Meet Esmaeil Khatib, the new Iranian spy master


A November 2019 image of the IRGC siege in Syria, known as the “Glass House,” in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes. Photo: ImageSat International via Twitter.

Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran on August 5, 2021. Six days later, he released his ministerial selections. Raisi chose religious Esmaeil Khatib as Minister of Intelligence. Khatib will be the regime’s eighth intelligence minister, succeeding Mahmoud Alavi.

Information on Khatib is scarce. He was born 1961-62 and is an influential cleric with close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This is not a surprise, as he was Khamenei’s pupil when he was studying Islamic jurisprudence. He was also the pupil of Muhammad Fazel Lankarani, Naser Makarem Shirazi and Mojtaba Tehrani; all are radical Islamists.

Lankarani was a strong supporter of Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini, supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and issued a fatwa in 2006 against Azeri physician and writer Rafiq Tagi, who was subsequently assassinated. Makarem Shirazi was very influential in the preparation of the constitution of the Islamic Republic. He is best known for his objection allow women to watch sporting events. In 2010, Shirazi declared that “the Holocaust is nothing more than a superstition”. Mojtaba Tehrani was a student of Khomeini and is very close to the outgoing Supreme Leader. He is best known for his support for the theory of Islamic jurist guardianship.

Khatib is therefore a very conservative and radical cleric with close ties to the Islamic establishment and to Ali Khamenei.

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Unlike Mahmoud Alavi, the outgoing Minister of Intelligence, who had no security or intelligence experience, Khatib has been involved in both. However, he has no formal training in intelligence or political science. Its expertise lies solely in Islamic jurisprudence.

In 1980-81, after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was formed, Khatib, then in his early twenties, joined the forerunner of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization. His exact role is unknown, although it is believed that he was very active in the murder of Iranian opponents of the new Islamic regime who resided in Iranian Kurdistan. During this time, Khatib worked closely with Mohsen Rezaee, now the IRGC’s major general and secretary of the powerful Discerning Council of Opportunity.

In November 1997, Khatib was appointed head of the regional branch of the intelligence ministry in Qom by then intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, another conservative cleric close to Khamenei. In 1992, during Fallahian’s tenure, the Mykonos restaurant assassinations occurred. The restaurant, which was in Berlin, was attacked by terrorists sent from Iran to eliminate members of the Iranian opposition. Several Iranians were killed in the attack. A German court blamed the top leaders of the Islamic regime, including Fallahian. The AMIA attack in Argentina in 1994 also occurred while Fallahian was Minister of Intelligence, which resulted in him being placed on an Interpol wanted to listing by Argentina.

Khatib was previously head of the security department of the Astan Quds Razavi (AQR), a trust that manages the shrine of Imam Reza. The head of the AQR between 2016 and 2019 was current President Ebrahim Raisi, who stepped down when he was appointed chief justice of Iran.

Besides the above positions, Khatib worked directly for Ali Khamenei in his administration (the “House of Leadership”) and also served as Iran’s Managing Director for several years.

Khatib has been installed as the new Minister of Intelligence at a time when the Islamic regime is bombarded with one disaster after another. Tehran is fighting to protect the country from infiltrations, attacks on his nuclear plant, and assassination attempts on its most important human assets. Iranian intelligence and counterintelligence are deeply compromise, and conflicts erupt between the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC Intelligence Organization. These factors were undoubtedly of the utmost importance when selecting Khatib.

Khatib is not only very close to and trusts Raisi, but also a loyal servant of Supreme Leader Khamenei. It is therefore understandable that he was chosen to purge the Iranian intelligence community and make its counterintelligence and information protection more effective and secure. He has a solid background in intelligence and counterintelligence, the blessing and trust of the Supreme Leader as well as the most powerful Ayatollahs in the country, and perhaps more importantly, he has the trust of the IRGC. Khatib should therefore not only “clean up” the Iranian intelligence community, but also ease the ongoing conflict between the IRGC intelligence organization and the intelligence ministry. We will probably see closer cooperation between the two.

During Khatib’s tenure, the Intelligence Ministry is likely to be more aggressive on the national and international fronts. Nationally, the use of torture and arbitrary arrests of opponents of the regime will increase as the ministry becomes more proactive. In the region, we will likely see a more sectarian Iran. Khatib’s brand of Islamism, which puts him in the company of Iran’s most radical Ayatollahs, will inevitably affect his decision-making. In the United States and Europe, Iranian dissidents will be subject to heightened surveillance and espionage. Islamic terrorism in the world at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran will increase in intensity.

While Iran will be careful not to provoke the Western world, it will be much more prepared to use terrorism and violence to eliminate opponents of the regime as well as anyone it sees as a threat to the regime.

Dr Ardavan Khoshnood, a non-resident associate at the BESA Center, is a criminologist and political scientist with a degree in intelligence analysis. He is also associate professor of emergency medicine at Lund University in Sweden. @ardavank

Erfan Fard is an anti-terrorism analyst and Middle East studies researcher based in Washington, DC. @EQFARD

A version of this article was originally posted by The BESA Center.


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