Admiral Shamkhani, Rohani’s iron fist in an iron glove
Washington - President Hassan Rohani’s appointment of Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) in September 2013 was initially seen as an attempt by Tehran to mend fences with the Islamic Republic’s Sunni Arab neighbours, Saudi Arabia in particular.
Shamkhani hails from the Arab-majority Khuzestan province in the southwest and is the only ethnic Arab in Iran’s command echelon since the 1979 revolution.
He is the only Iranian to receive Saudi Arabia’s prestigious Order of Merit of Abdulaziz Al Saud since 1979 revolution and so seems like the man who could build bridges to Arab governments and speak to them in their own language.
But his recent anti-Saudi statements, amid the deepening crisis between Tehran and Riyadh, suggest that his real function in the SNSC is to secure civilian control over the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its decision-making at a time of deepening regional crisis, underlining the Iranian leadership’s resolve to expand Shia power across the Middle East.
Shamkhani, like Rohani, is no softie. He’s an IRGC combat veteran who moved to Iran’s political centre, but he is loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a key factor in his elevation to head of a body that draws up strategic defence and security policies.
The admiral owes his career to a network of friends he made in his youth. In the mid-1970s, he joined the Mansouroun group, which engaged in small-time opposition against the shah’s regime, and got to know Mohsen Rezaei, who would become the IRGC’s overall commander. Rezaei’s meteoric rise also meant near-automatic promotion for Shamkhani.
During the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Shamkhani also got to know Rohani. Both men played key roles in the Iranian war effort but were aligned with rival factions.
As deputy commander of Iran’s war effort, Rohani was the commissar enforcing discipline among the volatile IRGC forces.
Shamkhani, on the other hand, served as IRGC deputy commander under his old friend Rezaei. In that capacity, Shamkhani was supposed to minimise intervention by civilian and clerical powers — including Rohani — in the Guards’ tactical decision-making.
As disastrous mistakes by the IRGC led to a string of defeats in the final phase of the war, Shamkhani changed sides. He secretly and consistently supplied Rohani and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president and war commander, with detailed information about the catastrophic state of affairs at the front and urged them to accept a ceasefire to avoid greater calamities.
By revealing these harsh realities, Shamkhani risked court-martial, but Rohani and Rafsanjani were pleased and a firm friendship between the three men was established. The information they later used to denigrate Rezaei and the IRGC’s military leadership in their private conversations with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini paid off.
Rafsanjani and his successor, Mohammad Khatami, both rewarded Shamkhani’s betrayal of Rezaei, first by appointing him chief of naval forces and later by naming him defence minister. So, with Rohani firmly in the presidential palace, and Rafsanjani head of the powerful Expediency Council, Shamkhani was a natural choice as SNSC secretary.
The analysis of the Middle East crisis by the triumvirate of Rafsanjani, Rohani and Shamkhani and their threat perception is not very different from that of the current IRGC leadership: The US military withdrawal from the region has created a power vacuum which Tehran is destined to fill. The only problem is Saudi Arabia and the Sunni bloc, which constitute a formidable obstacle to Iran regional ambitions.
Such thoughts are reflected in recent speeches by IRGC leaders. Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the overall commander, recently went so far as to predict the imminent collapse of the House of Saud following Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen.
His deputy, Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, added that Yemen’s Ansar-Allah, the military arm of the Shia Houthi tribes who seized Sana’a in September 2014, “possesses long-range missile capabilities” and “missile, armour and artillery fire capabilities” that could be deployed against Saudi forces.
Shamkhani more or less agrees. He has openly condemned Saudi Arabia for “invading” Yemen, charges the Saudi-led air strikes are deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure rather than al-Qaeda positions. He recently accused Riyadh of having aligned itself with the “foolish plans” of the United States and Israel against Iran.
In other words, Shamkhani and his civilian master Rohani do not disagree with the IRGC’s line, they just want to control it and ensure the Guards do not dominate strategic decision-making.
None of this bodes well for the struggle for power between Tehran and Riyadh. Just as in the eight years of war with Iraq, in which 1 million people were killed, nothing but superior force may persuade Iran’s leadership to think twice about their plans for regional expansion.