Such armed militiamen are the foot soldiers of Iran’s domestic secret service, the VEVAK, which is part of the Ministry of Intelligence (MOI). With some 20,000 employees, the MOI is at the disposal of Iran’s hard-line rulers, men like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But at one time, when Rafsanjani was president, the VEVAK was in the “state terrorism” big time, threatening and killing the regime’s opponents even in Western countries.
According to Yves Bonnet, a former director of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) (Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, the French secret service), in just two month in 1988 the VEVAK executed some 33,000 people on the order of Khomeini. No wonder then, that the VEVAK is listed as a “terrorist organisation in some countries like Canada”.1
Today the domestic spy agency runs its own prisons, torturing and beheading enemies of the state. Unlike the Pasdaran and the Basij whose task is to keep an eye on the streets of Iranian cities, VEVAK’s business is spying on Iranians and propaganda, great tools to undermine Iran’s pro-reform and pro-democracy movement.
Recent reports suggested that two major European mobile phone companies, Nokia and Siemens, with big sales in Iran (especially Nokia), have sold Iranian authorities sophisticated surveillance technology. As soon as the information became public a boycott of Nokia products was launched in Iran.
Boycotts are nothing new in the Islamic Republic. In the past “anti-Islamic” or “Zionist” firms have been targeted, sometimes on behalf of the former’s foreign competitors. Whether directly involved or not, this boycott campaign is of high propaganda value for VEVAK because in the current economic climate, fewer Iranians can afford to have a mobile phone. With fewer Iranians willing to test high tech phone surveillance, fewer dangerous messages will be sent.
All this does not mean that the report about Nokia and Siemens is not true. Over the years, business people, journalists and politicians in Tehran have developed the habit of not taking their mobile phones with them into rooms where they meet, leaving them instead outside the entrance or in a separate room. The reason for this is VEVAK’s capability of using any mobile phone left on standby as a microphone to pick up conversations.
Such high level espionage is not the only card up the spy agency’s sleeve. The best way for it to keep on eye on everyone is to monitor phone text messages. Indeed what Tehrani hasn’t received or sent a joke about the clergy or Ahmadinejad? Now fear of getting caught will lead many to censor themselves. And by blocking communications (a technique used at the height of the protest movement), the VEVAK can weaken the opposition and reinforce the image of an all-powerful state.
In order to manipulate public opinion the VEVAK does not rely on technology alone. It has established charities (in favour of suffering Iraqis and Lebanese for example) to show how good Iran is compared to the wicked West.2
Another way for the VEVAK to manipulate public opinion is to organise and invite Westerners on visits to Iran, showing nice things about Iran which will be picked up by the CNN or the BBC. The intent of Iran’s spy masters is not so much to change opinions in the West in favour of the Islamic regime, but rather to show to Iranians with access to Western media that their country is not so bad after all.
In its 30 years of existence the Islamic Republic has learnt how to stay in power. The VEVAK is the equivalent of the Shah’s brutal SAVAK. One of the reasons for the collapse of the Pahlavi regime lies in the decision made by many SAVAK officials and agents to jump ship and join Khomeini and the regime he was setting up.
At present such a “migration” appears very unlikely and this despite the contacts and parallel networks Rafsanjani built years ago inside the services which are now in the hands of his political opponents.
1. BONNET Y., Vevak, Au service des ayatollahs, Paris : Timée-Éditions, 2009, 454 p.
2. So-called collateral damage in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and provocative speeches by George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon have been very useful in demobilising Iran’s opposition.