Last March, Iran’s national security chief found himself in the headlines of the world’s major news outlets as he shook hands with a Saudi minister in a landmark China-brokered deal. .
It was perhaps the greatest international moment of Ali Shamkhani’s career – and possibly the last. Almost three months after this meeting, he was replaced.
Shamkhani resigned this week from his ten-year post as head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iranian media reported. He is being replaced by a little-known general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who analysts say has little experience beyond the military.
A name recognized throughout the Middle East and in diplomatic circles in Washington and Europe, Shamkhani was a rising star in Iranian diplomacy. He had been the country’s top national security official since 2013 and previously held several senior positions, including in the IRGC and the Defense Ministry.
But internationally, the 67-year-old was known for his recent diplomatic work, particularly on the nuclear issue.
His sudden replacement is not unusual in Iran, analysts say, as Shamkhani’s term could simply have ended after a decade of service. But the circumstances surrounding the change may reflect Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s anxiety about officials who might show themselves in the spotlight or become too ambitious, analysts added.
Shamkhani’s role in Iran’s nuclear dossier is something that may have left a sour taste for President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
He’s handled the nuclear talks for the past two years, and while he’s had disagreements with former president Hassan Rohani, he’s also had issues with Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, Vatanka told CNN.
Along with Raisi, there was a sense that Shamkhani was “taking all the glory when it comes to Iranian foreign policy achievements, including detente with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”, he said, adding who local media have portrayed for the past two years Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian as token figureheads who can be off the hook, showing Shamkhani as the real decision maker.
Elements within the Iranian regime may have felt the need to “bring it down because it is getting too big for the interests of other groups”, he said.
The former national security chief was ambitious, experts say, and had an extensive portfolio, ranging from his bid for the presidency in 2001 to key posts in the IRGC and the Defense Ministry. His successor does not have such a high profile.
Shamkhani’s withdrawal could also be linked to factional politics in Iran, Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), told CNN.
“It is fair to assume that strategic decisions made in the Supreme National Security Council – such as the Iranian-Saudi détente – should not end up being a victory for any political faction,” he said, noting that Shamkhani’s former roles, such as his time as defense minister, may damage the Council’s image as the winner of these strategic victories.
Shortly after Shamkhani stepped down from his national security role, he was made a member of Iran’s Opportunity Council and is now a political adviser to Khamenei, a career path shared by several other former top officials, analysts say.
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who fell out with Khamenei, was also named to the Opportunity Council.
“Such a post has often been a way to reward a former high-ranking official for his service and keep him close to the centers of power,” said Sina Toossi, nonresident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.
But while he may still be eligible for future leadership positions, the significance of his current role “may vary depending on Shamkhani’s access to or influence over the paramount chief and his involvement in decision-making processes. decision-making or policy-making,” added Toossi.
Shamkhani’s rise, however, has not been smooth. Apart from his disagreements with key cabinet members, the man has also been linked to a few scandals, including his links to Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual citizen who was hanged by the Islamic Republic this year for espionage and corruption.
Along with his sons, he has also been accused of corruption, allegations that have been used in the past “to marginalize individuals or factions”, Toossi said.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Who is his successor and what should change?
Shamkhani was replaced by IRGC General Ali Akbar Ahmadian, who analysts say should be more obedient and less ambitious than Shamkhani.
“Ahmadian may have been appointed to this post because Khamenei trusts him as a loyal and experienced military leader who can implement his vision and agenda,” Toossi said, adding that Ahmadian’s expertise in defense strategy and naval warfare could also prove useful to Khamenei.
Tabatabai said Ahmadian is first and foremost “a military and security strategist”, and his appointment could aim to “depoliticize” SNSC’s security calculations and decision-making.
Iran’s top security body, the SNSC has traditionally had high-profile secretaries who have played important diplomatic roles.
Analysts say little is expected to change regarding Iran’s national security policies and that the Saudi-Iranian détente led by Shamkhani should remain intact.
But some are raising questions about the fate of the nuclear deal, which Shamkhani has been dealing with for two years.
Negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been ongoing since 2021, after the United States pulled out of the deal in 2018 under the then President Donald Trump.
Talks bogged down last year and ties between Iran and the West only soured when Tehran began supplying drones to Russia in its war against Ukraine.
It is unclear what stance Ahmadian will take on the nuclear deal, but experts note that SNSC policies are not shaped by the secretary alone and that Ahmadian will likely seek advice higher up the chain of command.
“It remains to be seen whether Ali Akbar Ahmadian will be as present in public as Ali Shamkhani was last year in particular,” Tabatabai said.
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