On Thursday media outlets close to the IRGC reported that Ali Gholhaki, a hardline journalist and operator of a number of pro-deep state, pro-IRGC Telegram channels, had abruptly been arrested by the IRGC itself along with several of his colleagues.
The MP for Tehran, Malik Shariati, later confirmed the news, including who conducted the arrests: “It [the story] was disseminated, especially among officials, so it will be transparent for the people and serve as a lesson to others.”
The arrest by the IRGC of one of its well-known cheerleaders is being read by some as an internal settling of accounts, and a bid to put a stop to the chronic leaking of information from the Guards that has blighted their image over the past year.
An audio file of a 2018 conversation between IRGC commanders about how best to manage a newly-outed corrupt relationship between the Guards and Tehran Municipality caused a minor scandal in February. To make it worse, in April, the former IRGC commander, notorious grifter and ex-Mayor of Tehran Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf was pictured returning from a blowout shopping trip in Turkey. In May, another audio file featuring top cleric Mehdi Taeb, head of the pro-IRGC Ammar Headquarters, came to light that alleged Ghalibaf had also been on trips to Turkey directly on behalf of the IRGC.
The individual breaches might not have come from the same source, but together they told a story, and created an atmosphere of deep unease within the IRGC.
What Were Gholhaki et al Doing?
IRGC-aligned media outlets report that the arrested parties were running “semi-secret”, “secret” and “shadow” Telegram channels. They were all detained on the charges of “disturbing the public mind” and, more tellingly, of “publishing classified documents".
Many of these Telegram channels were associated with Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, the managing directors of Fars News Agency (whose ultimate owner and controller is the IRGC itself), Nizamuddin Mousavi, head of the Presidium of the Iranian Parliament, and scattered individuals including the conservative politician Mehrdad Bazarpash.
Gholhaki is a well-known hardline journalist who is known to have published some major news of the day in the past, including the names of those who qualified for the 1400 presidential election, before its official announcement. But he publicly backed Ebrahim Raisi and is close to the loud-mouthed current Mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, who stood as a “front” candidate last year and gave way to Raisi shortly before the vote.
His channels also recently leaked news of a war of words between ex-nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and ex-speaker of parliament Ali Larijani, both of whom also ran for president last year. At a meeting of the Expediency Council, Jalili reportedly proposed Iran withdraw from the UN Security Council, to the chagrin of Ali Larijani and his brother Sadegh Amoli.
The publication of the Mehdi Taeb audio file, however, is widely assumed to have been the trigger for Gholhaki’s arrest. The Telegram channel involved was slammed by other Iranian media outlets including the hardline Raja News, which claimed it was trying to smear individuals close to Ebrahim Raisi. In the recording, Taeb – while trying to defend Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf’s Turkish shopping spree – said the trip had gone ahead with the blessing of Meysam Nili, propagandist, newspaper editor and the President’s brother-in-law.
Competing Intelligence Interests Made Arrests Inevitable
As soon as the Mehdi Taeb audio file was released, the matter would have also been on the agenda of the Intelligence Ministry. The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization is in direct competition with this body, which has led to several high-profile clashes in the past.
As such, the IRGC essentially faced a race against time to arrest its own and save face, hence the pre-emptive smear in Raja News. The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization has clearance to investigate violations of the law by members of the Guards as well as outsiders.