The race to exchange Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s maximum palatable interlocutor with the West


Since 2013, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani has served as secretary of the Superb Nationwide Safety Council (SNSC), Iran’s best policymaking frame. Shamkhani’s place has grow to be extra vital in recent times as Iran’s incumbent president is extra restricted than his predecessor in issues of international coverage. The new execution of one in every of Shamkhani’s former deputies, Alireza Akbari, grievance from some persistent facilities in Tehran, and his longevity on this submit have raised hypothesis that he may quickly vacate his seat. Any such alternate can be crucial signpost of the way the Iranian established order is posturing itself in opposition to the backdrop of endured progressive sentiment amongst vital segments of the inhabitants.

A profession of firsts

Shamkhani has lengthy been a political chameleon — with stints in reformist, pragmatic, and conservative presidential administrations. He’s the one member of the Iranian established order to have served within the best brass of each Iran’s common Military (Artesh) and the Islamic Modern Guard Corps (IRGC). Likewise, Shamkhani has been arguably probably the most senior ethnic Arab to have risen within the Iranian gadget since 1979.

He’s the second-longest serving SNSC secretary since Iran’s earlier president, Hassan Rouhani, first ascended to the process in 1989. Rouhani’s tenure spanned over 15 years, while Shamkhani is nearing a decade in workplace. Their phrases bookended Ali Larijani, who was once simplest secretary for round two years, and Saeed Jalili, who held the submit for about six years. Not like his predecessors, Shamkhani, who commanded each the Artesh and IRGC navies, has substantial army revel in. Rouhani had some command duties all the way through the Iran-Iraq Warfare, together with as head of Iran’s Nationwide Air Protection Command. However Shamkhani, against this, has been a profession army guy. The army roles of Larijani and Jalili weren’t as senior — Larijani was once a parliamentary deputy within the IRGC and Jalili a member of the Basij paramilitary defense force — with the previous a one-time tradition minister and head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the latter a deputy international minister prior to turning into secretary.

Ambassador to the reformists

Shamkhani has additionally controlled to live on and thrive around the political spectrum. He was once protection minister underneath the reformist President Mohammad Khatami and SNSC secretary underneath Rouhani, a pragmatist, proceeding on this position underneath the incumbent, President Ebrahim Raisi, a extra conservative determine. Superb Chief Ayatollah Ali Khamenei purged the Iranian gadget in recent times — extending even to the likes of Larijani, whom the Mum or dad Council barred from working within the June 2021 presidential election in spite of being a regime mainstay. But extra just lately, figures like Shamkhani, who will have extra credibility amongst reformist components of the Iranian political elite, had been indispensable as Tehran deploys a sequence of force valves to keep the Islamic Revolution amid protests. Ultimate yr, the federal government enlisted Shamkhani for such an project, asking representatives of the founding households of the Islamic Republic (the Khomeinis and the Rafsanjanis) to talk out publicly to placate the Iranian other folks. In the event that they did, Shamkhani promised reforms would practice. However each clans reportedly refused the ones particular stipulations. He additionally just lately met with marginalized reformist figures like Ali Shakuri Rad, a former lawmaker.

Shamkhani likewise has been an suggest for alternate throughout the gadget, to divide and overcome the ones protesting, forming an ordinary coalition with Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Vice President for Financial Affairs Mohsen Rezaei, Amwaj Media has reported. Such efforts coincide with the higher visibility of reformists and pragmatists in Tehran because the onset of the protests in September. Former President Khatami, as soon as the topic of a media ban, has grow to be extra vocal in caution that the Islamic Revolution is in peril and advocated for no longer overhauling the charter however “simply returning to the spirit or even the textual content.” The remarks resembled an identical requires reform he made whilst in workplace, which failed then on account of the Iranian deep state presided over by means of the splendid chief. After being lambasted in his closing days in workplace by means of Khamenei, Rouhani has additionally resurfaced a couple of weeks in the past, telling newshounds at the forty fourth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that “we must no longer permit a power-hungry minority to push the bulk apart,” and caution that this “will be the finish of the revolution.”

Then again, there was no proof that Khamenei is taking note of Shamkhani. In reality, it seems that he’s shifting in the other way: doubling down and deflecting. His elevation of Ahmad-Reza Radan — a infamous hardliner — as the brand new commander of Iran’s nationwide police signifies as a lot. There could also be proof some within the Iranian gadget are laying the groundwork to make Shamkhani the autumn man amid the demonstrations. It might no longer be ordinary for Khamenei to reshuffle the federal government amid vital demanding situations to the gadget. As an example, he shifted Hossein Taeb, then commander of the Basij, to go a newly empowered IRGC Intelligence Group in 2009, when mass demonstrations took cling after the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.

The Shamkhani tightrope on international coverage

Likewise, on international coverage, Shamkhani is the uncommon respectable within the Raisi presidency who’s a leftover from the Rouhani management. The dynamics of the SNSC have modified because the Rouhani period, when the then-chief of group of workers of Iran’s Armed Forces, Hassan Firouzabadi, defended Rouhani’s nuclear international relations with the P5+1 (the 5 everlasting United Countries Safety Council contributors, the USA, Russia, China, France, and the UK, along side Germany). Speedy ahead to 2023, his successor, Mohammad Bagheri, has emerged as a number one critic of the Joint Complete Plan of Motion (JCPOA) within the SNSC. Shamkhani has developed as neatly. In 2014, he argued to global media that Tehran and Washington “can behave in some way that they don’t use their power in opposition to every different [in the region]. A nuclear settlement may also be very a very powerful on this regard. The entirety depends upon the honesty of the American citizens within the talks”; by means of 2019, he expressed remorseful about in regards to the JCPOA. Then again, Shamkhani has additionally hedged, counseling in opposition to a whole pivot clear of the West to align with China and Russia. Certainly, this outlook is increasingly more a minority view at the SNSC. This ideological nimbleness would possibly provide an explanation for why Khamenei has, up to now, been proof against changing him.


The names of a couple of possibilities to prevail Shamkhani have circulated on pro-IRGC Telegram channels and in different reporting. The manager of group of workers of Iran’s Armed Forces, Mohammad Bagheri; the commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Central Headquarters, Gholam Ali Rashid; the previous protection minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar; and present Internal Minister Ahmad Vahidi have all emerged as contenders. Different less-mentioned applicants come with former IRGC Commander-in-Leader Mohammad Ali Jafari, former SNSC secretary Jalili, and the former head of the IRGC intelligence provider, Taeb. Nearly all have senior IRGC pedigrees, and just one, Taeb, is a cleric. Likewise, with the exceptions of Mohammad-Najjar, Vahidi, Jalili, and Taeb, all cling the easiest IRGC army rank of primary common — which might position them on a peer stage with Shamkhani.

Bagheri has served as leader of group of workers of the Armed Forces since 2016. He has taken on a extra global position than his predecessor Firouzabadi, as Bagheri has targeted closely on protection international relations. Iranian media highlighted that Bagheri’s commute to China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Syria was once extraordinary since 1979. Shamkhani is very similar to Bagheri, given he had out of the country revel in as protection minister. Each are thought to be strategic thinkers relatively than simply bureaucrats or politicians, with Shamkhani as soon as directing the Armed Forces’ Middle for Strategic Research and Bagheri having taught on the Superb Nationwide Protection College. However there are vital variations, specifically Bagheri’s extra ideological opposition to the JCPOA and his loss of governmental revel in outdoor of the army. Bagheri was once up to now the IRGC’s intelligence and operations deputy and later led the Armed Forces Basic Body of workers’s Intelligence and Operations Directorate for years. Each and every SNSC secretary since 1989 had ministerial or parliamentary publicity. Bagheri additionally lacks the historical past that Shamkhani has as an operator around the political divide in Tehran. In reality, Bagheri is alienated from reformist circles on account of the truth that he signed onto a 1999 letter threatening then-President Khatami amid scholar protests. Some other hurdle for him can be his position as one of the crucial scholars who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 — which might motive diplomatic headaches given the secretary’s global position.

Rashid can be a extra unconventional selection for Khamenei. Not like Shamkhani and the opposite army figures who would possibly prevail him, Rashid’s center of attention has been on protection, and he has much less international coverage revel in. As commander of the Khatam al-Anbia Central Headquarters since 2016, he’s accountable for coordinating army operations. He was once sanctioned on this capability in 2019, underneath U.S. Govt Order 13876. Prior to now, Rashid was once the deputy leader of group of workers of Iran’s Armed Forces. Then again, Bagheri, a extra junior commander — he was once accountable for intelligence and operations for the Armed Forces Basic Body of workers — was once ultimately anointed by means of Khamenei as leader of group of workers. Thus, Rashid’s inventory with the splendid chief is unclear. Like Bagheri, he can be a loyal hardline voice, as Rashid additionally signed that 1999 letter threatening President Khatami. He likewise stocks a historical past with Shamkhani as a section of the era of commanders who performed a central making plans position all the way through the Iran-Iraq Warfare.

Mohammad-Najjar up to now served as protection minister and later inner minister underneath Ahmadinejad’s presidency, all the way through which the Obama management sanctioned him for human rights abuses, in 2010. He has a infamous IRGC pedigree, having served in 1983 as a commander of the IRGC forces in Lebanon and “was once at once liable for the Beirut truck bombings,” killing over 200 American provider contributors, in accordance to Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the previous commander of U.S. Marine forces in Lebanon on the time. Mohammad-Najjar additionally spent years within the Ministry of Protection and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), serving as head of the armaments phase of the Protection Industries Group. Like Shamkhani, Mohammad-Najjar has army and executive revel in, with each having up to now served as protection minister. Mohammad-Najjar has revel in out of the country — particularly within the early nurturing of Iran’s terrorist operations in Lebanon and in his position within the protection business base — but additionally on home safety information given his stint as inner minister. This multi-dimensional revel in performs in his desire because the SNSC significantly has equities in each worlds. However Khamenei can be taking a possibility anointing Mohammad-Najjar: The latter’s luggage of presiding over terrorist operations that killed U.S. forces would most likely make him poisonous at the global level. Shamkhani has confirmed helpful for the splendid chief, given his symbol as a rational and applicable counterpart with whom the West can interact — no longer the type of position Mohammad-Najjar would fill seamlessly.

Vahidi, who has a an identical resume to Mohammad-Najjar, may also be radioactive to a Western target market. Like Mohammad-Najjar, he served as protection minister all the way through the Ahmadinejad management and is the incumbent inner minister underneath Raisi. Vahidi was once additionally Qassem Soleimani’s predecessor because the IRGC’s Quds Pressure commander. He’s the topic of an INTERPOL Pink Understand for his position within the bombing of the AMIA Construction in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994. Vahidi has additionally been sanctioned by means of the U.S. Division of the Treasury for human rights abuses. Vahidi suits a development of the Raisi management raising probably the most sanctioned and sought after people of the Iranian gadget since 1979. Then again, the Iranian gadget can be remoted even additional if Vahidi ascended as SNSC secretary. Figures like Bagheri, Rashid, Mohammad-Najjar, and Vahidi would solidify the pivot east to China and Russia, particularly as they’d be extra applicable interlocutors to Beijing and Moscow than Brussels and Washington.

Different possible Shamkhani successors have surfaced in media studies — together with Jalili for a moment stint as secretary. He can be an ideological thorn within the facet of the West, as he has allegedly prompt Khamenei build up uranium enrichment to weapons-grade ranges at 90% from his perch because the splendid chief’s consultant at the SNSC.

Taeb, ousted as head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Group in 2022, has maintained a public profile — specifically, turning in remarks and showing at state events hosted by means of the Khamenei. Then again, the way of his departure after a sequence of operational disasters, with rumors of a feud with Khamenei’s longtime intelligence guide Asghar Mir-Hejazi, may obstruct his candidacy. Nonetheless, Khamenei has no longer utterly ostracized Taeb from the corridors of persistent. It’s not likely he’s content material with final simply an guide to the IRGC’s commander-in-chief. Jafari, a former IRGC leader who additionally served as commander of the IRGC’s Flooring Pressure, is any other possible alternative to Shamkhani. Like Shamkhani and Bagheri, he’s an army strategist, spearheading the “Mosaic Doctrine,” a protection plan in opposition to invading forces. He additionally was once concerned within the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. However not like different applicants, Jafari presented fortify publicly every now and then for the Rouhani-era nuclear negotiations. His loss of ministerial pedigree, coupled together with his perceived demotion after leaving the IRGC’s best process — he turned into the director of the Hazrat Baqiatollah al-Azam Cultural and Social Headquarters against this to his predecessors, who landed advisory positions to Khamenei — additionally raises uncertainties as to his status with the Place of job of the Superb Chief.

Darkish horses

Given Shamkhani’s distinctive talent to stroll the political tightrope in Tehran, his palatable symbol within the West, and the hot public reemergence of pragmatists in Tehran, it’s at all times imaginable Khamenei will search to raise somebody within the mould of Shamkhani to duplicate that ability set at a time when the Islamic Revolution is underneath hearth. This is able to most likely wish to be a determine ready to garner cross-factional fortify — doubtlessly person who served as protection or inner minister or within the international ministry in additional pragmatic governments — and person who gifts a softer face to the West within the hopes of conserving the gadget and stanching its bleeding across the world. And it will come in spite of the Raisi management’s reported choice for unapologetically hardline applicants to exchange Shamkhani. Khamenei has assertively inserted himself into the SNSC secretary variety procedure up to now, in order that chance must no longer be discounted on this pressurized surroundings. Certainly, the splendid chief would possibly nonetheless stay the incumbent on for a while to keep the established order.

After all, maximum headlines and trendlines level to a hardened, narrowed circle of persistent having a look to Beijing and Moscow as Iran’s long term lifelines. Then again, when Shamkhani leaves, whoever replaces him can be an important indicator of the path Khamenei intends to transport the gadget in his ultimate years.


Jason M. Brodsky is the coverage director of United In opposition to Nuclear Iran (UANI). His analysis specialties come with Iranian management dynamics, the Islamic Modern Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and spouse community. He’s on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

Photograph by means of Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Company/Getty Photographs

The Heart East Institute (MEI) is an impartial, non-partisan, non-for-profit, instructional group. It does no longer interact in advocacy and its students’ critiques are their very own. MEI welcomes monetary donations, however keeps sole editorial keep watch over over its paintings and its publications replicate simplest the authors’ perspectives. For an inventory of MEI donors, please click on here.



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