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Iran: Who Watches The Watchers?

Has the security service become more or less accountable since the shah was deposed? Iran has had a formal intelligence and security organization since 1957, but during the monarchy little was heard about it in the national media other than the names of its directors -- Teimur Bakhtiar, Hassan Pakravan, Nematollah Nassiri, and Nasser Moghaddam. The National Organization for Intelligence and Security (Sazeman-i Ettelaat va Amniyat-i Keshvar, SAVAK) was dreaded, particularly because of the activities of its domestic security branch, Department 3, which had a reputation for torture and other human rights abuses.

SAVAK's successor, the Intelligence and Security Ministry, operated in the shadows until the late 1990s. The ministry seemed to become fair game for the media after courageous journalists like Akbar Ganji revealed the involvement of ministry personnel in the serial murders of dissidents. And in the last month, newspapers have been full of reports that hard-line legislators are promoting a bill that would reduce parliamentary oversight of the Intelligence and Security Ministry.

Looking Back

Oversight of SAVAK was limited. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi created the Special Intelligence Bureau (Daftar-i Vizhe-yi Ettelaat) in 1958-59 and tapped his close friend Hussein Fardust to run it. The bureau's duties included the collection of information from SAVAK and other branches of the government, as well as oversight. The Imperial Inspectorate Organization (Bazrasi-i Shahanshahi) was created in 1958 and resurrected in 1968 to investigate public complaints against military personnel, civilian government officials, and judges, but it never accomplished much. The shah created a short-lived National Security Council in 1959-60, and Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar recreated this council in January 1979. Several intelligence-coordination councils (Shora-yi Hamahangi) were created as well.

The oversight and coordinating bodies failed to function properly mainly because of the shah's leadership style, in which he never trusted his officials and encouraged their competition. Officials who did not care for the functioning of these bodies would bypass them and report directly to the shah, or they would use personal networks to get the shah's ear. Parliamentary oversight of SAVAK was not an issue.

Oversight Becomes Politicized

A reformist daily, "Etemad," reported on 21 July that there has been talk of changes in the Intelligence and Security Ministry "for some time now." The daily did not describe what the changes would be, but it hinted at them when it said that under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) the ministry had become accountable and enjoyed public trust. "The idea of changing a ministry with such characteristics is both disconcerting and questionable," the daily warned.

By mid-August, just days before President Mahmud Ahmadinejad submitted his list of prospective cabinet ministers to the legislature, there were rumors that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini would take over supervision of the Intelligence and Security Ministry from parliament. Hard-line legislator Elias Naderan allegedly was gathering signatures for a bill that would make this law. The proposal met with criticism from several parts of the political spectrum, including reformers like former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi and the traditional conservatives like Asadollah Badamchian from the Islamic Coalition Party, "Aftab-i Yazd" and "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 13 August.

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Razavi Yazdi, a member of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), criticized any sort of changes in the ministry's modus operandi. He referred to the Khatami administration's elimination of the ministry's involvement in economic activities. Mohammad Atrianfar of the centrist Executives of Construction Party expressed concern that the elimination of parliamentary oversight, as well as legal supervision and guidance, could lead to violations of citizens' rights, "Iran" reported on 14 August.

Naderan, the parliamentarian backing the bill, said two weeks later that its object is to separate the counterintelligence unit from the rest of the Intelligence and Security Ministry, Fars News Agency reported on 30 August. In that way, he continued, ministry personnel would be subject to independent supervision. Another supporter of the bill, Imad Afruq of the hard-line Islamic Iran Developers Coalition, portrayed it as an effort to create a watchdog that would protect the public, "Etemad," reported on 31 August.

Amir Mohebbian, the editor of the hard-line "Resalat" daily, defended the legislation by saying that its proponents believe the mechanism for supervising the ministry is weak and must be strengthened, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 1 September.

Reformist commentators were particularly outraged by the proposal. Said Hajjarian, a founder of the ministry, warned that separating the counterintelligence unit from the rest of the ministry is the prelude to eliminating parliamentary supervision and creating "parallel" intelligence bodies, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 1 September. If a qualified cleric who has won a parliamentary vote of confidence is the intelligence minister but he still cannot control his personnel, Hajjarian asked, then who can run the ministry? Other reformists voiced alarm and called for a debate on the bill, "Iran" reported on 1 September.

Hard-liners in the legislature are not of one mind on this issue. Hard-line parliamentarian Mohammad Hussein Farhangi said he favors separating the counterintelligence unit from the rest of the ministry, but he opposes making the ministry an organization because it would no longer be accountable to the legislature, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 3 September. Another hard-liner, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, warned that the bill could weaken the ministry, "Hemayat" reported on 3 September.

The opinions of President Ahmadinejad and Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei on this issue are not known, but this may have an impact on the final outcome. The rejection of four prospective cabinet members two weeks ago shows that the legislators will not always go along with the executive branch, even if they have similar hard-line tendencies.