Though it came to power denouncing the shah's dreaded SAVAK secret service, the government of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has created a new internal security and intelligence operation, apparently with a similar organizational structure and some of the same faces as its predecessor.
The new organization is called SAVAMA. It is run, according to U.S. sources and Iranian exile sources here and in Paris, by Gen. Hossein Fardoust, who was deputy chief of SAVAK under the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and a friend from boyhood of the deposed monarch.
Reliable information on the organization itself, however, is both sketchy and sensitive, and assessments of SAVAMA's status and capability vary widely.
"SAVAK is alive and kicking" in the form of SAVAMA, claims Ali Tabatabai, former press counselor at the Iranian Embassy in Washington under the shah. Tabatabai, now president of the Iran Freedom Foundation in Bethesda, asked for and received political asylum in the United States last spring after executions started under Khomeini's rule in Iran.
"There are large numbers of former SAVAK people" in the new organization, he says. "In fact, with the exception of the bureau chiefs [who ran the individual sections of SAVAK] the whole organization seems to be intact."
In Paris, a French lawyer who specializes in representing Iranian exiles told Washington Post correspondent Ronald Koven that "SAVAMA is SAVAK without any change in structure. They just replaced some of the chiefs. It is strikingly like the way the Soviet Cheka was formed out of the old Tsarist Okhrana," a reference to the evolution in Moscow of a political police force after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
In Washington, however, U.S. government analysts offer a more subdued assessment.
"It may be tempting to look at SAVAMA as SAVAK reborn," one source said, "but that is too fanciful for the facts." That does not mean, he said, that over time the new organization could not become quite like SAVAK at its peak under the shah. But at this point, he said, SAVAMA is "a far cry" from its once powerful and sometimes brutal predecessor.
In this view, formation of a new internal security and intelligence-gathering operation by the revolutionary government isn't surprising. Khomeini undoubtedly felt the need for greater internal security capability to keep watch over the substantial number of "target groups" of real of imagined foes of his regime.
There was also a realization, U.S. sources say, that some vestiges of the grevious system could be useful. So, some former SAVAK functionaries -- described as "lower level" -- who were able to function for the shah without being tainted now work for Khomeini.
But the most important difference, in the view of some U.S. government specialists, is that SAVAMA probably still is not trusted by Khomeini and the rest of the government. The first public reports of SAVAMA's existence turned up late last year and sources here believe the organization is still in a "tentative, trying out" phase.
SAVAMA is only one of a number of security groups within the revolutionary government -- including Khomeini's paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, police force and various revolutionary committees -- "and it is by no means dominant in this group," one senior analyst says.
If SAVAMA is indeed not trusted yet by Khomeini, one reason could be the presence of former SAVAK employes in the ranks and the very close ties that SAVAK, under the shah, maintained with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.
Similarly, while assessments by anti-Khomeini Iranian exiles about SAVAMA may be skewed for political reasons, U.S. assessments could also be intentionally low-key if Washington or other western countries have made inroads with the new organization.
The fact that intelligence ties to Israel, the United States and other western agencies are broken is another reason SAVAMA is viewed by U.S. sources and some Iranian exiles as just a shadow of its former self.
According to a former Iranian minister under the shah who now lives in Paris and is said to be well informed about affairs in Tehran, SAVAMA is an official organization under Defense Minister Mostafa Chamran.
Tabatabai, who claims he has good sources on the situation in Tehran, says that SAVAMA's organization "is almost a carbon copy" of SAVAK's, with nine bureaus. These, he said, cover personnel, collection of foreign intelligence, collection of domestic intelligence, surveillance of its own agents and security of its own agents and security of government buildings, communications, finances, analysis of collected intelligence, counterintelligence, and recruitment and training.
In three former bureaus dealing with personnel organization and summation of intelligence, Tabatabai claims, every member who worked for Fardoust when he was deputy chief of SAVAK still works for him as chief of SAVAMA.
Fardoust's deputy at SAVAMA is said to be Gen. Ali Mohammed Kaveh, formerly the head of the SAVAK bureau dealing with analysis of collected intelligence.
Tabatabai says that Kavah has left Iran for the West and may have defected. Sources in Paris also say Kaveh has left Iran but are skeptical that he is no longer tied to SAVAMA. This is because of a previous mysterious trip to Paris last November by Kaveh.
At that time, another high-ranking SAVAMA official, Gen. Ali Akbar Farazian, who was in charge of foreign intelligence and had held a similar post in SAVAK, was in Paris. Farazian reportedly has been making contact with exile opposition groups for a few weeks in the French capital, claiming that he was in disagreement with the Khomeini regime. But then his boss, Kaveh, showed up at the same Paris Hotel.
Since then exile groups have been especially wary of the movements and statements of these intelligence officials. After the meeting, Iranian exiles in Paris said they suspected they were under increased surveillance by SAVAMA and some said they received threatening letters.
Tabatabai says his sources report that Farazian has now left Iran and is living with wealthy relatives in California.
Fardoust is the mystery man in the SAVAK-SAVAMA evolution. A longtime friend, classmate and confidant of the shah. Fardoust, Tabatabai says, was also head of a special SAVAK bureau that summarized all intelligence information. Fardoust delivered it personally to the shah daily.
Why khomeini kept him on, Tabatabai says, can only be conjecture, but one reason might be that Fardoust had switched allegiance secretly and was really working for the opposition forces.
In his position, Fardoust was aware not only of SAVAK-produced intelligence on opposition forces but also of SAVAK torture that was alienating the population. If he withheld that kind of information from the shah, it could have contributed to the monarch's passivity in combating his foes.
The shah's sister, Ashraf Pahlavi, makes a similar point in her recently published memoir, "Faces in a Mirror."
After the shah cut off subsidies to the religious mullahs in 1977, she said, anti-shah sermons were preached steadily in Iran's 11,000 mosques."Curiously, SAVAK, the shah's secret police -- the supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing intelligence source -- made no reports on the extent and manner in which the mullahs were now using the sanctity of the pulpit to undermine the throne."
She labels this failure to keep the shah informed a deliberate action by Fardoust and says she is "convinced" he was negotiating with the still-exiled Khomeini at the time.
The Post's correspondent Koven reports from Paris that exile sources there allege that Fardoust and Kaveh engineering the eventual execution of their former boss, SAVAK chief Gen. Nematollah Nasiri, by the Khomeini regime became Nasiri was a potential embarrassment to them and knew too much about their past activities under the shah.
Kaveh, before he became a high-ranking SAVAK officer, was a member of the Communist Tudeh Party. Though many party members eventually came over the shah's regime, some high-ranking exiles from the shah's time now wonder whether Kaveh is an opportunist or simply never really changed his spots.
Nasiri was among the first officials tried by the special Islamic revolutionary tribunals.
According to a report issued by Amnesty International last month, covering executions in Iran from the Khomeini takeover through last Aug. 12, at least 83 former SAVAK members designated by the courts as officials, interrogators, torturers, assassins and other callings were executed.
While SAVAK used torture systematically as a tool of internal repression, the new government has officially repudiated this technique and there is no hard evidence that such techniques have been revived under SAVAMA to any degree approaching that of its predecessor.
Whether SAVAMA also reaches overseas as SAVAK did is also of interest to security services in other countries. U.S. analysts believe some overseas agents of SAVAK who were deemed usable by the new government still may be in place. But in general they view SAVAMA foreign intelligence-gathering ability as very low. g
The exile community here and in France, however, is not so sanguine. In their view, the revolutionary government feels gravely threatened from abroad and needs all the counterintelligence help it can get from overseas agents.
Tabatabai indicates that security officials here are concerned that militants who took over the U.S. Embassy last November were able to use passports, visas and various official stamps to produce numerous false passports to send agents into the United States before April 7, when President Carter canceled all entry visas, and into Western Europe.
It is known that the FBI has been keeping an eye on the emergence of SAVAMA activity in the United States. But sources said the confusion of the revolutionary government in Iran has been such that the new intelligence arm of Tehran is not yet considered a real threat to the United States.
"It's just something you have to keep an eye on," one source said.