The militarization of Iranian politics in the context of regional detente
At a time of renewed regional dialogue and an apparent opening between Iran and its neighbors, one could be surprised by the appointment of Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a member of the Expediency Council, as the new secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Even if this position is under the supreme leader’s control, this is a central post in the decision-making process of Iran.
Ahmadian’s profile has similarities with his predecessor, Ali Shamkhani. Both have experience in the navy, but Ahmadian has not been politically active since his retirement from the military. On the contrary, ex-Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani is a former defense minister and presidential candidate. Ahmadian’s lack of political experience is a confirmation of the militarization of the Iranian political dynamic since the end of the 2000s.
The departure of Shamkhani seems to have been accelerated by the arrest of his former colleague Alireza Akbari and his execution in January, following an accusation of espionage by Iran’s security apparatus. The link between Shamkhani and Akbari, a dual British and Iranian citizen, and the elimination of the latter was a message sent to all members of the political elite: Presenting an alternative to the dominant view of Iranian hard-liners is a risky move, even for the insiders (khodi) of the system (nezam). At a time of popular discontent inside the country, the political establishment must be unified and support the views of the supreme leader.
The removal of Shamkhani is also a reminder of the political instrumentalization of the accusations of corruption inside the Iranian establishment. He is a political survivor of Iranian factional politics and he served under both reformist and conservative presidents, from Hassan Rouhani to Ebrahim Raisi.
In the context of the social and political tensions inside Iran, it is not that surprising that the reshaping of the decision-making process took place in favor of a military figure with no political past. Indeed, Shamkhani could have been an alternative to President Raisi’s political project and his diplomatic achievement — the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia — has been a striking reminder of the late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s policy of detente toward Iran’s neighbors.
Shamkhani, with an ethnic Arab background, was not only a member of the Iranian political elite who was at the forefront of dialogue with Iran’s Arab neighbors, but he was also a key interlocutor for Western diplomats seeking to engage the Iranian security establishment. His removal is therefore a clear message for the reformist and pragmatic factions ahead of the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for February 2024. The system is ready to accept a very low turnout rather than political infighting at home amid rising social discontent and a looming economic crisis.
His marginalization from the Iranian daily decision-making process is also happening at the same time as the appointment of the Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alireza Enayati — the first ambassador to the Kingdom in seven years. The timing of Shamkhani’s removal could be interpreted as a political clarification: Tehran’s decision to find a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia is not the strategy of any political faction (and not a win for the pragmatist/reformist groupings) but the choice of the system.
Last but not least, the securitization of Iranian politics and the removal of Shamkhani could be the result of two complementary dynamics. Firstly, the absolute domination of the supreme leader of the Iranian political system and his refusal to accept the emergence of any alternative political views from inside the security establishment at the time of his succession process. Secondly, the need to find a regional solution for Iranian domestic sociopolitical problems. In other words, Iran’s political system is losing legitimacy at home and its foreign policy is no longer designed to seek regional hegemony at any price, but rather to seek a new balance between the objective of strengthening Iranian security and ideological partnerships beyond Iranian borders and ensuring the survival of the Iranian political system at home.
The departure of Shamkhani seems to have been accelerated by the arrest of his former colleague Alireza Akbari.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
This does not mean an ideological change for Iran’s foreign policy, but rather a pragmatic implementation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s political and ideological objectives. In the end, the removal of Shamkhani is a message to Iran’s neighbors: The opening will be pursued if it serves Iranian security interests. The appointment of one of the military theoreticians of the concept of asymmetric defense, Ahmadian, means that the new Iranian foreign policy will be based on the same ideological framework. What is new is that Tehran’s regional behavior is not, first and foremost, for the sake of regional domination, but rather it aims to manage the internal security crisis of the Iranian political system.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami