Iran executes Iranian-British ex-defense official over espionage claim

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (TBEN) — Iran said on Saturday it executed a former senior defense ministry official and dual Iranian-British national, despite international warnings not to carry out the death sentence. The execution further escalated tensions with the West amid nationwide anti-government protests that rocked the Islamic Republic.

The hanging of Ali Reza Akbari, a close ally of top security official Ali Shamkhani, signals an ongoing power struggle within Iran’s theocracy, which is trying to contain demonstrations over Mahsa Amini’s death in September. It also harks back to the army’s massive purges that immediately followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Akbari’s hanging immediately sparked anger in London, which has joined the US and others in sanctioning Iran over the protests and supplying Russia with bomb-carrying drones now targeting Ukraine.

“This was a ruthless and cowardly act committed by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly convened Iran’s chargé d’affaires in the United Kingdom and temporarily withdrew the British ambassador from Tehran as Britain also imposed sanctions on the Attorney General of the Islamic Republic.

“Our response to Iran is not limited to today,” he warned.

Iran similarly summoned the British ambassador after the execution.

Iran has claimed, without providing evidence, that Akbari served as a source for Britain’s secret intelligence agency, popularly known as MI6. A lengthy statement from the Iranian judiciary alleged that Akbari received large sums of money, his British citizenship and other aid in London for providing information to the intelligence agency.

However, Iran has long accused those who travel abroad or have Western ties of espionage, often using them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Akbari, who ran a private think tank, was allegedly arrested in 2019, but details of his case have only emerged in recent weeks. Those charged with espionage and other crimes related to national security are usually tried behind closed doors, where rights groups say they do not choose their own lawyers and are not allowed to see evidence against them.

Iranian state television aired a heavily edited video of Akbari discussing the allegations, footage that resembled other alleged confessions that activists have described as coerced confessions.

The TBEN’s Farsi language service broadcast an audio message from Akbari on Wednesday, in which he described being tortured.

In this photo released on Tuesday, October 14, 2008, by the Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a rally to unveil the book “National Nuclear Movement” in Tehran, Iran. Iran said on Saturday, January 14, 2023, it had executed Akbari, a dual Iranian-British national who once held a senior position in the country’s defense ministry, despite international warnings to have his death sentence overturned, further fueling tensions with the West. escalated amid nationwide protests that are now shaking the Islamic Republic. (David Hosseini, IRNA via TBEN)

Iran has not commented on the torture allegations. However, the United Nations human rights chief has warned Iran against “weaponizing” the death penalty as a means of crushing the protests.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Akbari’s execution.

“We mourn with his loved ones and will continue to hold Iran accountable for its mock trials and politicized executions,” Blinken said.

Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran, said he was “appalled” by Akbari’s execution.

“The unjust detentions, forced confessions, mock trials and politically motivated executions of the Islamic Republic must end,” he wrote online.

French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned what he called “a heinous and barbaric act”. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the execution “another inhumane act by the Iranian regime”.

The Iranian government has been trying for months – without providing evidence – to claim that foreign countries have fueled the unrest that has gripped the Islamic Republic since the death of 22-year-old Amini in September following her detention by the vice squad. Protesters say they are angry at the collapse of the economy, the heavy-handed police crackdown and the entrenched power of the country’s Islamic clergy.

For several years now, Iran has been embroiled in a shadow war with the United States and Israel, marked by covert attacks on its disputed nuclear program. The 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, whom Iran blamed on Israel, indicated that foreign intelligence agencies had made great strides. Iran mentioned that scientist when discussing Akbari’s case, though it’s unclear what current information, if any, he might have had about him.

In this photo released on Tuesday, October 14, 2008, by Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks in a meeting to unveil the book "National Nuclear Movement" in Tehran, Iran.  Iran said on Saturday, January 14, 2023, it had executed Akbari, a dual Iranian-British national who once held a senior position in the country's defense ministry, despite international warnings to have his death sentence overturned, further fueling tensions with the West. escalated amid nationwide protests that are now shaking the Islamic Republic.  (David Hosseini, IRNA via AP)
In this photo released on Tuesday, October 14, 2008, by the Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a rally to unveil the book “National Nuclear Movement” in Tehran, Iran. Iran said on Saturday, January 14, 2023, it had executed Akbari, a dual Iranian-British national who once held a senior position in the country’s defense ministry, despite international warnings to have his death sentence overturned, further fueling tensions with the West. escalated amid nationwide protests that are now shaking the Islamic Republic. (David Hosseini, IRNA via TBEN)

Akbari had previously led the implementation of a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988 after their devastating eight-year war, working closely with UN observers. He served as deputy defense minister under Shamkhani during the administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, likely making his credentials even more suspect to hardliners within Iran’s theocracy.

Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security body, overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Akbari’s audio message broadcast by the TBEN Persian included that he was accused of obtaining top secret information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt”. However, it seems that Shamkhani is staying in his role.

The anti-government protests now shaking Iran are one of the biggest challenges the Islamic Republic has faced since the 1979 revolution.

At least 522 protesters have been killed and 19,400 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.

Iran has executed four people after being convicted of charges related to the protests in similarly criticized trials, including attacks on security forces.

The Bharat Express News writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.