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Source: RFE/RL

May 24, 2023

The Farda Briefing: Appointment For Powerful Policy-Shaping Post Is 'Sign Of Growing Influence' Of The IRGC

By Golnaz Esfandiari

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has appointed Ali Akbar Ahmadian, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as the new secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Ahmadian replaces Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who had served as secretary of the key policy-shaping body since 2013 and recently signed a China-brokered agreement aimed at mending ties with Saudi Arabia.

Shamkhani had come under scrutiny over his ties to British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari, who was hanged in January after being convicted of spying for the United Kingdom. Shamkhani, a former defense minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, has also faced allegations of corruption, which he denies.

He was appointed to the SNSC by former relative moderate President Hassan Rohani. According to conservative political activist Mansoor Haghighatour, the hard-line Raisi had sought to replace Shamkhani since taking over as president in 2021, but had not been able to find a suitable replacement.

Raisi settled on the 62-year-old Ahmadian, a dentist and a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War who rose through the ranks of the IRGC and headed the IRGC's Strategic Center. Ahmadian also previously served as chief of the IRGC's Joint Staff and as commander of the IRGC's naval forces.

Unlike Shamkhani, who served under various governments, Ahmadian does not have any political experience, and he's virtually unknown to the public.

Why It Matters: Ahmadian's appointment comes at a critical time for the Islamic republic, which faces an ailing economy crushed by U.S. sanctions as well as widespread anti-regime sentiment following the recent wave of nationwide antiestablishment protests. It also comes amid speculation about who might succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 84 and who underwent prostate surgery in 2014.

What's Next: Analysts believe the reshuffling in the SNSC is unlikely to have an immediate impact on state policies in the Islamic republic, where the supreme leader has the last say in all state matters.

"I don't think there will be a change in domestic policies, state repression, and foreign and regional policies," Paris-based analyst Reza Alijani told RFE/Rl's Radio Farda.

Alijani noted that Shamkhani was replaced with "a military figure who had been until now active behind the scenes" and who does not carry any political baggage, unlike his predecessor.

Sina Azodi, a lecturer of international affairs at George Washington University, told me that Ahmadian's appointment highlights the increasing control of the IRGC over the country's affairs.

"I think that Shamkhani's departure -- who was close to the reformists, he was Khatami's defense minister, and to pragmatic forces, he was appointed to the SNSC by Rohani -- is yet another sign of the growing influence of IRGC forces in Iran's security establishment and decision-making," Azodi said.

"Shamkhani remains the highest-ranking Iranian naval officer and is being replaced by an IRGC commander of lower rank, which in itself is interesting."

Azodi also suggested that Ahmadian's nomination to the SNSC could have an impact on the succession process by giving the IRGC more influence.

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Prominent photojournalist Yalda Moayeri has protested the sharp rise in executions in Iran, where over 200 people have been hanged so far this year.

The family of Mahsa Amini has accused Iran's security forces of vandalizing the grave of the young woman, whose death while in police custody in September 2022 ignited nationwide protests that turned into one of the biggest threats to the Islamic republic's leadership since it took power in 1979.

What We're Watching

Iran's judiciary has announced that two imprisoned journalists who helped break Amini's story -- Elhahe Mohammadi and Niloufar Hamedi -- will go on trial next week. A judiciary spokesman said on May 23 that Mohammadi's preliminary hearing will be held on May 29, while the hearing for Hamedi will be held on May 30.

The two journalists face a number of charges, including "collaborating with the hostile government of America, conspiracy and collusion to commit crimes against national security, and propaganda against the establishment."

Hamedi's husband, Mohammad Hossein Ajorlu, was quoted by domestic media as saying on May 23 that the lawyers of the two imprisoned journalists have not yet been able to meet with them.

Why It Matters: Mohammadi from the Sharq daily and Hamedi from Hammihan have been in prison since September for doing their jobs: covering Amini's September 16 death while in the custody of the morality police and the ensuing several months of nationwide antiestablishment protests in Iran.

Hamedi reported from the Tehran hospital where Amini was taken following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran's hijab rule, while Hamedi reported from Amini's funeral in her hometown of Saghez.

Their plight highlights the dire situation of press freedom in Iran, which is listed 177th out of 180 nations ranked in Reporters Without Borders' 2023 press freedom index.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

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