Meet Esmaeil Khatib, Iran’s new spymaster

A radical Islamist with close ties to both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, Iran’s new intelligence minister is likely to take a more aggressive approach than his predecessor.

Incoming Iranian Intelligence Minister Esmaeil Khatib. Source: Twitter.
Incoming Iranian Intelligence Minister Esmaeil Khatib. Source: Twitter.
Ardavan Khoshnood and Erfan Fard

Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in as Iran’s new president on Aug. 5, 2021. Six days later, he released his cabinet selections. Raisi chose cleric Esmaeil Khatib as the country’s eighth intelligence minister. Khatib succeeds Mahmoud Alavi in the role.

Who is Khatib?

Information on Khatib is scarce. Born in 1961-62, he is an influential cleric with close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This is no surprise, as he was Khamenei’s student when studying Islamic jurisprudence. He was also a student of Muhammad Fazel Lankarani, Naser Makarem Shirazi and Mojtaba Tehrani; all radical Islamists.

Lankarani was a die-hard 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 later assassinated. Shirazi was highly influential in the preparation of the constitution of the Islamic Republic. He is mostly known for his objection to allowing females to watch sporting events. In 2010, Shirazi stated that “the Holocaust is nothing but superstition.” Tehrani was a student of Khomeini and is very close to the incumbent Supreme Leader. He is known primarily for his support for the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist theory.

Khatib is thus a highly conservative and radical cleric with close ties to the Islamic establishment and to Khamenei.

Prior positions

Unlike Mahmoud Alavi, the outgoing intelligence minister, who had no previous experience in security or intelligence, Khatib has been involved with both. He does not, however, have a formal education in intelligence studies or political science. His expertise lies solely in Islamic jurisprudence.

In 1980-81, after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was established, Khatib, then in his early twenties, joined the precursor of the IRGC Intelligence Organization. His exact role is unknown, though it is believed that he was highly active in the killing of Iranian opponents of the new Islamic regime in Iranian Kurdistan. During that period, Khatib cooperated closely with Mohsen Rezaee, now an IRGC major general and secretary of the powerful Expediency Discernment Council.

In November 1997, Khatib was appointed head of the Intelligence Ministry’s regional branch in Qom by then Intelligence Minister Fallahian, another conservative cleric close to Khamenei. In 1992, during Fallahian’s tenure, the Mykonos Restaurant assassinations occurred. The Berlin restaurant was attacked by terrorists sent from Iran to eliminate Iranian opposition members. Several Iranians were killed in the attack. A German court placed the blame on the Islamic regime’s most senior leaders, including Fallahian. The AMIA attack in Argentina in 1994 also occurred while Fallahian was intelligence minister, leading to his being placed on an Interpol wanted list 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 Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, who left the position when he was appointed chief justice of Iran.

Beside the above positions, Khatib has worked directly for Khamenei in his administration (the “House of Leadership”) and also served as Iran’s chief warden for several years.

The Intelligence Ministry under Khatib

Khatib has been installed as the new intelligence minister at a time when the Islamic regime is being bombarded by one catastrophe after another. Tehran is struggling to keep the country safe from infiltrations, attacks on its nuclear plants and assassination attempts on its most important human assets. Iranian intelligence and counterintelligence are deeply compromised, and conflicts roil between the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC Intelligence Organization. These factors were without doubt of the utmost importance when Khatib was selected.

Khatib is not only very close to Raisi and trusted by him, but is also a loyal servant of Supreme Leader Khamenei. It is understandable, therefore, that he was selected to purge the Iranian intelligence community and make its counterintelligence and information protection more effective and secure. He has strong experience in intelligence and counterintelligence, the blessing and trust of the Supreme Leader as well as the country’s most powerful ayatollahs, and perhaps most importantly, is trusted by the IRGC. Khatib is thus expected not only to “clean up” the Iranian intelligence community but also to diminish 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 ministry is likely to be more aggressive on both the domestic and international fronts. Domestically, the use of torture and arbitrary arrests will likely increase as the ministry grows more proactive. In the region, we will probably see a more sectarian Iran. Khatib’s brand of Islamism, which puts him in the company of the most radical ayatollahs in Iran, will inevitably affect his decision-making. In the United States and Europe, Iranian dissidents will be subjected to intensified surveillance and espionage. Islamic terrorism around the world at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran will increase in intensity.

While Iran will be careful not to provoke the West, it will likely be much more ready to use terrorism and violence to eliminate opponents of 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 an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Lund University in Sweden. @ardavank

Erfan Fard is a counterterrorism analyst and Middle East Studies researcher based in Washington, DC. @EQFARD

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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