One afternoon last November, the thunderous sound of hundreds of machine-gun rounds rattled an otherwise quiet street east of Tehran. Less than an hour later, it was announced that Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated as he was driven home.
Iranian officials later said he was killed by a remote-controlled machine-gun and some suggested that it was a satellite- guided gun. Israeli media however said Fakhrizadeh, who is described by many in the west as the mastermind of Iran’s nuclear programme, was assassinated by a team of more than 20 agents, including Israeli and Iranian nationals after eight months of surveillance.
It was obviously a breach of security, big time. It was embarrassing for a regime that boasted for so long of its effective security apparatus, especially the assassination came less than a year after the US raid that killed Iran’s most prominent general, Qassim Soleimani as he left Baghdad airport in January last year.
Breach of a grand scale
That was a breach too of a grand scale — someone leaked the supposedly ultra-classified log of the general’s movements — he was travelling from Damascus to Baghdad.
Then last week, came the mother of all leaks. More than three hours of a taped rare frank, no holds barred conversation between Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and economist Saeed Leyla, a well-known researcher close to President Hassan Rouhani, was leaked and published in several news outlets around the world last week. the conversation was revealing.
It showed a deep division in the regime’s structure especially between the political and military wings. In Iran, Zarif said, “the military filed rules.” He complained of how the revolutionary guard, which reports to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, tried so many times to sabotage the government’s diplomatic gestures, particularly regarding the Nuclear Deal negotiations with the West.
He talked about how he and other Iranian diplomats were undermined by Soleimani, who had had the complete trust of Khamenei and responsible for the Iranian intervention in the Syria war. Zarif sounded in the leaked tape as opposing Iran’s role in the conflict.
The stolen tape
President Rouhani ordered an investigation to find out who leaked the stolen tape. he tried to downplay his top diplomat’s harsh comments about the regime saying the leak was aimed at “creating discord” in Iran during crucial talks with the West to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. But he knows the damage is done.
Some in Iran suggested that the leak of Zarif comments could be more damaging to Iran than the killing of Soleimani. We will have to wait and see. But all those breaches and leaks, at the top level, are signs of a regime in trouble.
A revolution that has aged so much it is no longer able to protect its most cherished scientist and general nor it can even stop a confidential conversation of its top diplomat from being leaked. Or was the Islamic republic a paper tiger all along?
In his 1938 classic book, ‘Anatomy of a Revolution’, Crane Brinton wrote that a revolution is like fever. Phase one, which would be the preliminary stage symptoms is when the old order is wakened by corruption and oppression. Phase two is the revolution and Phase 3, the crisis stage symptoms.
Begins when a radical regime takes control of the country, centralising power in the hands of a few and may often lead to a purge of rivals or moderates. Sometimes, there is a forced conformity where everyone is expected to sing the same tune. Then years later comes Phase 4, the recovery stage symptoms when people realise they have been short-changed and the body, the nation, begins the process of healing. “Nobody wants to have a fever,” Brinton says.
Even after more than four decades, Iran’s revolutionaries are still struggling to transform their revolution into a viable civil state as promised by the first generation. The power is centralised, controlled by the few. “The military filed rules,” Zarif said in the leaked tape. And everybody is expected to follow the lead of those few.
Secondly, the failure of the state building efforts, usually espoused by the so-called reformists and often sabotaged by the hardliners, who always seemed to be close to the Supreme Leader, has led to increased factional fighting for power in the past two decades.
Intentional lapse of procedures
As Rouhani hinted in his defence of his foreign minister, the leak was done by a faction in the regime (reads: hardliners, Zarif points at the Revolutionary Guards) that is intent on undermining Iranian diplomacy to sabotage any attempt to revive the nuclear deal and eventually warmer relations with the west. And that can also be said of other security breaches including the assassination of nuclear scientists- intentional lapse of security procedures.
A third possible reason for the subsequent breaches in security and leaks is the increasing probabilities that Iran’s security system is not that effective as many had thought. Remember that a year ago, Israel managed to steal thousands of secret documents detailing Iran’s nuclear programme, which shed a light on a military aspect of the programme which Iran now says it had been terminated years ago.
The security apparatus has apparently been putting all its efforts on crushing internal dissent, chasing critics and ‘combating un-Islamic behaviour’.
That made Iran vulnerable to such security breaches and foreign intelligence integration, especially when those efforts are abetted by members of the deep state in Iran itself. Most of the compromised files are generally available only to those in the highest echelon of the regime.
More precisely, it could be very well a combination of all three factors- a slouching revolutionary regime, factional fighting, and ineffective security system, that is behind the embarrassingly damaging breaches that continue uninterrupted in Iran.
And with the presidential election in 6 weeks, things will only grow interesting from here as more tit-for-tat leaks are expected. And perhaps some real fireworks.