There has been fresh speculation that Israeli spies have infiltrated Iran’s most powerful military arm, the Revolutionary Guards. Following domestic media reports in Iran that a former Guards’ “sabotage specialist” is serving time at Evin Prison, a string of other accusations of espionage have re-emerged, suggesting cracks in what has customarily been seen as Iran’s most influential and solid military and economic powerhouse.
As Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps takes steps to reposition itself in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the news that at least one of its own has betrayed it comes at a sensitive time. But there are also accusations that more than 30 people with close ties to the Guards and the Basiji volunteer militia, as well as government employees, may have acted against the interests of national security and faced arrest because of their direct cooperation with Israel, number one on Iran’s list of “hostile governments.”
The infiltration claims center around several figures, chief among them journalist and conservative political analyst Reza Golpour. Golpour has links with once-powerful former Revolutionary Guards figures, and his incarceration and the charges levelled against him could be a means of silencing him. Certainly he and others have been targeted for what they have published and said in public. And if nothing else, accusations of espionage and other crimes reveal a significant level of in-fighting within the Guards’ ranks.
Reza Golpour: Spy or a Man who Knows Something?
On June 17, an ally of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reported that he had seen the author and conservative political activist Reza Golpour in the library of Evin Prison’s Ward 4. Abdolreza Davari, one-time media advisor to Ahmadinejad, is himself currently serving a prison term on charges of “insulting the Supreme Leader.” Davari claims that the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit arrested Golpour at the end of 2016. He was charged with “cooperating with Israel,” “gathering and collusion against national security” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.” Golpour’s trial before a Revolutionary Court is to take place soon and will be presided over by Judge Abolghasem Salavati.
The website Zeitoon was the first to report Golpour’s arrest on February 15, 2017 [Persian link]. The Zeitoon report said he had been charged with espionage, which would support Davari’s claim. However, the website says that high-level security officials brought the charges in retaliation for Golpour’s disclosures on the website Ammariyon, a hardliner news site.
The same Zeitoon report said Golpour once worked closely with the Revolutionary Guard’s Intelligence Unit as a “sabotage specialist”. Golpour’s wife, a Beirut-based journalist with American nationality, has also been accused of espionage.
The website Ammariyon, which published Golpour’s disclosures, was run by Mohammad Hossein Rostami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Center for Electronic Resistance. Golpour’s claims were not the only controversial material the site published. It also ran sensational reports that attacked officials from both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani administrations. Rostami himself actively spread innuendos and scandalous reports online. His last controversial claim was in May 2016, when he posted on Facebook that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif secretly has two wives and that the wife unknown to the public was the journalist Afarin Chitsaz who Rostami referred to as “a spy whose crimes were proven by the official authorities.”
According to some conservative principlist media, Rostami was arrested after publishing this fake news and was sentenced to eight years in prison. But on February 11, the reformist website Amad News reported that the real reason for Rostami’s arrest was that a senior Revolutionary Guards intelligence commander had a personal grudge against him and had framed him. Like Golpour, Rostami was targeted by the Revolutionary Guards for his comments, and cast as a spy because of a personal vendetta. Both had worked closely with the Guards, and both had essentially been jailed by, or because of, the Guards.
A day after the Amad report, a pro-hardliner Telegram channel claimed that Rostami had been arrested because he had sent information to foreign countries. Other hardliner media outlets had also claimed that he had been sending information to Israel. It is almost impossible to verify any of these conflicting reports, but the accusations back and forth clearly show that a battle is underway. Whether it’s simply between various media outlets is unclear, but it could be that there has been increasing conflict within the Guards itself.
The General Who Disappeared
The accusation that Reza Golpour has connections to Israel is not new. In addition to his numerous published accusations against government officials, his name has also been connected to the case of the disappeared Revolutionary Guards General Alireza Asgari, who has also been accused of being a spy. Asgari was Deputy Defense Minister under President Mohammad Khatami. In early 2007, he left Iran for Turkey and disappeared soon after. Since his disappearance, there have been conflicting reports about his fate. According to his wife, on December 7 2006, Asgari traveled to Istanbul and stayed at a hotel in the European part of the city. He was in contact with his family until Saturday, December 9, but shortly after, his phone went silent and his family lost touch with him.
Iranian officials claim he was abducted by Israeli agents, while other reports claim he defected voluntary and was taken to the United States where has been cooperating with western intelligence agencies. In early 2010 there were reports that Asgari had died in an Israeli prison. But there is no hard evidence to support any of these claims.
The story is all the more baffling because there are suggestions that Asgari, like Golpour and Rostami, was also framed. According to General Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, former commander of Iran’s National police, Asgari had spent 15 months in prison before travelling to Turkey. Ahmadi-Moghaddam said Asgari had been involved in organizing Lebanese Hezbollah and that he had been framed by another security official. On August 3, 2016 Reza Golpour posted comments on the website Ammariyon about General Asgari and his meetings with him.
There were apparent links between Golpour and General Asgari in the days before Asgari left Iran. In late 2006, wrote Golpour, “Mr. Izadpanah, head of the judiciary chief’s office, contacted me and asked about Commander Asgari. He said he had orders from the judiciary chief and [Ayatollah Khamenei] to make amends with the general and pursue the closing stages of the case [against] him. I promised to go to his office and find him. [Asgari] told me he was going to Syria for a pilgrimage and from there would travel to Turkey…I told him that he should first close the case but…he said, ‘I have a friend named Jalal and he is lining up things that we can buy for the defense ministry…I [already] have traveled abroad and have returned. If the Israelis wanted to do something they would have done it by now.’” Soon after this conversation, Asgari left Iran, never to return.
In the same post, Golrou wrote that Mehdi Boutorabi, the owner and CEO of the Iranian blogging service Persian Blog who had been arrested in May 2016, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison — he had been charged with “cooperating with hostile countries.” Boutorabi had represented General Asgari in a multinational company registered in South Africa, but the “hostile countries” charge suggests links to Israel.
A True-Life “Whodunit”
In summer 2016, Golpour wrote a long article defending Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan, a “special inspector” who had worked for Mohammad Sarafraz, the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting company (IRIB). Ten years previously, Mir Gholikhan married Mahmoud Seif, a member of the Revolutionary Guards. After this, she was accused of smuggling night vision cameras into Iran for use by the military. She spent five years in a US prison, but maintains her innocence, and says that her ex-husband, who was working with the Quds Force, tricked her, using her to organize his illegal deals.
After she was released from prison and she returned to Iran, Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit arrested her and she was charged with espionage. Sarafraz defended her, and accused the Guards of acting “ridiculously” and “illogically,” though his protests were largely ignored. Eventually, Mir Gholikhan was released and moved to Oman. Sarafraz was dismissed as the head of IRIB.
In his articles, Reza Golpour promised he would soon reveal new information about Mahmoud Seif, Seif’s network, and his activities. It is quite possible that the Guards arrested Golpour as a means of preventing him from disclosing such information, indicating serious infighting between and within the Revolutionary Guards and other security agencies.
But the charge of working with Israel also merits some attention. On May 6, 2015, Reza Alijani, a journalist and political activist who now lives in Paris, published new information about the Revolutionary Guards in relation to Israel on the website Rooz Online [Persian link]. Alijani’s report looked at two of the most important figures who had been accused of directly working with Israel: An official of the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit who had been tried and executed, and a driver for General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the former commander of the paramilitary Basij organization — the person responsible for the Israel desk at the Intelligence Ministry. It was Alijani who reported that more than 30 employees of the Intelligence Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij organization had been arrested for direct cooperation with Israel. “Some of them,” he wrote, “have defended their actions.”
Alijani’s main sources were reformist prisoners who had been cellmates with those who had been arrested. But Iranian media also reported on April 28, 2015 that a person close to General Naghdi had been arrested. And in June 2016, Majid Ansari, who was at that time President Rouhani’s parliamentary aid, said there had been an “infiltrator” in the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit and that he had been executed.
The arrest of Reza Golpour has now renewed speculations about Israeli infiltration into the Guards. But the facts remain few and far between. During the past four decades, the Guards have been transformed from a military-political institution into a military, political, security and economic organization, and this overarching power has made for a fertile environment for rumors, accusations, and conspiracy theories. Many in Iran have criticized the way the Guards Corps has changed, and have warned against its seemingly unlimited power. As a result, in some ways it has made the Guards more vulnerable, not least because of the rise in media proliferation. Certainly, because of the expanded dominion of the Guards, it has become much more difficult to distinguish between lies and the truth.