analysis is that, in pursuing a publicly stated and defended security-oriented policy, the Iranian government is behaving in a rather “normal” fashion for a government of a country that sees itself, and in fact is, under external attack and pressure. Indeed, the US is giving the Iranian government ammunition on a daily basis not only to implement its security approach but also to sell it. Iranians who burn down gas stations because they are upset with government rationing are called “terrorists” in the pay of foreign powers which have “allocated funds to cause turmoil”; intellectuals doing research on Iran are “naive lost souls who are knowingly or unknowingly serving the interest of external powers” by supplying them with a skewed understanding of Iran; even past government officials are, at best, appeasers and, at worst, spies. There is no reason to think that Iran will become an “abnormal” country where outside pressure weakens rather than strengthens the security outlook.

To be sure, the upcoming parliamentary election, now set for March 2008 after much controversy and deliberation, will afford reformist and centrist political parties the opportunity to challenge this security-oriented turn. All the major reformist and centrist political players in Iran have resolved to take these elections seriously and field sufficiently large slates of candidates to counteract the possibility of wholesale disqualifications by the Guardian Council. This decision is an important indicator of the importance now given to elections, not necessarily as a vehicle for reforming the political system as a whole, as was the case from 1997-2004, but as a means of effecting changes in personnel as well as policy direction. The hope is not to win per se, but to perform well enough, as during the December 2006 municipal elections, to shape the leadership and the decisions of the Eighth Majles by forming alliances with the more pragmatic and less security-oriented conservative forces. But the hardline conservatives, who have taken over consequential ministries since Ahmadinejad’s election, are banking on the Bush administration to give them what they need to wall off the public sphere, accuse opponents of treason and, ultimately, rally public support in the name of security and national unity. Their tools are the squelching of political dissent and forcible “Islamization” of the way people behave in public. The more threatened the hardliners feel, the more paranoid they will become, and the more they will try to make Iranians with ties—whether in terms of direct contact or cultural habits—to the outside world, particularly Europe and the United States, pay.

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