Amid the barrage of reporting and analysis on the Iranian protests in recent days, one study conducted by BBC Persian contained perhaps the single fact most relevant to the reality on the ground. Journalists working for the news outlet revealed that in roughly 90 percent of the cities where anti-regime protests have taken place over the last week, smaller public demonstrations about economic grievances—over unpaid wages, for example—had also taken place in recent months.
Since most of these cities are marginal towns with no recent history of political or civic activism, the study seems to confirm the very real grievances behind the protests.
In fact, some regime figures have acknowledged and confirmed this. But accepting that the downtrodden citizens of the Islamic Republic are revolting against a regime that has failed to fulfill its most basic promises after almost 40 years is a little too much for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the military-financial behemoth that deploys a language of social justice and revolution while harboring some of the wealthiest oligarchs in the Middle East.
The IRGC has thus come up with its own theory about the protests: It’s the work of three foreign countries with a hostile attitude toward Iran. It’s a theory that has been readily accepted by the Iranian judiciary, with possibly dire consequences for more than 1,500 citizens—the rough number that have been arrested so far during the protests.
The state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is well versed in airing conspiracy theories spawned by the IRGC. In fact, its extreme take has come under heavy criticism from more moderate figures of the regime who see it as adding insult to the injuries of protesters.
This week, one of IRIB’s popular nightly talk shows was dedicated to the protests. The Channel Two show featured Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a conservative MP, and Reza Seraj, introduced as an “expert on strategic questions and a university professor.”
Seraj is well-known to many Iranian activists, although not exactly in those terms. Many of the thousands who have gone through the notorious interrogations blindfolded in Tehran’s Evin Prison remember his voice as an “expert interrogator.” He is known for meting out psychological torture rather than physical torture by flaunting his supposed knowledge of the intricate webs of espionage with which any given activist is allegedly involved.
Born in the southwestern city of Ahvaz in 1966, Seraj has cut his teeth in different wings of the IRGC, especially its autonomous volunteer paramilitary, the Basij. One story alleges that in 1988, the then-21-year-old Seraj galvanized a group of angry Basijis to stop a speech by Ali Khamenei—who was president at the time—to soldiers on the frontlines of the war with Iraq. Back then, President Khamenei was engaged in a power struggle with Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was regarded as being more revolutionary and closer to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.
As it turned out, two decades later, in 2009, Seraj played a lead role in defending Khamenei, by then the supreme leader, harassing and torturing supporters of Mousavi, who was by that time the leader of the Green Movement that threatened Khamenei.
Seraj headed the student organization of Basij from 2008 to 2010 and was lauded by the pro-IRGC Fars News Agency as a transformative Basiji figure. In the years since, he has become known for working with outlets like Fars and the state broadcaster to defend the regime and spin tales of foreign espionage.
His real identity didn’t remain hidden for long. Ali Afshari, the student activist who was driven to exile after bouts of prison and torture in Iran, recalled Seraj very well in an interview he gave to the New Haven-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
“When I gave up, they had taken my blindfold [off] and I could see my interrogator,” Afshari said. “He introduced himself as Alavi but I later found out that his name was Seraj. He sometimes writes for Fars now and is the head of student Basij. I complained to the judge and asked for a different interrogator. Seraj used to tell me that it was he who told the judge what to do, not the other way around.”
This week on Channel Two, the very same Seraj, also known as Interrogator Alavi, was in his element, offering an elaborate theory as to how the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia used the so-called Islamic State and Telegram (a popular messaging app) to organize the protests. His account was confirmed and complemented by Amirabadi, who claimed to speak on the basis of intelligence given to MPs.
“The Americans, the Israelis, and the Saudis had a strategic operational plan that was to be put in action next year,” Seraj said, “but some factors led them into hastening it.”
The plan had been hatched in a “regime-change center of operations in the White House,” Seraj said, and it had aimed to use social media as an “accelerator” while utilizing three opposition groups: the monarchists, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), a religio-political cult, and the Marxist left. The U.S. had planned to do to Iran what it had previously done to Syria and Libya.
Seraj claimed to have much evidence for the plan. According to him, there might have been some “genuine protesters” out on Friday, the first day the protests spread from Mashhad, but there were almost none the next day and definitely none on Sunday, the third day of protests.
“On the third day, you only had these networks organized on social media, led by ringleaders who all had a similar-looking outfit,” Seraj said. Why foreign spies might insist that the ringleaders they’ve instigated wear “a similar-looking outfit” is a question the TV host didn’t ask Seraj. Seraj also said it was Iran’s blocking of Telegram and Instagram that had slowed down the protests.
Amirabadi claimed that the organization of protests was part of a much larger plan the Americans had for the Middle East. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Saudi-instigated forced resignation of Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister, the “failed coup” of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital were all pieces of the same puzzle. Since, with the exception of the latter, they all failed, the Americans had to hastily implement their plans for Iran, he said.
“We have accurate information that shows the Iran desk at the State Department led a triangle team formed of the State Department, the U.S. Treasury, and a security team of espionage agencies,” Amirabadi said. “They gathered together a group of abroad-based [Iranian] counter-revolutionary groups, formed a think tank, and had planned to organize their actions after September 2018.”
Adding more to spice up the story, Amirabadi claimed that part of the U.S. plan was to bring the forces of ISIS to Iranian territory, but this had been thwarted by the Quds Force (a part of the IRGC which is not supposed to operate on Iranian territory) and the Unknown Soldiers of the Twelfth Imam (the name used for the forces of Iran’s ministry of intelligence.) Seraj quickly agreed with this claim.
According to Seraj, now that the Americans’ “Plan A” had been defeated, they had resorted to “Plan B,” which had been started by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s calling on the United Nations Security Council to meet about Iran.
“Their plan is to lead Iran to miscalculation and to change its behavior according to what U.S. and the European countries want,” Seraj said. “They had designed a game of dominoes. The Americans were to threaten us with leaving the JCPOA [nuclear agreement] and ramping up the sanctions while the Europeans were to play the good cop.”
This was timed, he added, with the trip that French officials are soon to make to Iran to potentially open up re-negotiation of the the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Seraj doesn’t officially speak for the IRGC so someone unfamiliar with his significance might dismiss his elaborate theory as the thoughts of one man. But Iranian Chief Prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri has given a version of events that coincides very closely with Seraj’s.
Speaking at a conference in the holy city of Qom, Montazeri said an “operations room” had been formed by Tel Aviv, Washington, and Riyadh and that it had planned to overthrow the Islamic Republic before the next anniversary of the 1979 revolution, in February 2018.
According to Montazeri, the movement to protest against high prices and the one staged by those who had lost all their life savings through dealings with fraudulent banking institutions had been organized by this “operations room.”
Montazeri then gave numerous details to back up the story put forth by Seraj and Amirabadi—and added some new claims. The cities of Herat in Afghanistan and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan had been picked as centers of operation, he said, and ISIS forces were to come to Iran from there. He also claimed that Michael D’Andrea—who was revealed in U.S. media reports back in June as the newly appointed head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center—had organized the protests, a claim previously made by some pro-government Turkish newspapers (these reports were so inaccurate they had mistakenly published photographs of U.S. actors instead of D’Andrea.)
Between the Tunisian or the Libyan models of regime change, the “operations room” had picked the former for Iran, Montazeri added.
Not only is Seraj known for elaborating detailed tales of espionage, he’s used them to get heavy sentences for political prisoners—perhaps his claim to fame. According to those familiar with the Iranian system, this is how he came to be known as an expert on “strategy.” These stories might seem far-fetched or even laughable, but they’ve occasionally cost the liberties and lives of many Iranians.
The Green Movement of 2009 was followed by Stalinesque show trials during which the accused confessed to involvement in elaborate espionage plans. Seraj is known to have played a role in concocting those fantasy plans. So, now, many worry that a similar fate awaits more than 1,500 people who have been arrested over the last few days.