Competition between parallel government institutions with overlapping fields of responsibility is hardly a novelty in Iran. It predates the Islamic Republic and has traditionally helped Iranian rulers to play different power centers against each other and maintain control. Under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, however, the conflict between the country’s intelligence agencies has reached an unprecedented level, which undermines public confidence not only in the government but also in Khamenei’s competence.
The recent public row between the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) Intelligence Organization, the Judiciary and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (M.O.I.S.) provides a case in point.
On October 8, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ezhehi, Judiciary spokesman, announced at a press conference that a certain Abd al-Rasoul Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian dual national who represented the Central Bank of Iran at the nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers, was “sentenced to five years in prison” on charges of “espionage on behalf of two [foreign] spy agencies.” However, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi swiftly dismissed the Judiciary’s claim a few days later and added that Esfahani was “innocent of any wrongdoing,” and “cooperated” with the Counter Intelligence Directorate of the Intelligence Ministry during the entire course of the nuclear negotiations.
It is worth noting that it is not the first time that Iranian nuclear negotiators are being accused of espionage and treason. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, a nuclear negotiator, and members of his research team Shahin Dadkhah, Rahman Qahremanpour, Mehrdad Serjoyi, and many other Iranian diplomats and researchers involved in the nuclear negotiations with foreign powers have been charged with espionage and served prison sentences.
However, further examination of the Esfahani file shows a new level of coordination between the I.R.G.C. and the Judiciary in an attempt to undermine the more professional Intelligence Ministry.
Public accusations against Esfahani began on June 20, 2016, with I.R.G.C. mouthpieces such as Raja News launching a public campaign against Esfahani, accusing him of “spying for foreign spy agencies” and undermining Iran’s ability to achieve a better nuclear agreement.
On August 23, 2016, Tasnim News, another I.R.G.C.-affiliated outlet, reported the arrest of Esfahani on espionage charges. Javad Karimi Qodousi, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, further disclosed the dramatic details of Esfahani’s arrest in a conversation with Ramz-e Obour, an outlet close to the I.R.G.C. Intelligence Organization. Esfahani was reportedly a member of a delegation led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Turkey on August 12, 2016, but was not allowed to leave the Iran Air plane upon touchdown in Ankara and was returned to Iran to prevent “his escape to Canada.”
The witch-hunt for “spies” and public confrontations between government agencies in Iran undermines public confidence in the government: After all, whom should the public believe? The Intelligence Ministry, which praises the work of Esfahani and other nuclear negotiators, or I.R.G.C. mouthpieces and the Judiciary, which accuse the same negotiators of treason and espionage for foreign powers?
This sickening theater also raises serious questions about the competence of Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters. If Esfahani and other Iranian nuclear negotiators and their researchers indeed are spies and foreign agents who undermined Iran’s ability to achieve a better nuclear deal, why did Khamenei accept the the nuclear accord and continues to defend the deal as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to annul it?
By designing parallel government institutions with overlapping fields of responsibility, Khamenei has, as his predecessors, managed to keep the government institutions in check and maintain control, but is also nurturing an unhealthy competition between those same institutions which prevent effective governance and undermine public confidence in the state and the head of the state: himself.