Why the rising star of Iranian diplomacy has been replaced

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Most recently, in March, Iranian national security chief caught in a trap on the front pages of the world’s leading news outlets when he shook hands with a Saudi Arabian minister in a historic China-brokered deal.

It was perhaps the most important international moment of Ali Shamkhani’s career – and possibly the last. Almost three months after that meeting, he was replaced.

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

A well-known name in the Middle East and diplomatic circles in Washington and Europe, Shamkhani was a rising star in Iranian diplomacy. He has been the country’s top national security official since 2013, and before that he held a number of important positions, including in the IRGC and the Ministry of Defense.

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

His sudden replacement is not unusual in Iran, analysts say, as Shamkhani’s tenure could have simply ended after ten years of service. Analysts added that the circumstances surrounding the change may indicate Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s concern about officials being exposed or overly ambitious.

Shamkhani’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier may have left a bitter taste for 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 been leading the nuclear talks for the past two years, and while he had disagreements with former President Hassan Rouhani, he also had issues with Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, Vatanka told CNN.

In Raisi’s case, there was a sense that Shamkhani “gets all the credit when it comes to Iran’s achievements in foreign policy, primarily defusing tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” he said, adding that local media over the past two years portrayed Raisi and Amir-Abdollahyan as token figureheads who may not be in the know, showing Shamkhani as the real decision maker.

Elements inside the Iranian regime may have felt the need to “confuse it because it’s getting too big for the interests of other groups,” he said.

Experts say the former head of national security was ambitious and had an extensive portfolio, from run for president in 2001 to key positions in the IRGC and the Ministry of Defense. His successor does not have such high prestige.

Shamkhani’s removal may also be related to factional politics in Iran, Adnan Tabatabai, an Iranian analyst and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the East (CARPO), told CNN.

“It is fair to assume that strategic decisions made in the Supreme National Security Council, such as Iranian-Saudi detente, should not ultimately bring victory to any political faction,” he said, noting that Shamkhani’s former roles, such as his time as secretary of defense could undermine the Council’s image as the man behind these strategic victories.

Shortly after Shamkhani stepped down from his national security post, he was appointed to the Iranian Expediency Council and is now Khamenei’s political adviser. Several other former high-ranking officials have shared this career, analysts say.

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

“Such a post was often a way to reward a former high-ranking official for his service and keep him closer to the centers of power,” said Sina Tussy, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

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

However, Shamkhani’s ascent was not smooth. In addition to disagreements with key cabinet members, the man has also been linked to several scandals, including his ties to Alireza Akbari, an Iranian and British citizen who was hanged in the Islamic Republic this year on charges of espionage and corruption.

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

The Iranian Foreign Ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Shamkhani was replaced by IRGC General Ali Akbar Ahmadian, who analysts say should 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 realize his vision and plans,” Tussy said, adding that Ahmadian’s experience in defense strategy and naval warfare also could be useful for Khamenei.

Tabatabai said that Ahmadyan is primarily a “specialist in security and military strategy” and that his appointment could be aimed at “depoliticizing” SNSC’s security calculations and decision-making.

Iran’s top security body, SNSC, has traditionally had high-ranking secretaries who have played important diplomatic roles.

Analysts say little will change when it comes to Iran’s national security policy, and that the Shamkhani-led Saudi-Iranian détente is likely to remain unchanged.

But some have questions about the fate of the nuclear deal, which Shamkhani has been pursuing for the past two years.

Negotiations to restart the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been ongoing since 2021, after the US withdrew from the deal in 2018 under then President Donald Trump.

Negotiations stalled last year, and relations between Iran and the West deteriorated further after Tehran began supplying drones to Russia for its war with Ukraine.

It’s unclear what position Ahmadian will take on the nuclear deal, but experts note that SNSC policy is not solely determined by the secretary of state and that Ahmadian is likely to seek guidance higher up the hierarchy.

“It is not yet known whether Ali Akbar Akhmadyan will be as present in public as Ali Shamkhani was in private last year,” Tabatabai said.