“Words hitherto whispered in mysterious ways were finally uttered, so he left,” Admiral Ali Shamkhani, who had served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council since 2013, tweeted on May 21. Shamkhani’s quote from 16th century poet Mohtasham Kashani was widely interpreted as his “definitive resignation” from the council. Following a few hours of media speculation about Brigadier General Gholam Ali Rashid, Khatam al-Anbia Central Headquarters chief, or Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, senior military advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, replacing Shamkhani, Saberin News, an unofficial mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops announced Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian as Shamkhani’s successor. On May 22, President Ebrahim Raisi indeed appointed Ahmadian SNSC secretary, and on the same day, Khamenei approved Raisi’s choice, appointing Ahmadian the supreme leader’s representative to the SNSC. But who is Ahmadian, who or what group secured his appointment, and is Iran’s policy likely to change with him at the helm of the SNSC?
Since its establishment through a 1989 constitutional amendment, the SNSC has been mandated to shape “defense and security policies of the state … Coordinate political, intelligence, social, cultural, and economic activities concerning the general defense and security measures … and utilize economic and spiritual resources of the state in order to counter internal and external threats.” The SNSC is composed of the heads of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government; the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces; the head of the Plan and Budget Organization; two representatives appointed by the supreme leader; the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, and intelligence; and the heads of the army and the IRGC; plus any minister whose portfolio is subjected to debate in the council. Due to this composition, the SNSC is vested with real power as its decisions represent the consensus among Iran’s ruling elites. Once a policy is adopted in the SNSC, as was the case with Iran agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal or the recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the policy will be carried out. Therefore, a change of one or several members of the SNSC can potentially change policy.
The exact date of Ahmadian’s birth is not publicly available, but according to a short biography provided by Nour News, the official mouthpiece of the SNSC, he was born in Shahr-e Babak, in Kerman province, around 1961 or 1962. The IRGC released an undated, but more comprehensive, biography of Ahmadian, shortly after September 20, 2022, which was republished by the Iranian Students’ News Agency. It suggests Ahmadian was born into a “cultural family,” which probably indicates his father, or both parents, were schoolteachers. The biography also claims Ahmadian, apart from being a top student in Kerman, engaged in “revolutionary activism” prior to the victory of the 1979 revolution but does not provide any example of such activities.
By 1980, Ahmadian was admitted to Tehran University, a significant achievement for a provincial student, but temporarily abandoned dentistry studies (which he completed in the 1990s) and volunteered for the front in the wake of the September 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran. The closure of universities between 1980 and 1982, due to the revolutionary regime’s purge of professors and revision of syllabuses and academic literature during what it called the “cultural revolution,” may have provided added incentive for Ahmadian to volunteer for the war rather than remain idle in Tehran.
Ahmadian joined the nascent IRGC instead of the regular army, but it is not known if he, as was the norm, joined the IRGC in his native Kerman province or in Tehran, where he was enrolled at the university. This question is of some importance when assessing Ahmadian’s network, which secured his promotion, perhaps all the way to the SNSC secretariat.
Three factors suggest Ahmadian joined the Tehran IRGC: First, the IRGC biography disclosed that he, and “a group of students following the path of the Imam,” a reference to the students who took hostages at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, were deployed to Iraqi-occupied Khuzestan province in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Other sources reported that members of the Kerman branch of the IRGC were initially deployed to Kurdistan province to suppress Kurdish separatists. Second, the IRGC biography disclosed that during the second half of 1981, then-IRGC Chief Commander Mohsen Rezaee ordered Yousef Kolahdouz, his second in command at the time, Davoud Karimi, then IRGC Tehran operations chief, Ahmadian, and two unnamed IRGC members to help the Bandar Abbas branch of the IRGC suppress a Marxist insurgency. Third, Ahmadian’s public speeches regarding the January 2020 killing of IRGC Quds Force Chief Major General Qassim Suleimani, one of the founders of the IRGC in Ahmadian’s native Kerman province, which he delivered on January 4, 2022 and February 18, 2023, seemed oddly impersonal, suggesting the two men probably did not have a close relationship dating back to the early days of the war with Iraq.
These points suggest Ahmadian most likely served in the highly politicized Tehran branch of the IRGC, where twists and turns of politics in the Iranian capital meant fast-track promotion or purge, if not torture and execution, for the members. For Ahmadian, this seemed to mean fast-track promotion. However, it remains unknown how he, not having personally participated in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, got connected to the hostage takers; it is unclear which faction among the hostage takers, turned IRGC fighters, he belonged to; and it is just as mysterious how he got direct access to prominent commanders, such as Rezaee, Kolahdouz, and Karimi.
The IRGC biography credited Ahmadian with an unspecified role in the March 1982 Operation Fath al-Mobin (Manifest Victory), which eventually led to the eviction of Iraqi forces from Khuzestan province, and a few other military operations. Around the same time, Rezaee inexplicably appointed Ahmadian coordinator and, later, chief of staff of the Sixth IRGC Zone, which encompassed Bandar Abbas, Kerman, and Sistan and Baluchistan provinces. It is not known why Rezaee promoted a 20-year-old novice to such elevated positions. Beginning in 1984, he served as the chief of Nouh Headquarters, when the IRGC biography claimed he “acquainted himself with naval operations.” As Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s head of state, on September 17, 1985 formally established the three branches of the IRGC, Rezaee promoted Ahmadian to chief of staff of the IRGC’s navy.
Despite the IRGC biography’s praise of Ahmadian’s service in his capacity as IRGC navy chief of staff, his war time role appears to have been somewhat undistinguished: There are only two references to Ahmadian in the IRGC’s multivolume Iran-Iraq War chronology. The first is an April 30, 1986 entry stating Ahmadian was present during the planning of attacks against Iraqi naval facilities. The second reference appears in a November 8, 1987 entry in a discussion about Iran’s coastal and island defenses. However, at both meetings Ahmadian found himself in the company of important individuals, who may have been his benefactors at the time and may also have supported his career. These individuals include Ali Hosseini-Tash, who was the chief of staff of the IRGC ground forces and currently serves as SNSC strategic director, and Abbas Mohtaj, who was the deputy chief of staff of the IRGC and currently serves as SNSC internal security director.
After the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, Ahmadian was appointed IRGC navy deputy, serving under Shamkhani. He reportedly applied his experience from the Iran-Iraq War to develop naval strategies, “in particular concerning how to counter the aggressor United States Navy.” In doing so, he allegedly “was one of the first theoreticians of asymmetric defense.” On August 27, 1997, a week after Shamkhani joined President Mohammad Khatami’s Cabinet as defense minister, Khamenei issued a decree promoting Ahmadian to IRGC navy chief. According to the IRGC biography, in this capacity, Ahmadian managed to “elevate the idea of asymmetric warfare to its peak and managed to establish the fundamental capabilities to counter the threat from great powers.” While Ahmadian’s internal IRGC reports are not publicly available, Jafar Shir-Ali-Nia’s “Mowj-e Sorkh, Revayat-e Jang-e Naftkesh-ha Dar Khalij-e Fars” (Red Wave: Account of the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf) published around 2014, is primarily based on interviews with Ahmadian on his war era experiences.
During his tenure as IRGC navy chief, Ahmadian and 23 other senior IRGC commanders, in an open letter, threatened Khatami with direct intervention if the government did not effectively move against students who were protesting in Tehran. The list of signatories of this letter, an overt threat of a military coup, may not necessarily provide insights into his backers and support base today but clearly indicate he has been a longtime member of a secret network, or unofficial collective leadership, of the IRGC. Several of these individuals are currently in central positions in Iran’s armed forces, including Major General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the armed forces; Brigadier General Ali Fadavi, deputy commander in chief of the IRGC; and Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, commander in chief of the Quds Force.
The IRGC biography further credited Ahmadian with improving coordination between the IRGC navy and its rival Islamic Republic of Iran navy and successful joint exercises improving coordination among both navies, the IRGC air force, and the Islamic Republic of Iran air force. This was no minor achievement considering the long history of hostility between Iran’s parallel militaries since 1979. It was therefore no surprise that on July 19, 2000, Khamenei promoted Ahmadian to chief of the IRGC Joint Staff, a position that he held until September 20, 2007. In this capacity, Ahmadian reportedly extended his practical and theoretical knowledge of asymmetric warfare from naval warfare to the IRGC’s general military doctrine. Separately, from 2005 to 2007, Ahmadian also served as the dean of the IRGC’s Imam Hossein University, but there is no public record of his performance.
Ahmadian most likely continued his academic work when Khamenei on September 20, 2007 appointed him chief of the IRGC Strategic Studies Center, replacing Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who was appointed IRGC commander in chief. Jafari’s research centered around “velvet revolutions” and alleged U.S. “soft regime change policies,” and he argued the IRGC should focus on future internal threats to the Islamic Republic’s stability. There is no public record of Ahmadian’s contribution to the center’s research, but it is plausible that his work was a continuation of Jafari’s fundamental thesis.
It was generally perceived as a demotion when Khamenei, on September 20, 2022, appointed Ahmadian a member of the Expediency Council, a body mostly concerned with mediating between the Iranian legislature and the supervisory Guardian Council. However, once again, Ahmadian got to serve on committees that gave him access to highly influential individuals, including Bagheri; Rezaee; Saeed Jalili, a former SNSC secretary; Ahmad Vahidi, the interior minister; and Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, a highly influential former IRGC commander.
It is not easy to exactly pinpoint the individual, or specific faction, that paved Ahmadian’s path into the SNSC secretariat, but Ahmadian appears to have enjoyed the backing of the IRGC grandees and former colleagues currently serving in the SNSC bureaucracy. It is also clear that Raisi, as his predecessors, has long wanted to have a new man as SNSC secretary. After all, Shamkhani was appointed by former President Hassan Rouhani, whom Raisi depicts as his polar opposite. Still worse, from Raisi’s point of view, the Iranian public credits Shamkhani, rather than Raisi’s Cabinet, for improving Iran’s relations with Arab states, in particular the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Well aware that he owes his victory in the presidential election as much to Khamenei’s electoral engineering as to the IRGC’s campaigns on his behalf, Raisi probably found it politic to reciprocate by appointing an IRGC officer SNSC secretary. And if Raisi was ever in doubt who the IRGC’s preferred candidate was, Saberin News reminded Raisi of Ahmadian prior to his official appointment. Ahmadian was the choice of the IRGC.
Does the appointment necessarily mean a policy change? The usually well-informed Amwaj Media argued the removal of Shamkhani may be a sign of Iran’s nuclear negotiators gaining greater authority to strike a nuclear deal with the United States but may just as well serve the purpose of engaging “in major escalation in the absence of a breakthrough.” However, it is impossible to know for sure. During Shamkhani’s tenure, Iran engaged in spectacular military adventurism as well as major de-escalation, and there was no need to change the secretary to signal a shift in Iran’s approach. Therefore, rather than a change of policy, the appointment of Ahmadian may be more about who gets credit for Iran’s diplomatic initiatives.