Almost no one doubts that Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet appointments have nothing to do with talent or expertise and that the crew was installed for only one purpose: to dodge the current crises and thwart the regime’s fall. Among the ministries and their underqualified heads, there’s one exception: the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) is now headed by a person who perfectly mirrors the entire establishment of terror and suppression.
Like many members of Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet, Esmail Khatib is coming out of the shadows. Virtually unknown to the West, his name does well generate shivers among the ruling class. In fact, Khatib’s record during the last 43 years has been tied to the cleansing and annihilation of clerics, intelligence agents, and guards who dared to pose a threat to Ali Khamenei’s reign and heir. For many years, Khatib has worked with Hossein Taeb, the chief of the IRGC intelligence unit, and his brother Mehdi Taeb, the head of the Ammar headquarters who reports to Mojtaba Khamenei directly.
Born in Qaen, South Khorasan province in 1961, Khatib was 19 years old when the clergy grabbed power in Iran following the revolution that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. It’s been said that Khatib studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was founded in 1980, with the goal to safeguard the supreme leader’s rule. Even though Ruhollah Khomeini, then supreme leader, had handpicked the highest among the ranks of Iran’s classic army (called the Artesh), he still didn’t trust the organization to overcome the main threat to his regime: domestic dissent.
Mohsen Rezaei, the first commander-in-chief of the IRGC, recruited Esmail Khatib and put him in the IRGC Intelligence Unit where he served from 1985 to 1991. Several accounts indicate that Khatib played a critical role in the killing and oppression of Kurdish dissidents in the early ‘80s. Not much is known from his conduct during these years but his appointment in 1991 to lead the ‘Special Department for Movements’ within the MOIS office in Qom is quite telling. His mandate: spying and eliminating clerics and everyone else that opposed the ruling elite.
One of the high-profile cases on Khatib’s desk was the plot to arrest and execute Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Hadi Hashemi, Ayatollah Montazeri‘s son-in-law. In charge of the Liberation Movements Unit in the IRGC- an equivalent to the current IRGC Qods Force- Mehdi Hashemi was close to Ayatollah Montazeri, who officially was the supreme leader-in-waiting. Both lived in Qom, under Khatib’s “jurisdiction”.
In 1986, when the Reagan administration was trying to get American hostages free from the regime’s proxy groups in Lebanon, the United States government sent a special envoy to Iran to secretly meet with Khomeini and his closest inner circle. The meeting that led to a deal over weapons sales between Tehran and the ‘Great Satan’ was leaked to Ayatollah Montazeri’s office through people that were close to him – allegedly people like Mehdi Hashemi. The leak caused a major scandal in Tehran as well as in the West, famously known as the ‘Iran Gate’ or the ‘Iran Contra Affair’.
It didn’t matter whether Mehdi Hashemi was actually the whistleblower or not; the regime decided to remove him at all costs and removed he was. Despite his long record of serving the IRGC and the clergy, he was detained and executed as a traitor.
In the 1980s Ayatollah Montazeri had occasionally interfered in the judiciary’s affairs and his people had released dozens of political prisoners through the ‘Amnesty Delegation’. Therefore, Montazeri increasingly grew at odds with Assadollah Lajevardi, the notorious attorney general who executed and tortured thousands of political prisoners in the early ‘80s. These issues did not escape Esmail Khatib’s attention and they were reported to the highest levels in Tehran. Finally, when Ayatollah Montazeri objected to the mass executions in 1988, Supreme Leader Khomeini had enough and dismissed him from succession and put him on house arrest.
In the following years, under Esmail Khatib’s watch, Montazeri’s house, his office, his mosque, and his library were raided several times. Everything was destroyed, his property looted, and his people beaten and put behind bars.
In 1999 Esmail Khatib was promoted to the chief of MOIS in the city of Qom. It is said that in March 1995, Saeed Emami, former deputy MOIS chief was assigned to assassinate Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the deceased Ruhollah Khomeini. Ahmad Khomeini had grown increasingly at odds with the ruling duo, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, then new supreme leader. Among the people involved in the decision were MOIS chief Ali Fallahian and current Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei.
State media claimed that Ahmad Khomeini suffered cardiac arrest, but his wife, Fatemeh Tabatabai told another woman that Khomeini’s son had been poisoned by the Iranian intelligence agents. The other woman was Fakhr ul-Sadat Burqai, the wife of Hossein Pourmohammadi.
Finally, word reached Hossein’s brother, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, one of the longest-serving members of the MOIS. As a result, it was decided that she knew too much, and she should be taken care of. One year after the mysterious death of Ahmad Khomeini, on March 7, 1996, Fakhr ul-Sadat Burqai was brutally murdered. The late schoolteacher was found dead at home, choked with an electric cable, and her body was burned with acid. The victim’s family, who was close to the regime, initially pushed for an autopsy but everyone involved in the case was either dismissed, went into retirement, or just left the case. Her family was eventually forced into silence.
In 2010, Esmail Khatib became the head of security of Ali Khamenei’s Beyt (Arabic for the house). There is almost no proven record of his actions in the supreme leader’s inner circle, but he remained at this post until 2012. When Sadegh Amoli Larijani became head of the judiciary, he wanted Esmail Khatib to lead the Judiciary’s intelligence department. In this post, Khatib had oversight on every single case of corruption in and outside the judiciary.
After Ebrahim Raisi’s failed presidential campaign, the supreme leader launched a new roadmap to get his man selected as head of the executive branch at all costs. As such, Sadegh Amoli Larijani was asked to step down as the head of the judiciary, even though his second five-year term had not ended yet. Accordingly, Ebrahim Raisi was appointed as chief justice on March 7, 2019. His deputy was Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei and he vowed to ‘eradicate corruption from the judiciary’. Before this campaign started, the establishment transferred Esmail Khatib to the Astan Quds Razavi to remove all his ties to what was going to happen next.
On July 14, 2019, Akbar Tabari, the executive deputy of the judiciary was arrested at Sadegh Amoli Larijani’s house. The regime put Akbar Tabari on trial and after dismissing 200 corrupt judges, Raisi started elevating his profile as a champion in the struggle against corruption using the state media. Esmail Khatib’s name was cleared from all cases and as soon as Ebrahim Raisi announced his cabinet, Khatib became the candidate to head the MOIS, one of the most vital national security posts in the administration that reports to Khamenei directly.
During the confirmation hearing of Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet, when some members of the parliament started to question Khatib’s record, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament’s speaker clearly interfered and reminded everyone that people like Khatib have the definitive approval of the Supreme Leader.
In the last four decades, Esmail Khatib has been Khamenei’s man to seek, identify and remove dissent. He’s proven his loyalty, no matter the title or the hat he wore. In a regime where even the highest officials are under surveillance and their loyalty is always tested, Khatib has been the one that controlled the most vital flashpoints. With a series of blatant security lapses behind and preparing for the rainy days ahead, it is certain that Esmail Khatib, armed with the most barbaric and brutal killing apparatus, is willing to cleanse everything and everyone in order to preserve Khamenei’s sway.