The role of SAVAK as an intelligence service in Iran, 1956–1979: Contributions to regime formation, state-building and geopolitics

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During the reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979), a new intelligence and security service SAVAK (Sazeman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar) was established in 1956 to ensure domestic security and to conduct foreign intelligence.

Iran under the shah and his predecessors constituted a limited access order as described by Robert Springborg. Such an order is characterised by an absence of political pluralism, direct access by the citizens, a free flow of credible information, transparency of policy processes, and strong institutional checks and balances.

During the period 1941–1953, military factions, the bureaucracy and the royal court’s patronage served as the main domestic pillars of the shah’s regime. SAVAK’s foundation reconfigured the regime’s constellation of powers and SAVAK became a significant additional pillar of support within the regime’s inner circle. For more than 20 years, SAVAK made key contributions to regime formation, state-building and geopolitics.

New intelligence organisations are mostly built on the foundations of other organisations, the ruler’s confidants or personnel who have already developed expertise and informer networks. In the case of SAVAK, military officers formed the initial core. With the support of US, UK and Israeli intelligence services, SAVAK developed Iran’s first full-fledged foreign intelligence service in the 20th century.

After the coup in 1953, SAVAK contributed significantly to regime formation by neutralising the shah’s opponents in the military. SAVAK helped to ensure the shah’s security during a period of coups in Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan and coup plots in Iran. SAVAK’s activities promoted a greater centralisation of power in Tehran and the consolidation of the shah’s control over all major factions by 1963.

Historically, strong non-Western or Western powers regularly penetrated and dominated Iran’s neighbourhood. SAVAK’s efforts to pacify tribes and to facilitate local settlements reinforced state building. SAVAK made the regime but also Iran as a state less vulnerable to foreign powers.

The neo-patrimonial dimensions of the regime were strong. Decision-making and policy implementation took place through informal and personal networks within institutions. Formal bureaucratic and merit-based processes often mattered less than submission to the shah, also in SAVAK.

SAVAK weakened political opposition groups like the Tudeh Party and the National Front. It also supported the shah’s efforts to establish a controlled system of party patronage and electoral support. It screened the candidates of pro-shah parties, interfered in elections and mobilised attendees before political rallies.

Sometimes the shah decided on policy options based on intelligence reports regarding the public’s preferences and reactions. The intelligence service therefore served as an indirect communication channel between the population, elite and ruler. SAVAK’s understanding of public sentiment was at least periodically more limited than the population and also political opponents thought at the time. Especially during Nasseri’s leadership (1965–1978), SAVAK resorted to an image of omniscience and more coercive measures to suppress political dissent.

SAVAK also shaped the ideological and cultural field through domestic and international propaganda campaigns, censorship, selective support for artists and thinkers, and the use of informers on the boards of media and cultural organisations. The history of many political orders cannot be properly understood and assessed without taking into account the hidden contributions of intelligence and security services. This is also the case with Iran under the shah.

The shah showed considerable geopolitical acumen and deployed local, national and transnational identity politics during geopolitical competition. In certain areas of bureaucratic uncertainty regarding competences and foreign policymaking, SAVAK dominated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SAVAK played the most important role in implementing foreign policy in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

G2 (military intelligence) never succeeded in changing or substituting the role of SAVAK in the intelligence community or as the shah’s problem-solver in foreign affairs. Higher oil prices and income and arms purchases enabled the shah to act more independently of the USA and USSR in the 1970s. By then, SAVAK had already overcome its initial dependence on foreign intelligence services. SAVAK played a pivotal role in changing the geopolitical field and the geopolitical culture of Iran.

Teece and others defined dynamic capabilities as a firm’s ability to sense rapid shifts in the environment, to seize the related opportunities and to reconfigure the firm accordingly. This concept can also be applied to a few senior officers in SAVAK. Hassan Pakravan, for example, identified new cultural and ideological trends to strengthen the shah’s legitimacy. Pakravan also signalled the unfulfilled aspirations of the new middle class and the need for a political settlement with traditional Muslims and moderate clerics. Parviz Sabeti clearly warned about the destabilising effects of elite corruption.

The shah’s reluctance to tolerate strong and independent security advisers around him and to accept critical but accurate judgements from SAVAK eventually distorted his perspective during the political turmoil of 1977–1979. These factors played a key role in poor decision-making and the shah’s eventual loss of power.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s new regime was attacked by the Iraqi Baath regime in 1980. It soon became apparent that the shah and SAVAK had not only achieved regime security in Iran, but also a measure of nation-building and state-building. Iraq could not, like other powers in history, conquer significant territories or establish its authority over groups in Iran.

SAVAK officers formed some of the building blocks of a new Iranian intelligence service, which defended Iran. Together with parts of the shah’s army and air force, the Revolutionary Guards and numerous volunteers, these ideologically heterogeneous forces were able to ensure the new regime’s survival and Iran’s territorial integrity during the longest conventional war in the 20th century.

The case of SAVAK in Iran allows more generic insights about the distinctive functions and roles of intelligence services in limited access orders. Stout and Warner distinguish between the core functions and peripheral functions of intelligence work. They describe the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence, counterintelligence and frequently also covert action as core functions. Other functions, including border control and diplomacy, are described as peripheral functions. They correctly point to the variety of functions intelligence services perform. However, the definition of core functions may assume a fairly consolidated government and state.

The functions performed by intelligence and security services, their relative importance, and the way they are perceived by a government depend on the dynamics and actors of the political order. It would often be useful to analyse the functions of an intelligence service in a limited access order with reference to a number of dimensions.

These dimensions would include the ruler’s relationship with the actors of the intelligence community, the relative strength of the regime vis-à-vis other domestic competitors, the nature and extent of regime formation, the features and main actors of the underlying political settlements, the cultural and ideological field, the dynamics and scope of nation-building and state-building, the geopolitical field and geopolitical culture.

In limited access orders, the formation, survival and power of the regime itself represent core tasks for intelligence and security services. This is particularly evident where a weak regime is essentially another faction among others that could, for example, be overthrown by factions within the security forces. This also is the case when an intelligence service assists a regime in achieving and maintaining power-sharing agreements or supremacy over rival factions.

Where a regime does not have a monopoly of power in a territory or where certain groups do not consider themselves subordinate to the regime, new political arrangements to consolidate the political order can be quite important. This is especially crucial when foreign powers exploit existing vulnerabilities to gain influence over specific groups or regions. If an intelligence service promotes such resilience vis-à-vis other actors, also by facilitating new political settlements, it fulfils a core function for the regime. It may even contribute to state-building.

In limited access orders, inclusion, exclusion and marginalisation within the political elite are managed to enhance the ruler’s hold on power. Thus, intelligence about members of the elite remains a valuable resource for a ruler. If an intelligence service assists in building a controlled party system and securing electoral support, it reinforces its key role within the regime.

In many limited access orders, rulers are also sensitive to criticism or ideas that may weaken their legitimacy and authority among the population. If an intelligence service assists the ruler by shaping the ideological and cultural field to bolster his or her authority, it mostly fulfils a core function from the ruler’s perspective.

In limited access orders, intelligence and security services may also undertake tasks unrelated to security matters at the ruler’s behest. This may occur when the ruler does not have administrative resources or sufficient trust in other institutions. Additionally, an intelligence and security service may act as a problem solver in communities. During the reign of the shah in Iran, SAVAK assumed various such roles at local, national and regional levels.

Keywords: core functions; geopolitical culture; ideological field; intelligence service; limited access order; neopatrimonial; political settlement; problem-solver; SAVAK; secret police



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SAVAK se rol as intelligensiediens in Iran, 1956–1979: Bydraes tot regimevorming, staatsbou en geopolitiek

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