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Why the rising star of Iranian diplomacy was replaced

<i>Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Ali Shamkhani
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Ali Shamkhani

By Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

(CNN) — A recently as March, Iran’s national security chief found himself on the front pages of the world’s top news outlets as he shook hands with a Saudi minister in a landmark deal brokered by China.

That was perhaps the biggest international moment in Ali Shamkhani’s career – and possibly his last. Almost three months after that meeting, he was replaced.

Shamkhani this week stepped down from his ten-year post as the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iranian media reported. Replacing him is a little-known general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who analysts say has little experience beyond the military realm.

A name recognized across the Middle East and in the diplomatic circles in Washington and Europe, Shamkhani was a rising star of Iranian diplomacy. He had been the country’s top national security official since 2013, and before that served in a number of important roles, including in the IRGC and the ministry of defense.

But internationally, the 67-year-old was known for his recent diplomatic work, especially on the nuclear dossier.

Too ambitious

His sudden replacement is not unusual in Iran, analysts said, as Shamkhani’s tenure could simply have come to an end after a decade in service. But circumstances surrounding the change may speak to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s anxiety towards officials who may be stepping up in the limelight or becoming too ambitious, the analysts added.

Shamkhani’s role in the Iranian nuclear file is something that may have left a bitter taste with President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

He has handled nuclear talks for the last two years, and while he has had disagreements with former President Hassan Rouhani, he also had issues with Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, Vatanka told CNN.

With Raisi, there was a feeling that Shamkhani was “taking all the glory when it came to Iranian foreign policy achievements, most notably the détente with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” he said, adding that local media has over the past two years portrayed Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian as symbolic figureheads who may be out of loop, showing Shamkhani as the real decision maker.

Elements within the Iranian regime may have felt the need to “bring him down a peg because he is getting too big for the interest of other groups,” he said.

The former national security chief was ambitious, experts say, and had an extensive portfolio, from running for president in 2001 to holding key posts in the IRGC and the defense ministry. His successor doesn’t have such a high profile.

Shamkhani’s removal may also have to do with factional politics in Iran, Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), told CNN.

“It is fair to assume that strategic decisions made in the Supreme National Security Council – such as the Iran-Saudi détente – should not end up being a win for any political faction,” he said, noting that Shamkhani’s former roles, such as his time as minister of defense, may take away from the Council’s image as the achiever of these strategic wins.

Shortly after Shamkhani stepped down from his national security role, he was appointed as a member of Iran’s Expediency Council and is now a political advisor to Khamenei, a career path shared by several other former senior officials, according to analysts.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who fell out with Khamenei, was also appointed to the Expediency Council.

“Such a post has often been a way of rewarding a former senior official for their service and keeping them close to the centers of power,” said Sina Toossi, senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

But while he may still be eligible for future senior positions, the significance of his current role “may vary depending on how much access or influence Shamkhani has over the supreme leader and how much he will participate in decision-making or policy-making processes,” Toossi added.

Shamkhani’s rise hasn’t been smooth however. Apart from his disagreements with key members of cabinet, the man was also associated with a few scandals, including his ties to Alireza Akbari, a dual British-Iranian citizen who was hanged by the Islamic Republic this year on charges of espionage and corruption.

Along with his sons, he was also accused of corruption, allegations that have been used in the past “to marginalize individuals or factions,” Toossi said.

Iran’s ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Who is his successor and what is expected to change?

Shamkhani was replaced with IRGC General Ali Akbar Ahmadian, who analysts say is expected to be more obedient and less ambitious than Shamkhani.

“Ahmadian may have been appointed to this position because Khamenei trusts him as a loyal and experienced military leader who can implement his vision and agenda,” Toossi said, adding that Ahmadian’s expertise in defense strategy and naval warfare may also prove useful to Khamenei.

Tabatabai said Ahmadian is first and foremost “a security and military strategist,” and that his appointment may be aimed at “de-politicizing” security calculations and decision-making of the SNSC.

Iran’s top security body, SNSC has traditionally had secretaries with high profiles and who had played important diplomatic roles.

Analysts say that not much is expected to change when it comes to Iran’s national security policies, and that the Saudi-Iran détente spearheaded by Shamkhani is likely to remain intact.

But some raise questions about the fate of the nuclear deal, which Shamkhani has been handling for the last two years.

Negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been on and off since 2021, after the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump.

Talks stalled last year and ties between Iran and the West only further soured after Tehran began supplying drones to Russia in its war on Ukraine.

It is unclear what stance Ahmadian will take on the nuclear deal, but experts note that policies of the SNSC are not shaped by the secretary alone and that Ahmadian is likely to be seeking guidance higher up the chain of command.

“It remains to be seen whether Ali Akbar Ahmadian will be as present in public as Ali Shamkhani had been in the past year in particular,” Tabatabai said.

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