Rise of Iranian official could aid nuclear talks

An intriguing new figure is gaining prominence in the Iranian government just as regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria intensify and nuclear talks with the West move toward a Nov. 24 deadline.

The newly prominent official is Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s national security council. He played a key role last summer in the ouster of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister. In interviews over the last few weeks, Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, European and U.S. officials have all described Shamkhani as a rising political player.

“He is a person in the middle,” with close links to both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, says Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian official who now teaches at Princeton University and knows the leadership well. “Shamkhani can play an influential role in managing the crisis in the Arab world,” he argues, in part because he is from an Arabic-speaking region of southern Iran.

The political balance in Tehran is important as the nuclear talks come to a head. Iranian and U.S. officials have been dickering with different formulas that would limit Iran’s nuclear stockpile and centrifuges. The U.S. wants to sharply limit the enrichment program and thereby extend the time it would take Iran to “break out” and build a bomb.

Shamkhani’s rise is noteworthy because he appears to bridge the radical and moderate camps at a time when opinion in Iran is divided about a nuclear deal. Khamenei will have to bless any agreement made by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“In contrast to Iranian foreign ministry officials, Shamkhani is a former Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commander who has the clout to challenge his former comrades,” argues Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A European intelligence official agrees that Shamkhani may be “an honest broker” between Rouhani and Khamenei.

“Since this summer, Shamkhani has taken on a more prominent role in Iranian regional policy, especially in Iraq, which previously was the exclusive purview of the IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani,” explains a U.S. official who follows Iranian events closely.

“His star continues to rise,” says the U.S. official. But he cautions against assuming that Shamkhani’s new ascendancy means any diminution for Suleimani, who “remains firmly in charge of Quds Force activities” and whose “overall standing in Tehran does not seem to have tapered off.”

Shamkhani’s role in Maliki’s ouster was described by two Iraqi officials. They said the Iranian visited Najaf in July to meet with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious leader, and carried back his message that it was time for the polarizing Maliki to go. At the time, the Iranians appeared to be holding out for Maliki or another pliant Iraqi politician, but they acceded in the eventual, U.S.-backed choice of Haidar al-Abadi.

Shamkhani’s regional stature was also evident in a September visit to Beirut, where he floated the idea of Iranian support for the Lebanese military. Lebanese officials say such aid won’t be accepted, but it’s an interesting sign of how Iranian policy is working in parallel with that of the United States, which is the Lebanese army’s main supplier of weapons.

A top Revolutionary Guard commander during the Iran-Iraq war, Shamkhani was defense minister under the moderate President Mohammad Khatami a decade ago; he then worked for Khamenei during the presidency of the fiery Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As the P5-plus-1 negotiations head toward a climax, U.S. and Iranian officials have been holding back-channel talks to explore possible formulas for agreement. It’s a classic bargaining process, especially on the crucial issues of the number of centrifuges and the size of the stockpile of enriched uranium. Iran reportedly began by demanding 22,000 centrifuges, and the U.S. insisting on a limit of 2,000. That gap is said to have narrowed considerably, with Iran suggesting it keep the roughly 9,400 it’s now operating, and the U.S. hinting it might accept a cap of 4,000 centrifuges, for three to five years.

The U.S. might compromise on the number of centrifuges if the Iranians agreed to sharply limit their stockpile of enriched uranium, cutting it from about 10,000 kilograms to a few hundred. A U.S. requirement for any deal is close monitoring of Iranian activities.

Mousavian, the former Iranian official, suggests that if the two sides can’t agree by the deadline, they should ask the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to limit Iran’s capabilities at what the IAEA determines is its “practical need” for civilian power.

“They need a judge to decide,” says Mousavian.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Thursday, June 30

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school's football field. After losing his coaching job for refusing to stop kneeling in prayer with players and spectators on the field immediately after football games, Kennedy will take his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield after games. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Editorial: Court majority weakens church, state separation

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision does more to hurt religious liberty than protect a coach’s prayer.

Supreme Court weakens wall between church, state

The Supreme Court definitely got it wrong with regards to the Bremerton… Continue reading

Snohomish tax break for developers shifts burden

City of Snohomish Planning Director Glen Pickus in his Oct. 2, 2018… Continue reading

Comment: Patriot Front arrests in Idaho a reminder of threat

The West has past experience with right-wing extremists. A van full of white men looking to riot should surprise no one.

Comment: The weight of Jan. 6 chairman’s optimistic melancholy

Rep. Bernie Thompson’s measured demeanor set a factual tone for Tuesday’s unsettling testimony.

A pregnant protester is pictured with a message on her shirt in support of abortion rights during a march, Friday, June 24, 2022, in Seattle. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion has cleared the way for states to impose bans and restrictions on abortion — and will set off a series of legal battles. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Editorial: Court’s decision a subtraction from our rights

Using a cherry-picked history, it limits the rights of women and will extend the reach of poverty.

A Capitol Police Officer rests his hand near his gun as he works by the anti-scaling fencing outside the Supreme Court, Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Editorial: Tough path for gun legislation becomes less clear

U.S. Supreme Court decision on gun laws clouds hopes for reasonable and effective safety measures.

FILES - Cars line up at a Shell gas station June 17, 2022, in Miami. President Joe Biden on June 22 will call on Congress to suspend the federal gasoline and diesel taxes for three months. It's a move meant to ease financial pressures at the pump that also reveals the political toxicity of high gas prices in an election year. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)
Editorial: Gas tax holiday could end up costing us even more

President Biden’s request to suspend gas taxes offers little benefit and considerable risk.

Most Read