Ali Shamkhani – The Object of New US Hopes for Influence in Tehran

The intermediary most often mentioned as the live wire in the back-door communications between President Barack Obama and the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Bin Said.
That was true for a couple of months up until mid-September.
From the middle of that month, when the United States along with five other world powers saw they were heading for a nuclear accord with Iran, a new name popped up in Washington’s inner councils:
Iranian Adm. Ali Shamkhani, only just appointed Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) of Iran.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signed his letter of appointment on Sept. 10 to one of the most influential positions in the land and added his personal wishes for the new man’s success. This honor gave the appointee exceptional weight, which was soon, albeit inconspicuously, applied.
While the world’s attention was fixed on the performance in Geneva of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his deputy Abbas Afaqchi as nuclear negotiators against the six powers and impresarios of the thaw with Washington, Shamkhani was quietly pulling their wires back home in Tehran.

Khamenei appoints non-divisive figure to top post

The change was soon picked up in Washington. Nowadays, when President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry talk to Tehran, they often dial Shamkhani’s office or his private line before addressing the foreign minister. Their conversations are becoming increasingly frequent, as Washington becomes convinced that Khamenei had a deliberate motive in appointing this man to a position of high power.
They are coming around to believing that Shamkhani is destined to break through to restoring the standing and influence America enjoyed in pre-revolutionary Iran, during the reign of the Shah.
Ali Shamkhani, 58, was born in Khuzestan of Arab origin. Although most of his provincial compatriots are Sunnis, he is a Shiite and staunchly loyal to the Islamic regime, although he does not share the ferocious religious zeal that drives many of its leading lights. This moderation makes him popular among large sections of the ruling and military establishments and a non-divisive figure – a rare attribute in Tehran’s ruling landscape.
After winning an engineering degree at Ahvaz University, Shamkhani rose to command the Revolutionary Guards Navy during the 1980-1989 war with Iraq.
From Aug. 1997 to Aug. 2005, he served in Mohammad Khatami’s administration as minister of defense In 2003, President Khatami awarded him the highest military honor, the Shojaat Medal, in recognition of his services.
He next moved on to serve as Director of the Iranian armed Forces’ Center for Strategic Studies, in which capacity he remained until 2013.

Respected in Riyadh and the Gulf emirates

Shamkhani is not only well liked at home; he is also the only Iranian minister ever to be honored by the Saudi royal house. In 2004, King Fahd pinned the Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the kingdom’s highest mark of distinction, on his chest as tribute to the prominent role he filled in developing relations with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Washington officials trust that the respect he has won in Riyadh and the Gulf emirates grant Shamkhani rare credibility for eventually softening the Saudi-led region’s hard resistance to US-led international nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and leading them to reconciliation with Tehran.
The peace mission to Gulf capitals undertaken by former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani (first reported in DEBKA Weekly 615 last week) was instigated by Shamkhani.
He emerges from conversations with DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and Tehran with US and Iranian officials in touch with the new SNSC director or familiar with his work, as a man absolutely determined to use his elevated position for building two bridges as the bedrock of Iranian policy in the years to come.
One would span relations with the United States and the other build a meeting ground between Iran’s liberal and moderate groups and the conservatives factions. He has his eye on the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its unparalleled power in the country.
Shamkhani appears to believe that the two bridges should not run parallel but intersect in the interests of safeguarding Iran’s future.

Shamkhani acts to bolster Khamenei’s authority

His most urgent task now is to cool the heated dispute between the opponents and proponents of the interim nuclear deal Iran signed with the six powers in Geneva on Nov. 24. He realizes that the Revolutionary Guards must be drawn back from their fierce battle to void it.
(A separate article covers this dispute).
The infighting is shaking Ayatollah Khamenei’s personal reputation and political standing, in view of the welcome he extended to the deal in the hours after it was concluded.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the supreme leader’s pronouncements and rulings are paramount. Any questioning of his authority and prestige shakes the very foundations of the regime.
Shamkhani is conscious of the imperative to move quickly in order to remove all the doubts cutting into Khamenei’s judgment and authority.
Challenging the formidable Revolutionary Guards chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari can’t be left to Rouhani and Zarif, who are not up to the task. Shamkhani is in a different class, having sprung from the IRGC and won his spurs as a war hero in the eyes of all its ranks.

A three-point scheme for boosting ties with the US

The new security chief’s close associates cite him as believing that the national Iranian interest at this time calls for a policy of zero problems and zero confrontations, whether political or military. For this reason he abstained from personal involvement in his government’s intervention in the Syrian war on the side of President Bashar Assad. However, no one has any notion of how he means to achieve this ideal.
Washington’s Iran-watchers type-cast him as a blend of political strategist and military man. They believe he aspires to build Iranian-US relations on the basis of a formula which holds that advanced scientific relations between them will resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, as soon as American and Iranian scientists get together on nuclear projects for peaceful purposes.
Shamkhani is said to have designated three basic schemes for promoting closer Iranian-US ties – all of them investments in a better future for his country:
1. Washington must open its academic institutions to a growing number of Iranian scholarship students. Tehran has discovered that the Iranian students attracted to studying in such places as Russia and China, have little to contribute toward enhancing Iran’s standards of technological knowledge to the necessary level.
2. Exchanges of top US and Iranian scientists.
3. A joint US-Iranian project for salvaging Lake Urmia-Orumiyah, the biggest lake in the Middle East and second largest salt water lake in the world. More than 60 percent of this lake has dried out, and experts warn that without a large-scale salvage scheme, it will be completely dry within a couple of years.

Will be fulfill US hopes or be another Iranian letdown?

In view of the obstructions on the road to the hoped-for comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran, the Obama administration is turning to consideration of the benefits of working with Shakhmani to bring a form of Americanization to the Islamic Republic that would render such an accord irrelevant.
But can he fit into the mold assigned him by Obama of great reformer of Iranian-US relations and their enhancement to a pitch that would vindicate the US president’s exclusive reliance on diplomacy to achieve political ends? Or prove a disappointment like the avowed reformer and liberal Mohammad Khatami (president from 1997 to 2005), who nonetheless pushed Iran’s nuclear program forward by leaps and bounds?

It is too soon to say.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email