Headquarters Tehran, Iran
Minister responsible Intelligence
Employees 60,000 at peak
|Superseding agency Prime Ministry Intelligence Office|
SAVAK (Persian: ساواک, short for سازمان اطلاعات و امنیت کشور Sāzemān-e Ettelā'āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar, Organization of Intelligence and National Security) was the secret police, domestic security and intelligence service established by Iran's Mohammad Reza Shah with the help of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) and Israeli Mossad. SAVAK operated from 1957 to 1979, when the prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar ordered its dissolution during the outbreak of Iranian Revolution. SAVAK has been described as Iran's "most hated and feared institution" prior to the revolution of 1979 because of its practice of torturing and executing opponents of the Pahlavi regime. At its peak, the organization had as many as 60,000 agents serving in its ranks according to one source, although Gholam Reza Afkhami estimates SAVAK staffing at between 4,000 and 6,000. Almost all SAVAK agents were hunted down and killed after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
After removing the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq (which was originally focused on nationalizing Iran's oil industry but also set out to weaken the Shah's power) from power on 19 August 1953, in a coup, the monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, established an intelligence service with police powers. The Shah's goal was to strengthen his regime by placing political opponents under surveillance and repressing dissident movements. According to Encyclopædia Iranica:
A U.S. Army colonel working for the CIA was sent to Persia in September 1953 to work with General Teymur Bakhtiar, who was appointed military governor of Tehran in December 1953 and immediately began to assemble the nucleus of a new intelligence organization. The U.S. Army colonel worked closely with Bakhtīār and his subordinates, commanding the new intelligence organization and training its members in basic intelligence techniques, such as surveillance and interrogation methods, the use of intelligence networks, and organizational security. This organization was the first modern, effective intelligence service to operate in Persia. Its main achievement occurred in September 1954, when it discovered and destroyed a large communist Tudeh Party network that had been established in the Persian armed forces
In March 1955, the Army colonel was "replaced with a more permanent team of five career CIA officers, including specialists in covert operations, intelligence analysis, and counterintelligence, including Major General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf who "trained virtually all of the first generation of SAVAK personnel." In 1956 this agency was reorganized and given the name Sazeman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK). These in turn were replaced by SAVAK's own instructors in 1965.
SAVAK had the power to censor the media, screen applicants for government jobs, "and according to reliable Western source, use all means necessary, including torture, to hunt down dissidents". After 1963, the Shah expanded his security organizations, including SAVAK, which grew to over 5,300 full-time agents and a large but unknown number of part-time informers.
In 1961 the Iranian authorities dismissed the agency's first director, General Teymur Bakhtiar; he later became a political dissident. In 1970 SAVAK agents assassinated him, disguising the deed as an accident.
General Hassan Pakravan, director of SAVAK from 1961 to 1966, had an almost benevolent reputation, for example dining with the Ayatollah Khomeini while Khomeini was under house arrest on a weekly basis, and later intervened to prevent Khomeini's execution on the grounds it would "anger the common people of Iran". After the Iranian Revolution, however, Pakravan was among the first of the Shah's officials to be executed by the Khomeini regime.
Pakravan was replaced in 1966 by General Nematollah Nassiri, a close associate of the Shah, and the service was reorganized and became increasingly active in the face of rising Shia and communist militancy and political unrest.
Siahkal attack and after
A turning point in SAVAK's reputation for ruthless brutality was reportedly an attack on a gendarmerie post in the Caspian village of Siahkal by a small band of armed Marxists in February 1971, although it is also reported to have tortured to death a Shia cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Sa'idi, in 1970. According to Iranian political historian Ervand Abrahamian, after this attack SAVAK interrogators were sent abroad for "scientific training to prevent unwanted deaths from 'brute force.' Brute force was supplemented with the bastinado; sleep deprivation; extensive solitary confinement; glaring searchlights; standing in one place for hours on end; nail extractions; snakes (favored for use with women); electrical shocks with cattle prods, often into the rectum; cigarette burns; sitting on hot grills; acid dripped into nostrils; near-drownings; mock executions; and an electric chair with a large metal mask to muffle screams while amplifying them for the victim. This latter contraption was dubbed the Apollo—an allusion to the American space capsules. Prisoners were also humiliated by being raped, urinated on, and forced to stand naked. Despite the new 'scientific' methods, the torture of choice remained the traditional bastinado used to beat soles of the feet. The "primary goal" of those using the bastinados "was to locate arms caches, safe houses and accomplices ..."
Abrahamian estimates that SAVAK (and other police and military) killed 368 guerrillas including the leadership of the major urban guerrilla organizations (Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas, People's Mujahedin of Iran) such as Hamid Ashraf between 1971–1977 and executed something less than 100 political prisoners between 1971 and 1979 – the most violent era of the SAVAK's existence.
One well known writer was arrested, tortured for months, and finally placed before television cameras to 'confess' that his works paid too much attention to social problems and not enough to the great achievements of the White Revolution. By the end of 1975, twenty-two prominent poets, novelist, professors, theater directors, and film makers were in jail for criticizing the regime. And many others had been physically attacked for refusing to cooperate with the authorities.
By 1976, this repression was softened considerably thanks to publicity and scrutiny by "numerous international organizations and foreign newspapers." In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States and he "raised the issue of human rights in Iran as well as in the Soviet Union. Overnight prison conditions changed. Inmates dubbed this the dawn of `jimmykrasy.`
During the height of its power, SAVAK had virtually unlimited powers. It operated its own detention centers, like Evin Prison. In addition to domestic security the service's tasks extended to the surveillance of Iranians abroad, notably in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, and especially students on government stipends. The agency also closely collaborated with the American CIA by sending their agents to an air force base in New York to share and discuss interrogation tactics.
Teymur Bakhtiar was assassinated by SAVAK agents in 1970, and Mansur Rafizadeh, SAVAK's United States director during the 1970s, reported that General Nassiri's phone was tapped. Mansur Rafizadeh later published his life as a SAVAK man and detailed the human rights violations of the Shah in his book Witness: From the Shah to the Secret Arms Deal: An Insider's Account of U.S. Involvement in Iran. Mansur Rafizadeh was suspected to have been a double agent also working for the CIA.
According to Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, SAVAK was responsible for
Writing at the time of the Shah's overthrow, Time magazine described SAVAK as having "long been Iran's most hated and feared institution" which had "tortured and murdered thousands of the Shah's opponents." The Federation of American Scientists also found it guilty of "the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners" and symbolizing "the Shah's rule from 1963–79." The FAS list of SAVAK torture methods included "electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails."
Fardoust and security and intelligence after the revolution
SAVAK was closed down shortly before the overthrow of the monarchy and the coming to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the February 1979 Iranian Revolution. Following the departure of the Shah in January 1979, SAVAK's 3,000+ central staff and its agents were targeted for reprisals; However, it is believed that Khomeini may have changed his mind and may have retained them into the new SAVAMA. Hossein Fardoust, a former classmate of the Shah, was a deputy director of SAVAK until he was appointed head of the Imperial Inspectorate, also known as the Special Intelligence Bureau, to watch over high-level government officials, including SAVAK directors. Fardoust later switched sides during the revolution and managed to salvage the bulk of the SAVAK organization. According to author Charles Kurzman, SAVAK was never dismantled but rather changed its name and leadership and continued on with the same codes of operation, and a relatively unchanged "staff."
SAVAK was replaced by the "much larger" SAVAMA, Sazman-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Melli-e Iran, also known as the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of Iran.
After the victory of the Islamic revolution, a museum was opened in the former Towhid Prison in central Tehran called "Ebrat". The museum displays and exhibits the documented atrocities of SAVAK.