Since 2013, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani has served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iran’s top policymaking body. Shamkhani’s position has become more important in recent years as Iran’s incumbent president is more limited than his predecessor in matters of foreign policy. The recent execution of one of Shamkhani’s former deputies, Alireza Akbari, criticism from some power centers in Tehran, and his longevity in this post have raised speculation that he could soon vacate his seat. Such a change would be an important signpost of how the Iranian establishment is posturing itself against the backdrop of continued revolutionary sentiment among significant segments of the population.
A career of firsts
Shamkhani has long been a political chameleon — with stints in reformist, pragmatic, and conservative presidential administrations. He is the only member of the Iranian establishment to have served in the top brass of both Iran’s regular Army (Artesh) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Likewise, Shamkhani has been arguably the most senior ethnic Arab to have risen in the Iranian system since 1979.
He is the second-longest serving SNSC secretary since Iran’s previous president, Hassan Rouhani, first ascended to the job in 1989. Rouhani’s tenure spanned over 15 years, whereas Shamkhani is nearing a decade in office. Their terms bookended Ali Larijani, who was only secretary for around two years, and Saeed Jalili, who held the post for approximately six years. Unlike his predecessors, Shamkhani, who commanded both the Artesh and IRGC navies, has considerable military experience. Rouhani had some command responsibilities during the Iran-Iraq War, including as head of Iran’s National Air Defense Command. But Shamkhani, in contrast, has been a career military man. The military roles of Larijani and Jalili were not as senior — Larijani was a parliamentary deputy in the IRGC and Jalili a member of the Basij paramilitary militia — with the former a one-time culture minister and head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the latter a deputy foreign minister before becoming secretary.
Ambassador to the reformists
Shamkhani has also managed to survive and thrive across the political spectrum. He was defense minister under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami and SNSC secretary under Rouhani, a pragmatist, continuing in this role under the incumbent, President Ebrahim Raisi, a more conservative figure. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei purged the Iranian system in recent years — extending even to the likes of Larijani, whom the Guardian Council barred from running in the June 2021 presidential election despite being a regime mainstay. Yet more recently, figures like Shamkhani, who may have more credibility among reformist elements of the Iranian political elite, have been indispensable as Tehran deploys a series of pressure valves to preserve the Islamic Revolution amid protests. Last year, the government enlisted Shamkhani for such an assignment, asking representatives of the founding families of the Islamic Republic (the Khomeinis and the Rafsanjanis) to speak out publicly to placate the Iranian people. If they did, Shamkhani promised reforms would follow. But both clans reportedly refused those specific conditions. He also recently met with marginalized reformist figures like Ali Shakuri Rad, a former lawmaker.
Shamkhani likewise has been an advocate for change within the system, to divide and conquer those protesting, forming an unusual coalition with Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Vice President for Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezaei, Amwaj Media has reported. Such efforts coincide with the increased visibility of reformists and pragmatists in Tehran since the onset of the protests in September. Former President Khatami, once the subject of a media ban, has become more vocal in warning that the Islamic Revolution is in danger and advocated for not overhauling the constitution but “merely returning to the spirit and even the text.” The remarks resembled similar calls for reform he made while in office, which failed then because of the Iranian deep state presided over by the supreme leader. After being lambasted in his last days in office by Khamenei, Rouhani has also resurfaced a few weeks ago, telling reporters on the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that “we should not allow a power-hungry minority to push the majority aside,” and warning that this “would be the end of the revolution.”
However, there has been no evidence that Khamenei is listening to Shamkhani. In fact, it appears he is moving in the opposite direction: doubling down and deflecting. His elevation of Ahmad-Reza Radan — a notorious hardliner — as the new commander of Iran’s national police indicates as much. There is also evidence some in the Iranian system are laying the groundwork to make Shamkhani the fall guy amid the demonstrations. It would not be unusual for Khamenei to reshuffle the government amid significant challenges to the system. For instance, he shifted Hossein Taeb, then commander of the Basij, to head a newly empowered IRGC Intelligence Organization in 2009, when mass demonstrations took hold after the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.
The Shamkhani tightrope on foreign policy
Likewise, on foreign policy, Shamkhani is the rare official in the Raisi presidency who is a leftover from the Rouhani administration. The dynamics of the SNSC have changed since the Rouhani era, when the then-chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, Hassan Firouzabadi, defended Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy with the P5+1 (the five permanent United Nations Security Council members, the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, along with Germany). Fast forward to 2023, his successor, Mohammad Bagheri, has emerged as a leading critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the SNSC. Shamkhani has evolved as well. In 2014, he argued to international media that Tehran and Washington “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other [in the region]. A nuclear agreement can be very crucial in this regard. Everything will depend on the honesty of the Americans in the talks”; by 2019, he expressed regret about the JCPOA. However, Shamkhani has also hedged, counseling against a complete pivot away from the West to align with China and Russia. Indeed, this outlook is increasingly a minority view on the SNSC. This ideological nimbleness may explain why Khamenei has, so far, been resistant to replacing him.
The names of a few prospects to succeed Shamkhani have circulated on pro-IRGC Telegram channels and in other reporting. The chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, Mohammad Bagheri; the commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Central Headquarters, Gholam Ali Rashid; the former defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar; and current Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi have all emerged as contenders. Other less-mentioned candidates include former IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, former SNSC secretary Jalili, and the previous head of the IRGC intelligence service, Taeb. Almost all have senior IRGC pedigrees, and only one, Taeb, is a cleric. Likewise, with the exceptions of Mohammad-Najjar, Vahidi, Jalili, and Taeb, all hold the highest IRGC military rank of major general — which would place them on a peer level with Shamkhani.
Bagheri has served as chief of staff of the Armed Forces since 2016. He has taken on a more international role than his predecessor Firouzabadi, as Bagheri has focused heavily on defense diplomacy. Iranian media highlighted that Bagheri’s travel to China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Syria was unprecedented since 1979. Shamkhani is similar to Bagheri, given he had overseas experience as defense minister. Both are considered strategic thinkers rather than merely bureaucrats or politicians, with Shamkhani once directing the Armed Forces’ Center for Strategic Studies and Bagheri having taught at the Supreme National Defense University. But there are significant differences, namely Bagheri’s more ideological opposition to the JCPOA and his lack of governmental experience outside of the military. Bagheri was previously the IRGC’s intelligence and operations deputy and later led the Armed Forces General Staff’s Intelligence and Operations Directorate for years. Every SNSC secretary since 1989 had ministerial or parliamentary exposure. Bagheri also lacks the history that Shamkhani has as an operator across the political divide in Tehran. In fact, Bagheri is alienated from reformist circles because of the fact that he signed onto a 1999 letter threatening then-President Khatami amid student protests. Another hurdle for him will be his role as one of the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 — which could cause diplomatic complications given the secretary’s international role.
Rashid would be a more unconventional choice for Khamenei. Unlike Shamkhani and the other military figures who may succeed him, Rashid’s focus has been on defense, and he has less foreign policy experience. As commander of the Khatam al-Anbia Central Headquarters since 2016, he is responsible for coordinating military operations. He was sanctioned in this capacity in 2019, under U.S. Executive Order 13876. Previously, Rashid was the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces. However, Bagheri, a more junior commander — he was in charge of intelligence and operations for the Armed Forces General Staff — was eventually anointed by Khamenei as chief of staff. Thus, Rashid’s stock with the supreme leader is unclear. Like Bagheri, he would be a dependable hardline voice, as Rashid also signed that 1999 letter threatening President Khatami. He likewise shares a history with Shamkhani as a part of the generation of commanders who played a central planning role during the Iran-Iraq War.
Mohammad-Najjar previously served as defense minister and later interior minister under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which the Obama administration sanctioned him for human rights abuses, in 2010. He has a notorious IRGC pedigree, having served in 1983 as a commander of the IRGC forces in Lebanon and “was directly responsible for the Beirut truck bombings,” killing over 200 American service members, according to Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the former commander of U.S. Marine forces in Lebanon at the time. Mohammad-Najjar also spent years in the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), serving as head of the armaments section of the Defense Industries Organization. Like Shamkhani, Mohammad-Najjar has military and government experience, with both having previously served as defense minister. Mohammad-Najjar has experience abroad — especially in the early nurturing of Iran’s terrorist operations in Lebanon and in his role in the defense industrial base — but also on domestic security files given his stint as interior minister. This multi-dimensional experience plays in his favor since the SNSC notably has equities in both worlds. But Khamenei would be taking a risk anointing Mohammad-Najjar: The latter’s baggage of presiding over terrorist operations that killed U.S. forces would likely make him toxic on the world stage. Shamkhani has proven useful for the supreme leader, given his image as a rational and acceptable counterpart with whom the West can engage — not the kind of role Mohammad-Najjar would fill seamlessly.
Vahidi, who has a similar resume to Mohammad-Najjar, will also be radioactive to a Western audience. Like Mohammad-Najjar, he served as defense minister during the Ahmadinejad administration and is the incumbent interior minister under Raisi. Vahidi was also Qassem Soleimani’s predecessor as the IRGC’s Quds Force commander. He is the subject of an INTERPOL Red Notice for his role in the bombing of the AMIA Building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994. Vahidi has also been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for human rights abuses. Vahidi fits a pattern of the Raisi administration elevating the most sanctioned and wanted individuals of the Iranian system since 1979. However, the Iranian system would be isolated even further if Vahidi ascended as SNSC secretary. Figures like Bagheri, Rashid, Mohammad-Najjar, and Vahidi would solidify the pivot east to China and Russia, especially as they would be more acceptable interlocutors to Beijing and Moscow than Brussels and Washington.
Other potential Shamkhani successors have surfaced in media reports — including Jalili for a second stint as secretary. He would be an ideological thorn in the side of the West, as he has allegedly suggested Khamenei increase uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels at 90% from his perch as the supreme leader’s representative on the SNSC.
Taeb, ousted as head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization in 2022, has maintained a public profile — namely, delivering remarks and appearing at state occasions hosted by the Khamenei. However, the manner of his departure after a series of operational failures, with rumors of a feud with Khamenei’s longtime intelligence advisor Asghar Mir-Hejazi, could impede his candidacy. Nevertheless, Khamenei has not completely ostracized Taeb from the corridors of power. It is unlikely he is content with remaining merely an advisor to the IRGC’s commander-in-chief. Jafari, a former IRGC chief who also served as commander of the IRGC’s Ground Force, is another potential replacement to Shamkhani. Like Shamkhani and Bagheri, he is a military strategist, spearheading the “Mosaic Doctrine,” a defense plan against invading forces. He also was involved in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. But unlike other candidates, Jafari offered support publicly at times for the Rouhani-era nuclear negotiations. His lack of ministerial pedigree, coupled with his perceived demotion after leaving the IRGC’s top job — he became the director of the Hazrat Baqiatollah al-Azam Cultural and Social Headquarters in contrast to his predecessors, who landed advisory positions to Khamenei — also raises uncertainties as to his standing with the Office of the Supreme Leader.
Given Shamkhani’s unique ability to walk the political tightrope in Tehran, his palatable image in the West, and the recent public reemergence of pragmatists in Tehran, it is always possible Khamenei will seek to elevate someone in the mold of Shamkhani to replicate that skill set at a time when the Islamic Revolution is under fire. This would likely need to be a figure able to garner cross-factional support — potentially one who served as defense or interior minister or in the foreign ministry in more pragmatic governments — and one who presents a softer face to the West in the hopes of preserving the system and stanching its bleeding internationally. And it would come despite the Raisi administration’s reported preference for unapologetically hardline candidates to replace Shamkhani. Khamenei has assertively inserted himself into the SNSC secretary selection process previously, so that possibility should not be discounted in this pressurized environment. Indeed, the supreme leader may still keep the incumbent on for some time to preserve the status quo.
In the end, most headlines and trendlines point to a hardened, narrowed circle of power looking to Beijing and Moscow as Iran’s future lifelines. However, when Shamkhani leaves, whoever replaces him will be a significant indicator of the direction Khamenei intends to move the system in his final years.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research specialties include Iranian leadership dynamics, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and partner network. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.
Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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