Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was appointed to be secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the highest body in charge of foreign policy and national security, on May 22. He replaced Ali Shamkhani, a former rear admiral and defense minister who had held the position from 2013 to 2023. The reshuffle marked the latest consolidation of the IRGC in positions of power.
Both Ahmadian and Shamkhani fought in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and quickly rose through the ranks. Their trajectories intersected in the 1990s, when Ahmadian served as Shamkhani’s deputy in the IRGC Navy. Both earned the trust of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who named Shamkhani to be his representative on the SNSC in 2013 and did the same with Ahmadian in 2023.
But the two military men were different in several ways. Unlike Shamkhani, Ahmadian had little to no experience with foreign policy or domestic security issues. He spent nearly his entire career in military settings. Shamkhani was not committed to any political camp. Widely considered a pragmatist, he served under three presidents – a reformist, a centrist, and a hardliner.
In contrast, Ahmadian was a “hard-nosed” commander, according to the Tehran Times. He was “a quiet, cagey and taciturn general whose actions speak louder than words.” Ahmadian reportedly sidelined reformist commanders in the IRGC. His appointment to the SNSC, which has only 12 permanent members, could strengthen hardliners in debates. Mohammad Kosari, a member of parliament, expected Ahmadian to push reforms. He is “completely a soldier” of the supreme leader, the lawmaker told local media.
Ahmadian’s appointment could “further strengthen the IRGC in Iran, a process accelerated after President Ebrahim Raisi was elected president in 2021,” Danny Citrinowicz, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Iran Primer. Four of Raisi’s 19 cabinet nominees were members of the IRGC, and at least three others had connections to it. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), had tried to keep the IRGC out of the political realm and reduce its outsized role in the economy. The following is a profile of Ahmadian.
Accounts of Ahmadian’s life vary. He was born in 1961 or 1962 in Shahr-e Babak in southeast Kerman province. He was reportedly admitted to Tehran University’s dentistry program around 1980 but joined the IRGC after Iraq invaded that year. He served with Qassem Soleimani, who went on to become a national hero and command the elite Qods Force from 1997 until he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. But the nature of their relationship was unclear. Ahmadian participated in a 1982 operation that led to the expulsion of Iraqi forces from southwestern Khuzestan province. He quickly climbed the ranks and became the IRGC Navy’s chief of staff in 1985.
After the war ended in 1988, Ahmadian served under Shamkhani as deputy commander of the IRGC Navy. Ahmadian promoted asymmetric tactics as a way to counter superior forces, including the U.S Navy stationed in the Persian Gulf. In the late 1980s or 1990s, he completed his dentistry studies and later a graduate degree in strategic management from the Supreme National Defense University of Iran. He also reportedly received a master’s degree in defense sciences.
Ahmadian became commander of the IRGC Navy in 1997. In an open letter, he and 23 other senior IRGC commanders demanded that President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) crackdown on the 1999 student protests in Tehran. “We declare that our patience has come to an end, and we will not permit ourselves any more tolerance in the face of your inaction,” they warned.
In 2000, Supreme Leader Khamenei appointed Ahmadian as chief of the IRGC Joint Staff. During two years of his seven-year term, he was simultaneously the dean of Imam Hossein University, which is linked to the IRGC, from 2005 to 2007. Khamenei appointed Ahmadian to be chief of the IRGC Strategic Studies Center in 2007. Ahmadian developed a military doctrine based on asymmetric tactics and Shiism. In 2007, Ahmadian was sanctioned by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union in 2007 for his role in nuclear and ballistic missile activities.
In 2022, Khamenei appointed Ahmadian to the Expediency Council, a body that resolves constitutional disputes between the Parliament and the Guardian Council. He continued to head the IRGC Strategic Studies Center until his appointment as secretary of the SNSC in May 2023.
Photo Credits: Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0); IRNA