Iran Offers Rare Glimpse Into Secret Intelligence Service

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Iran's armed forces march during an annual military parade marking the 34th anniversary of outset of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iran, Sept. 22, 2014.Credit: AP

Iran drew back the veil — if slightly — over its intelligence services on Wednesday, with its top nuclear security official crediting them for helping protect the Islamic Republic's atomic program from attempts at sabotage.

In a first, Iran provided public information about the structure of its secret services in an Intelligence Ministry magazine published for the 30th anniversary of the creation of the ministry. According to the magazine, entitled "30 years of Silent Devotion," Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi heads a coordination council overseeing 16 different agencies. The Guard, Iran's most powerful military force, separately operates two other intelligence agencies.

Counter-espionage and fending off cyber-attacks have been key recent challenges for Iran's intelligence community. Iran in the past has accused the U.S. and Israel of directing a campaign that included the abduction of its scientists, sale of faulty equipment, and the planting of a destructive computer worm known as Stuxnet, which briefly brought Iran's uranium enrichment activity to a halt in 2010.

Iran responded to the cyber-attack on its nuclear facilities by beefing up its own cyber capabilities. It has periodically announced the arrest of suspects charged with espionage or attempts to sabotage its nuclear facilities. There have also been several announcements about Iranian scientists discovering and neutralizing alleged malware before it could cause serious damage.

"If not for the Intelligence Ministry, our nuclear industry would have not been at the level it is today," said Ali Asghar Zarean, who is in charge of security for Iran's nuclear program, on state television Wednesday. Western nations have long suspected Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons alongside its civilian atomic program. Iran denies such allegations and insists its nuclear program is entirely devoted to peaceful purposes like power generation and medical isotopes.

In an unexpected display of outreach, the ministry set up a Web site in 2012, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to soften its image and coax Iranians into helping provide the country's spies with information. The ministry also has set up a three-digit phone number for Iranians to call in tips, and in recent years has published advertisements and set up billboards at major junctions in many cities encouraging citizens to help the spy agency.

Iran's intelligence apparatus was known as SAVAK until the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahalvi and installed clerics in power.

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