Iran’s Machine of Terror The regime considers four institutions essential for its security. These institutions are instrumental in deciding upon, organizing, and conducting assassinations and terrorist attacks, especially on foreign soil. They are the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Supreme Council of National Security (SCNS), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Ministry of Intelligence (MOI).
At the top of the hierarchy is the Supreme Leader and the Office of the Supreme Leader. The Office was established during the rule of Ruhollah Khomeini but was significantly developed by the incumbent Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Thousands of people work at the Office, which supervises all government ministries (in addition to other duties). The Office has its own intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations. All decisions of importance to the regime, not least concerning regime security, must be discussed with the Supreme Leader and have his blessing. It is thus apparent that all decisions regarding assassinations and terrorist attacks must be discussed with the Supreme Leader before being set in motion. Both before and after the Supreme Leader has made a decision on a matter, it is discussed at the most important regime institution after the Office: the SCNS, which was established in 1989. One of its three main responsibilities, according to the constitution, is to “utilize the material and non-material resources of the country to confront internal and external threats.”
The SCNS consists of 12 permanent members: the heads of three branches of the state, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the Commander of the Military, the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Minister of Intelligence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Interior, and the government official responsible for planning and budgeting affairs, as well as two representatives appointed by the Supreme Leader. The SCNS is presided over by the President of the Islamic Republic but is managed by a secretary who is directly appointed by the Supreme Leader. According to the constitution, “The decisions of the Supreme Council of National Security shall be effective after the Leader’s approval.”
All matters related to the security and foreign policy of the regime are discussed in this state body. It is thus highly unlikely for any act of assassination or terrorist attack to take place overseas without its having been discussed and approved by the SCNS. While the Supreme Leader and the SCNS have foremost responsibility for decision-making and giving the green light, the IRGC and the MOI are responsible for planning and conducting the assassinations or the terrorist attacks. The number of MOI departments and their respective responsibilities are unknown, though it is known that at least one department at the MOI is responsible for conducting assassinations.
These are often accomplished in conjunction with the IRGC. The IRGC was established after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and is responsible for the protection of the Islamic regime. The most important and wellknown section of the IRGC is its external branch, the Quds Force (QF), which is responsible for spreading the revolution and the ideology of the regime abroad. The QF has, since its establishment in the 1990s, been involved in hundreds of assassinations and terrorist attacks throughout the world. Exactly how the operational responsibilities are divided between the QF and the MOI is not known. It is, however, clear that the two organizations collaborate closely on the conducting of subversive operations on foreign soil, including assassinations.
As the QF is a military organization, it can be inferred that the MOI is more active in gathering and analyzing intelligence while the actual assassination is conducted by QF operatives. The majority of QF operatives are Iranian nationals, but the QF often uses proxies in its operations. These proxies exist all over the Middle East: the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd Shaabi), Hezbollah Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen, and the Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, to name just a few. It is thus natural for the Iranian regime to use non-Iranians in its foreign operations. One example was the Iranian attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. One of the operatives was Imad Mughniyeh, a Lebanese national and a main leader of Hezbollah. Tehran makes use of foreign, non-Iranian operatives not only for terrorist operations, but also to conduct espionage.
In 2019, for instance, the Swedish Security Police, Säkerhetspolisen, arrested an Iraqi national on suspicion of conducting espionage against Iranian opponents of the Islamic regime. In December 2019, the suspect was convicted of espionage and given a prison term of 2.5 years. Using Diplomats Over the years, Iran has made extensive use of its diplomatic arm with regard to subversive activities like espionage, assassinations, and terrorist plots. The first known assassination in which regime diplomats were involved was the murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabaei in the summer of 1980. As noted above, Tabatabaei was assassinated by an African American Muslim convert, Dawud Salahuddin. Salahuddin had extensive contacts among Iranian revolutionaries prior to the downfall of the Shah, but it was during his employment as a security guard at the Iranian Interest Section of the Algerian Embassy that he was recruited as an assassin. The details of his recruitment are still unclear, but it is highly likely that diplomats at the Interest Section had a role in the recruitment.
NEXT: High profile terrorist plots of Iran
Dr. Ardavan Khoshnood (PhD, Lund University). Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Lund University in Sweden. Criminologist with focus on offender profiling and violent crimes inclusive terrorism. From Malmö University and Lund University he holds degrees in Political Science respective Intelligence Analysis. Specializes in Iranian foreign policy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as the Ministry of Intelligence.