What to expect after change of Iran’s top security official?

Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is the new secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

Ali Akbar Ahmadian
Iran's new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Akbar Ahmadian is seen next to the late Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, in this undated picture obtained on May 22, 2023 [Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA via Reuters]

Iran has appointed a new top security official for the first time in nearly a decade, a move analysts say could affect how it approaches its main foreign policy files and reflects the rising influence of conservative voices in the country’s establishment.

Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on Monday, replaced Ali Shamkhani as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

Ahmadian was also appointed as one of the two representatives of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the SNSC, which plays a key role in shaping Iran’s foreign and national security policies. The other direct representative is Saeed Jalili, the SNSC secretary between 2007 and 2013 who has traditionally advocated for a tougher stance against the West and is an opponent of the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Ahmadian has taken the helm of the council amid a flurry of diplomatic activity across the region, and as the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, remains unclear.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab and the only Iranian to ever receive the Order of Abdulaziz medal – the highest honour awarded by Saudi Arabia – oversaw negotiations that led in March to a China-brokered agreement between Tehran and Iran o restore diplomatic relations after seven years.

He also presided over indirect negotiations with the administration of United States President Joe Biden since 2021 aimed at restoring the JCPOA. Former US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the landmark in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

There have long been rumours about Shamkhani’s departure, especially earlier this year after Alireza Akbar, one of his former closest allies, was executed for spying for British intelligence.

‘Merely carrying the corpse’

Ahmadian’s appointment, as someone who is a firm believer in the policies of the supreme leader, could indicate the path forward in both security and foreign policy issues, according to Hossein Kanani Moghaddam, a Tehran-based conservative politician and analyst.

Moghaddam told Al Jazeera that he does not expect a dynamic shift on the nuclear file, which will continue to be pursued by the foreign ministry on a political level and by the country’s atomic energy organisation on a technical level with SNSC supervision.

“It is possible that tactics would change, but the overall strategy would remain unchanged,” he said.

“Those who turned their back on and exited the JCPOA must compensate for the damage and provide guarantees that if they are committed to an international deal, they are also committed to implementing it. I believe that the JCPOA was killed by Trump, and Biden is merely carrying the corpse on his back.”

Last week, Khamenei held a meeting with top foreign ministry officials and Iranian ambassadors to other countries.

Signalling a more open stance, the supreme leader emphasised a foreign policy built on dignity, wisdom and expediency and discussed the merits of “flexibility” that “does not negate principles”.

Moghaddam said he believed that Khamenei’s comments can mainly be attributed to Iran’s current attempts to improve relations across the region, especially with Arab neighbours. Shamkhani’s exit will not derail that process, he said.

“The establishment’s overall foreign policies are set by the supreme leader, and the SNSC and the foreign ministry implement them, so we won’t see changes in those policies, especially on normalising relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries,” he said. “A change at the SNSC won’t change these policies, and in some places, some things might even be facilitated.”

Two different military men

The new security chief’s pedigree has also attracted attention – both for the similarities and differences in how he navigated Iran’s political and military landscape over the decades compared with his predecessor.

The two men have been mainstays within the establishment since the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. They are also veterans of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and climbed the ranks as military men.

In particular, they ascended through the naval force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with Ahmadian being Shamkhani’s deputy before assuming command of the IRGC Navy in the late 1990s when his predecessor went on to become defence minister in the administration of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Shamkhani veered towards politics and has been known to successfully manage relations with conservative, pragmatist and reformist camps. He was appointed SNSC secretary by former moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

Ahmadian, meanwhile, moved up in the IRGC, and has been described by Iranian media as a top military strategist, but he does not have any publicly known experience in government or diplomatic work. He has not publicly expressed his opinions on the major foreign policies he will be handling.

Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said the exact reasons behind Shamkhani’s departure remained opaque, but signs had pointed to a number of disagreements.

“Shamkhani, along with a number of influential former IRGC commanders, were at odds with young serving IRGC commanders. Thus, cthe hange could signal that the current leadership of the IRGC is consolidating its position,” he told Al Jazeera.

Khamenei on Monday appointed Shamkhani to the Expediency Council – Iran’s arbitration body – and as his political adviser. The positions may prove to be largely ceremonial, since a number of former officials who previously fell out with senior figures were appointed to the council. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of them.

Sina Azodi, a visiting scholar and lecturer of international affairs at the George Washington University, said Shamkhani was a leftover from the Khatami and Rouhani eras, so his replacement with IRGC signals the ever-growing influence of “conservative-minded thinking in Iran’s security establishment”.

He told Al Jazeera that Ahmadian’s fully military background should not have a major impact, considering that Shamkhani was also a naval officer, and the latter holds the superior rank of rear admiral, the highest the supreme leader can bestow.

“Overall, the IRGC was not in favour of the JCPOA. We also need to keep the issue of succession of Khamenei in mind. IRGC will certainly play an important role when it comes to the issue of succession,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera