The recent removal of controversial Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Ali Shamkhani from his role as the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s top foreign and security policy body, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), has triggered assessments about the potential implications for Tehran’s external calculus. So far, these calculations have focused almost exclusively on Shamkhani’s successor as SNSC secretary, the IRGC’s Ali Akbar Ahmadian. However, in doing so critical context is being overlooked.
Put simply, the changes at the SNSC should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, they must be understood and assessed in the context of a much deeper transformational project that began in 2019, personally spearheaded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei’s 2019 manifesto and “purification” project
In 2019, the now 84-year-old Khamenei launched his “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” (gaam-e dovom-e enghlab), a manifesto outlining his vision for the next 40 years. The “Second Phase” is aimed at ensuring Khamenei’s hardline Islamist ideology outlives him, an objective he believes he can achieve by ideologically purifying the regime and completing his project to personalize power. In practice, this has meant empowering the next generation of radicals — Khamenei’s very own cult of personality — across the Islamic Republic’s key positions through direct appointments or manufactured “elections.”
Since 2019, we have seen Khamenei absolutists — from the office of the supreme leader, IRGC, Basij, and radical Imam Sadegh University — being installed across the clerical regime’s formal institutions, such as the presidency, parliament, and judiciary, as well as its unconventional structures, including the Islamic Propaganda Organization, the Supreme Leader Representation in Universities, and the “Imams of Friday Prayer Policy Council.”
The last entities awaiting “purification” included the three key supreme councils within the unconventional structures of the regime: the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR), the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), and the SNSC. These are respectively responsible for making strategic policies regarding cultural issues, cyberspace, and national security. At the beginning of this year, new heads were installed across the first two supreme councils, with hardline IRGC-affiliated cleric Ali-Hossein Khosrowpanah assuming control of the SCCR in January and IRGC Basij-affiliated Seyyed Mohammad Amin Aghamiri taking over the SCC in February.
Until Shamkhani’s removal in late May, the SNSC was the final entity to undergo transformation as part of the supreme leader’s 2019 “Second Phase” project. In other words, Shamkhani’s removal and Ahmadian’s appointment signal that Khamenei’s four-year-long purification project has finally been completed.
It is important to note that while Shamkhani was undoubtedly part of the inner circle, he was certainly not considered a Khamenei absolutist. Contrary to conventional takes that have labelled the former SNSC head as being aligned with the so-called “reformist” elites, Shamkhani can be best described as an ideological opportunist — someone who would flirt with anyone to advance his interests. This was underscored by his reputation as a corrupt, nepotistic individual who allegedly enriched his sons through lucrative business deals. Perhaps more worrying for Khamenei were the espionage charges against Shamkhani’s close ally and former defense deputy, Alireza Akbari, who was executed in January 2023 for allegedly spying for Britain. The Akbari case will have been the final nail in the coffin for Shamkhani and no doubt caused the supreme leader to prioritize and expedite the “purification” of the SNSC.
But what can we tell from the newly appointed Ahmadian?
Ahmadian’s worldview and experience
In terms of outlook, so far, conventional observations have sought to paint the new secretary of the SNSC as “not a fanatic” and have described the changes to the Council as resulting in “no ideological shifts.”
But this could not be further from the truth. Based on open-source-intelligence and our own private conversations with IRGC members, we can firmly conclude that Ahmadian is a deeply ideological figure and an ardent member of Khamenei’s “cult of personality.” In fact, one IRGC member we spoke to, who had previously worked under Ahmadian, went so far as to describe him as an “ideological extremist,” who subscribes to an Islamist “civilizational” vision of the world. This is certainly consistent with Ahmadian’s past on-the-record comments and actions.
The first thing to note is that the new SNSC secretary subscribes to Khamenei’s Shi’a Islamist extremist “Imam and Ummah” global outlook, which rejects the concept of nation-states as “Westphalian” and instead divides the world between the land of Muslims and the land of infidels.
Ahmadian has shown a particular aversion toward the U.S., Israel, and the liberalization of Iranian society. He has described the regime’s enmity toward the U.S. and what he refers to as the “Zionist regime” (Israel) as “a war of ideals, a war of religious ideals of the Islamic Revolution against the dirty world of power, money, and pleasure.” Far from empty rhetoric, during his tenure as deputy commander of the IRGC’s naval forces, Ahmadian personally developed the IRGC’s asymmetric naval doctrine, geared toward targeting the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
As one of the main proponents of the “IRGC-ization” of the regime, Ahmadian has been driving the IRGC’s interference in the affairs of every aspect of the Islamic Republic. He has openly stated that he believes “the IRGC [should] enter every field of work to carry out its mission of protecting the Islamic Revolution.” The IRGC commander considers himself a “Khamenei purist” and views the Guard as the main pillar of the revolution. He has vehemently condemned less ideologically hardline factions of the regime, who — in his words — “have tried to change the meaning of the Islamic Revolution.” It is worth noting that, beyond his role in the IRGC, Ahmadian has invested time and resources to preserve what he considers the regime’s core values through the creation of a defense-oriented research center. In 2013, alongside other regime figures deeply focused on security and ideology, such as Hossein Dehghani and Hossein Firozabadi, he founded a think-tank tied to the National Defense University, the Moin Fajr Strategic Institute. The Institute is committed to finding ideological solutions to the Islamic Republic’s strategic challenges.
This newly appointed Khamenei zealot has also been on the frontlines of the regime’s soft-power war, forcefully confronting Iranian society’s increasing liberalization. In 1999, for example, alongside Qassem Soleimani and Esmail Qaani, Ahmadian was one of the 23 IRGC commanders who wrote a letter threatening to oust so-called reformist President Mohammad Khatami if he did not suppress anti-regime student protests against Khamenei. In recent years, the IRGC commander has focused increasing attention on what he refers to as the “soft-power infiltration” of the enemy. Echoing Khamenei’s sentiment that the soft-power threat to the regime has yet to be effectively confronted, Ahmadian’s vocal conviction that the media and arts need to be “purified” of non-Islamic values will have been music to the ageing ayatollah’s ears. Against the backdrop of the longest anti-regime unrest across Iran, such commitment will no doubt have confirmed to Khamenei that Ahmadian was the right man for the SNSC job. That being said, while there is no doubt he is an ideological absolutist, he is also considered by Khamenei to be a master strategist. For over 15 years, the IRGC commander has led the IRGC’s Strategic Research Center: the so-called “home” for the Guards’ strategic “masterminds.” The Center operates as the IRGC’s hub for strategy and thought-leadership. Its purpose is to assess the challenges the Islamic Republic’s faces, develop appropriate solutions, and re-calibrate the Guards’ policies and doctrines. All of the post-2007 changes to the IRGC that were implemented by Mohmmad Ali Jafari, then commander-in-chief, such as the creation of the IRGC’s Provincial Guard, were devised by the Strategic Research Center. In essence, the Center has been at the forefront of driving the IRGC-ization of the entre clerical system.
The implications of Ahmadian’s appointment
So how should we read Ahmadian’s appointment in the context of the deeper transformational changes that began in 2019?
First, if there were any doubts, the installation of Ahmadian as secretary of the SNSC confirms Khamenei is preparing for a period of major instability both inside and outside of Iran. Ahmadian is the first SNSC secretary who comes from a purely military-security background, with no political or diplomatic experience. This is consistent with the IRGC-ization of the clerical regime since 2019, not least across the key security organs. This includes the appointment of former IRGC Quds Force commander Ahmad Vahidi as interior minister by President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 and the replacement of cleric Hossein Taeb as head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization by IRGC military Gen. Mohammad Kazemi in 2022.
The broader trend of “purification” over the past four years reveals that the Islamic Republic has long been preparing for a period of what it regards as existential threats emanating from: above (in relation to the supreme leader’s succession), below (in relation to widespread anti-regime protests), and beyond (in relation to an increasingly likely military confrontation with Israel). Khamenei’s insistence on completing his personalization of power and installing ideological zealots across the conventional and unconventional organs of the regime has been geared toward simultaneously “neutralizing” these threats by insulating the regime. In other words, Khamenei understands that the trajectory the regime is on will require individuals who are totally committed and loyal to his rule and vision.
The completion of the “purification” project through Ahmadian’s appointment will have increased Khamenei’s confidence in overcoming these three threats — enabling the process of “neutralization” to begin. That is the most consequential effect from this development. And here’s what we can expect.
To neutralize the threat from above, it won’t be long until the new generation of Khamenei absolutists speed up an internal purge of the regime in order to ensure a smooth succession of the supreme leadership. This will be focused on key elite figures and factions they perceive as being potentially disruptive in the event of Khamenei’s death. This internal purge will be tacitly spearheaded and coordinated by Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, who controls his father’s office.
Simultaneously, the Islamic Republic will have to neutralize the threat from below — a people’s revolution. Anti-regime dissent has reached unprecedented levels inside Iran and, as the past eight months of unrest has made abundantly clear, the mood on the streets is revolutionary. All visible signs indicate that the likelihood of a second wave of protests is very high. International media may have lost interest in covering unrest in Iran, but pockets of protests, nationwide strikes, and civil disobedience has been a consistent feature of the Iranian streets, not least in places like Zahedan. There is widespread consensus that a spark could ignite a second wave of mass protests. The worsening economic situation, with the regime’s own Parliament Research Center publishing statistics indicating that inflation is running at 117%, and rumors of expected increases in gas prices and cuts in state subsidies could trigger this at any moment. With the most radical extremists now at the helm as a result of “purification,” we can expect the regime to unleash the most brutal and bloody crackdown seen to date. This will likely combine suppressive technologies, extrajudicial killings, chemical attacks on schools, torture, and mass executions. Such measures, however, will only further deepen the wound the regime has inflicted on its population. Rather than instilling fear among Iranians — the ultimate objective — such measures may have the opposite effect and result in a fearless society.
To complicate things further, all the signs suggest the regime is preparing for a major escalation beyond its borders. This may sound contrary to the recent developments in the region following the China-brokered normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as an incoming Oman-brokered deal with Egypt. However, a deeper assessment in relation to Khamenei and the IRGC reveals that the agreement is about anything but peace and stability in the Middle East. Instead, the Islamic Republic is choosing to temporarily delay its hostilities with Riyadh and the Arab world to prepare for a greater confrontation with its main foe: Israel. The removal of Shamkhani, who brokered the deal with Saudi Arabia, as secretary of the SNSC for Ahmadian, a IRGC military strategist with no diplomatic experience, only further supports this. The recent advancement of Tehran’s nuclear program, militia network, and ballistic missile capabilities through the unveiling of what the IRGC claims to be a “hypersonic” missile is also consistent with the regime’s escalatory path against Israel. In the past, Ahmadian himself has been a zealous proponent of the acceleration of all three projects. The IRGC commander has endorsed the creation of “Hezbollah cells” across the region, maintained the need for the progressing the Guards’ ballistic missile program, and adopted an extremely ideological posture on the nuclear issue, asserting “we will not compromise on the issue of enrichment because we have made a deal with God.”
Against the backdrop of an expiring U.N. ban on Iranian ballistic missile testing and transfers in October 2023 — as part of the sunset clauses of the 2015 nuclear deal — the appointment of this Khamenei true believer signals anything but a desire for de-escalation. In fact, part of the calculus in relation to normalization with the Arab world is to ensure that in the event of a full-scale conflict, the IRGC would not be overstretched and could dedicate all of its resources and attention to targeting Israel. Given that the U.N. atomic watchdog has found uranium particles enriched up to 83.7% in Iran’s underground nuclear site, just short of the level required for a nuclear weapon, the prospect of a conflict with Israel is perhaps more likely than ever before.
Ahmadian’s appointment should therefore be understood as something much more than just a reshuffle at the SNSC. It marks the completion of Khamenei’s transformational “purification” project across the regime, a process that began in 2019 and is now finally achieved. The total personalization of power achieved through these transformational changes will usher in a new phase for the Islamic Republic — one likely marked by instability. Through the installation of his cult of personality, the 84-year-old ayatollah has been able to inject young blood to advance and sustain his ideological vision for the foreseeable future. In the coming months and years this new generation of Khamenei absolutists can be expected to eagerly pursue the supreme leader’s ideological polices at home and abroad at an even greater pace, with all eyes on neutralizing the three existential threats the regime faces. While Khamenei’s “purification” project was designed to ensure blind loyalty to strengthen his hand at this critical juncture, the empowering of ideological “yes men” could end up having the opposite effect. Only time will tell how this gamble plays out.
Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Kasra Aarabi is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Photo by KHAMENEI.IR/AFP via Getty Images
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