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Another move by hardliners in Tehran to consolidate reign

May 31,2023 - Last updated at May 31,2023

The removal by Iran's clerical rulers of Ali Shamkhani from his post as head of the Supreme National Security Council is seen by analysts in Tehran as another move by hardliners to consolidate their reign.  Shamkhani is a moderate, pragmatic figure who held this position for a decade and was involved in the March 10th Chinese-brokered deal to end the estrangement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

A former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy, he was appointed defence minister during the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005) and was chosen as secretary of the National Security Council during moderate President Hassan Rouhani's two terms in office (2013-2021). During his tenure Shamkhani was involved in negotiations over the agreement limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions and Tehran's seminal reconciliation with Riyadh.  Shamkhani was the figure alongside his Saudi counterpart who signed the agreement to reopen embassies, closed since 2016.  Shamkhani, the sole ethnic Arab in the Persian Iranian senior leadership, was, allegedly, removed due to corruption involving his sons and the arrest, conviction for spying for Britain, and execution of his former deputy Alireza Akbari.

Writing on Stimson Commentary, Javan Heiran-Nia said, Shamkhani’s effectiveness aroused some jealousy and his Saudi mediation caused disputes between the Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shamkhani also reportedly fell afoul of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, a political faction that dominates the Raisi government."

Shamkhani has been side-lined to the Expediency Council with 35 conservative and 13 reformist members which advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and supervises the workings of government.  Nevertheless, Shamkhani has expressed his determination to run for president in 2025.  He would, however, need to have the approval of Khamenei to run.

Ahead of the election of Ebrahim Raisi in 2021, the hardliners systematically sidelined moderates, including Khatami, Rouhani and former parliamentary speaker and presidential hopeful Ali Larijani. Top IRGC naval commander Ali Akbar Ahmadian replaced Shamkhani at the National Security Council.  He was also a comrade of popular US assassinated IRGC Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani.  Ahmadian is said to focus on consolidating Iran's defences, leaving foreign affairs to the foreign ministry.

On the foreign front, this may or may not benefit the suspended negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal if that ministry continues with the constructive engagement between Tehran and regional governments following the reconciliation with Saudi Arabia.  Iran's "coming in from the cold", imposed by the US and its allies, is likely to continue despite US and Israeli opposition.  Their stand has prompted Iran to move forward with its ballistic missile programme, build a new nuclear research facility deep within a mountain where US and Israeli bombs cannot penetrate, and conduct tit-for-tat hijackings of Western Iranian ships with cargoes of crude oil in retaliation for US detentions of vessels carrying Iranian oil to customers.

Iran has been prodded into adopting an offensive-defensive stance by the Biden administration's adoption of Donald Trump's policy of exerting on Iran "maximum pressure" by boosting sanctions and the extremist Israeli government's doubling drone strikes and aerial bombings of Iran-s ally Syria, allegedly, targeting pro-Iranian militia sites as well as the Syrian army. Although such strikes are risky, Washington has, apparently, acquiesced in these unprovoked attacks.

Iran has strengthened ties to China and to Russia and, reportedly, provided Russia with drones for use in the Ukraine war.  Iran, China and Russia have also conducted joint defensive maritime drills in the Sea of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean. These exercises have been carried out as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was established by China and four Central Asian republics as a counterweight to NATO. The SCO was subsequently joined by India, Pakistan, and Russia while Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia, and Iran have become observers and, in the Arab world, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabian and the United Arab Emirates have become dialogue partners.

According to an Iranian television commentary, "The location of this drill is geopolitically important...the US Fifth Fleet is located there, and it is the area of [US Central Command] activities." The commentary claimed that the US and Britain seek to build a "massive naval base in this region [which] could affect foreign investment and have an impact over the North-South Corridor for Iran, India, and Russia".

On the domestic front, Iran's hardliners appear to be preparing for a struggle over the succession if and when supreme leader Khamenei, 83, dies or stands down due to ill health.  The hardliners have cracked down on the popular country-wide revolt which began last September when Mahsa Amini, 23, was detained by the morality police and died in custody.  She was accused of failing to wear her headscarf (hijab) in accordance with the mandatory dress code for women. While the hijab is seen by the ruling clerics as existential if their version of Islamic law is to survive, the hijab has become a symbol of repression for many in the younger generation and among reformers.

The hijab issue has been caught up in the succession contest with the potential candidates arguing about how the Islamic republic should be run and the role of the supreme leader. Two potential successors have been identified: Mojtaba Khamenei (Ali Khamenei’s son) and Raisi. Both are committed to maintaining the status quo.  However, Mojtaba Khamenei is not a religious scholar and has been blamed for supporting repression.

Raisi won the 2021 election — in which only 44 per cent of voters cast ballots — only because all his respectable rivals had been disqualified.  While Raisi has benefitted from Iran's reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and regional powers, he was not the author of this policy, Shamkhani was, and Iran's economy has been in crisis since he took office. Although Raisi, a middle-ranking cleric, apparently enjoys the support of the ICRG, its commanders should prefer a candidate with scholarly attributes, charisma, and popular appeal. Instead, they could go for a loyal figure who could be counted upon to do their bidding and protect their considerable financial and economic interests.

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