Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, is widely considered a pillar of the Iranian establishment. Shamkhani’s career parallels Iran’s contemporary history. He fought against the Shah during the 1970s, defended the country from Saddam Hussein, and held a series of successively higher positions in Iranian government, culminating in his appointment to lead the National Security Council in 2013. In that role, he oversaw an expansion of Iranian influence abroad and was regarded as a key player within the security sector—until May 22, when he was abruptly fired from his post at the request of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Given Shamkhani’s spectacular strategic success in making peace with Saudi Arabia, his ouster came as a shock to many observers. In April, Shamkhani represented Tehran in the Beijing-mediated negotiations with Riyadh that led to a thaw in the long-running cold war between the two nations. But for those familiar with the operations of Khamenei’s inner circle, Shamkhani’s replacement was a foregone conclusion, calculated years in advance as part of a general restructuring at the highest echelons of the regime.
Shamkhani was one of the founders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and held several senior posts in the organization during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). He was made the final Minister of the IRGC immediately after the war, and later separately commanded the navies of both the IRGC and the Artesh (regular army). Shamkhani served as Minister of Defense for two terms during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005. In 2013, he was appointed as Secretary of the National Security Council, a position he held until his unexpected dismissal.
During his decade-long tenure atop the National Security Council, Shamkhani was responsible for some of the most pivotal strategic decisions by the Iranian regime. He was a driving force behind the Iranian intervention in the Syrian Civil War, rushing aid to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad when his regime teetered on the brink of collapse in 2013 and 2014. Shamkhani was also instrumental in ramping up the Iranian paramilitary presence in Iraq to counter the rise of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the mid-2010s.
Although his office was not directly involved in the JCPOA nuclear negotiations, Shamkhani played a role in the discussions as an advisor to the Supreme Leader. Sources close to President Rouhani, who oversaw the talks during his presidency from 2013 to 2021, later complained that Shamkhani repeatedly attempted to sabotage them. He was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2020 for his malign activities.
Fall From Grace
Shamkhani’s descent from power began in 2019 after Alireza Akbari, Shamkhani’s former deputy during his tenure as Minister of Defense and a close advisor in the following years, was arrested on charges of spying for Britain. According to the legal case brought against him, Akbari gave sensitive security and nuclear information to Israel’s Mossad and Britain’s MI6 in exchange for money and British citizenship. Although he was arrested in Iran in 2009, he was released on bail and left the country, living in Europe for most of the next decade. In 2019, Akbari was lured into returning to Iran, allegedly by Shamkhani himself. Upon his arrival, he was arrested, repeatedly interrogated, and tortured by the IRGC. After a multi-year investigation, he was tried and convicted in a closed court in 2022 and was executed in January 2023. Although Akbari’s family has denied the charges against him, they were largely substantiated by investigators with the New York Times in an exclusive report published in May.
According to the Iranian authorities, the information that Akbari allegedly sold to the British was used to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities and target nuclear scientists for assassination. Sources also said that during his interrogation, Akbari mentioned Shamkhani’s name as a source of intelligence, implicating him (even if unwittingly) in the disastrous security leak.
Indeed, during Shamkhani’s tenure as Iran’s top security official, Iran’s nuclear program was plagued by setbacks and security leaks. Unexplained explosions and mysterious sabotage operations at nuclear and missile sites across Iran—usually thought to be the work of Israel, although Israel never takes responsibility for its foreign operations—severely curtailed the regime’s efforts for quick military upgrades. In a similar vein, Iran lost a number of its top nuclear and rocket scientists to sophisticated assassination operations that could have only been carried out with substantial inside knowledge and experience operating within the borders of Iran.
Perhaps Shamkhani’s most damning failure in the eyes of Iranian hardliners, however, was his initially indecisive approach to the nationwide anti-regime protests that started in reaction to the murder of Jina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of the regime’s religious police. In the early days of the protests, Shamkhani reportedly clashed with President Raisi and Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, a former IRGC Quds Force commander, over what he regarded as the mishandling of the upheaval through the excessive use of force. In doing so, Shamkhani ran afoul of Iran’s paranoid and entrenched security establishment, which had already been looking for an excuse to push him out amid anger over his connections to Akbari. Although Khamenei immediately appointed Shamkhani to the Expediency Council, a group of high-ranking officials tasked with advising the Supreme Leader, the position is ceremonial and carries no real power; within a few years, if not months, Shamkhani is certain to be pushed firmly—and permanently—into retirement.
In the short term, Shamkhani’s departure is likely to complicate Iran’s normalization efforts with Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world. Although Shamkhani was never connected to Iran’s Foreign Ministry, his background made him an ideal diplomat to the Arabs; he was an ethnic Arab hailing from Iran’s southern Khuzestan province, on the Gulf coast and adjacent to Iraq. As an Arab within the Islamic Republic, Shamkhani added credibility to Iran’s claims of ethnic tolerance and showed that Iranian Arabs who accepted the regime’s system of government could rise to positions of power and influence. During his time in government, Shamkhani developed cordial relations with several of his counterparts in the Gulf, and was awarded the Order of Abdulaziz by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd in 2004—a decoration that speaks to the mutual appreciation he received from leaders of neighboring Arab countries. Although the Iranian government has expressed an interest in de-escalating tensions with its GCC neighbors, Shamkhani’s absence will evidently make it harder to achieve a lasting détente.
In the bigger picture, Shamkhani’s ouster is part of a pattern in which Khamenei and other high-level Iranian officials have purged members of the “old guard” that they regard as insufficiently loyal. The common accusation is that the older statesmen, including many IRGC generals, have become corrupt and complacent through their exploitation of office perks and have lost their revolutionary zeal. This lack of ideological fervor has purportedly led many of them to seek accommodations with Iran’s enemies—or, in Akbari’s case, co-optation by hostile foreign intelligence agencies. As such, the logic goes, the old guard has become a liability for the state and turned into an obstacle to the realization of revolutionary ideals, and therefore must be removed and replaced by “untainted” figures.
General Ali Akbar Ahmadian, Shamkhani’s successor at the National Security Council, can clearly be considered such a figure. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, he was the commander of the IRGC Navy from 1997 to 2000, served as the chief of the IRGC Joint Staff from 2000 to 2007, and led the Strategic Center of the Revolutionary Guards since 2007. Ahmadian’s exclusive military history—which ostensibly has kept him away from the temptations of politics and allowed him to keep his ideological purity—is seen as an asset for him in the current context of power politics in Tehran. His appointment is also an indication of Khamenei’s deepening reliance on Iran’s security and military forces to remain in control of the increasingly restive country—and, more ominously, the IRGC’s further capture and consolidation of Iran’s key government institutions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.