Iran: Qods Force and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS)
Iran’s Spy Services
The Ministry of Intelligence and Security is one of two organizations responsible for conducting covert activities outside of Iran. The other is the Qods Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), which conduct special intelligence operations outside of Iran. The IRGC has also worked with MOIS on offensive cyber-intelligence measures.
Mahmoud Alavi has been the Minister of Intelligence and Agency Executive of MOIS since 2013. In August 2017, Alavi announced the ministry has disbanded more than 100 terrorist groups across Iran.
Maj. General Hossein Salami has been the chief of the IRGC since 2008.
On January 3, 2020, President Trump ordered the U.S. military to launch the drone attack that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force, the special operations component of the IRGC. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei then appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the new Commander of the Qods Force.
The assassination of Soleimani was the culmination of the Trump administration’s policy of hostility toward Iran.
The Qods Force is the cutting edge of Iran’s international power projection. In the words of a Congressional Research Service report from 2017:
Iran’s operations in support of its allies—which generally include arms shipments, provision of advisers, training, and funding—are carried out by the Qods (Jerusalem) Force of the IRGC (IRGC-QF). The IRGC-QF is headed by IRGC Major General Qasem Soleimani, who apparently reports directly to [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamene’i. IRGC leaders have on numerous occasions publicly acknowledged these activities; on August 20, 2016, an IRGC-QF commander in Syria stated to an Iranian newspaper that Iran had formed a “Liberation Army” consisting of local, mostly Shiite, fighters that support Iran’s interests in various Arab countries. Much of the weaponry Iran supplies to its allies include specialized antitank systems, artillery rockets, mortars, and short-range missiles.
In April 2019, the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a “terrorist organization” and imposed sanctions on seven individuals and entities, including the Qods Force.
The tortured history of U.S.-Iranian relations was born in covert machinations. In August 1953, the CIA and MIG conspired to orchestrate a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh.
The CIA then helped organize a new Iranian intelligence service, known by the acronym SAVAK. The Shah’s secret police, according to one report, operated with impunity in the United States, allegedly “watching and harassing” opponents of the regime.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 resulted in the transformation of SAVAK. Under the new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian government continued to use SAVAK personnel for counterintelligence purposes but divided other intelligence functions among a variety of groups including the IRGC, the Kumitehs (small neighborhood security committees), the Prime Minister’s Intelligence Office, the army, and the police.
Under the leadership of Gen. Soleimani, the Qods Force achieved a pre-eminent position in Iran’s international security policy.
In Syria, Iran came to the rescue of President Bashar al-Assad. In 2011 Assad was losing ground to a jihadist insurgency led by off-shoots of al-Qaeda and by a new more radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Soleimani organized Iranian forces and fighters supplied by the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to take on the ISIS and al-Qaeda militants. The Iranian-led counter-offensive was crucial to Assad’s survival–though Russian bombing also played a major role.
In 2012 the Obama administration sanctioned MOIS for “for its support to terrorist groups as well as its central role in perpetrating human rights abuses.”
The agency has had a reputation of human rights violations. “Security and intelligence forces summoned, harassed, and arrested dozens of journalists, prominent trade unionists, and social media activists,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2018.
Iran ramped up their cyber intelligence capabilities after the StuxNet virus, reportedly planted by U.S. and Israeli agents, targeted their uranium-enrichment infrastructure. Their cyberwar efforts have been aimed mainly at the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.