January 30, 2023

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Iran Executes Alireza Akbari, Ex-Official Accused of Spying

5 min read

Iran has executed Alireza Akbari, a former deputy defense minister and a dual British citizen, on charges of espionage for the British spy agency, the judiciary said early Saturday, in what appeared to be the first execution in decades of a high-profile Iranian official or dual citizen, and a move likely to raise tensions with the West.

Mr. Akbari, 61, was arrested in Iran in 2019. His detention and death sentence were revealed this past week. A former senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he had served in a number of senior defense, nuclear and national security roles for nearly three decades.

Iran’s intelligence ministry called Mr. Akbari a “super spy” for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and accused him of passing classified national security information to the agency and receiving a payment of over 2 million euros (about $2.2 million). Iran’s state news media and his family said he had been arrested and detained for four months in 2008 on suspicion of spying for Britain, and later released on bail. He then traveled to Austria, Spain and finally Britain.

The statement from the judiciary said that Mr. Akbari had spied for Britain from 2004 to 2009, as well as when he “fled the country” and moved to Britain. It said he had been recruited by British diplomats in Tehran under the guise of trade partnerships.

“I am just shocked — we saw no reason or indication for the charges,” Mr. Akbari’s wife, Maryam Samadi, said in a telephone interview on Friday, referring to news reports that her husband had been executed. “We could have never imagined this, and I don’t understand the politics behind it.”

James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign secretary, who a few days earlier had used Twitter to warn Iran not to execute Mr. Akbari, went on the social platform again early Saturday to respond to the news.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain called the execution a “callous and cowardly act,” saying on Twitter that it had been “carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people.”

Mr. Akbari moved to Britain a decade ago, but it remained unclear under what circumstances a senior Iranian defense official and Guards commander had attained British citizenship. His brother Mehdi Akbari said in an interview that he had been granted citizenship because he had made investments and created jobs in Britain. Iran said that his British passport had been issued as part of a spying deal.

“The accusations against him are purely based on forced confessions under extreme duress,” Mehdi Akbari said in an interview on Friday night. “It’s all scenarios written by the intelligence ministry, and they have offered no proof or evidence.”

Mr. Akbari’s relatives were called to Evin Prison on Monday for a final meeting with him, Ms. Samadi said. He saw his mother, sister and daughter, said his goodbyes and relayed his final wishes, she said. He also had a last phone conversation with his wife, who is in London.

The execution is likely to escalate tensions between Iran and the West. Relations, already tense amid the lengthy suspension of nuclear talks, have worsened because of Iran’s violent crackdown and execution of protesters and its continued delivery of suicide drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine.

In recent years, Iran has seen high-profile defections and arrests of senior officials accused of spying for foreign countries, but executing a senior official and a ranking member of the Guards is highly unusual. In June, The New York Times reported that a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri, had been secretly arrested on accusations of spying for Israel.

Mr. Akbari told The Times in a 2003 interview that he opposed the nuclear deal with the West on the grounds that Iran must not waver in its nuclear program, because doing so would make its security program a target.

“If we retreat every time they put pressure on us, they will continue the pressure and push us farther back until we are completely disarmed and defenseless,” Mr. Akbari said in the interview.

Mr. Akbari’s brother said he had later become the defense ministry’s liaison with embassies in Iran, especially Western ones, responsible for convincing ambassadors that Iran’s nuclear deal was for peaceful energy purposes.

The execution puts Britain in an unusual position. It must confront Iran for executing its citizen, a former senior Guards member, even as the British Parliament voted unanimously on Thursday to support the government’s imminent plan to list the Guards as a terrorist organization. Britain has accused the Guards of plotting to assassinate several British citizens in the past year.

Mr. Akbari was detained in 2019 on a visit to Iran and had been confined ever since, but his family had kept the news quiet in hopes of securing his release through their contacts, his family said.

A war of narratives emerged once the detention became known, with Iran’s state news media publishing a video of Mr. Akbari confessing to being recruited as a spy by British diplomats, and AsianFoodTourist Persian publishing audio footage of Mr. Akbari saying he had been tortured, drugged and forced at gunpoint to make the on-camera confession.

In one part of the edited confession video, Mr. Akbari said he had informed on the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated by Israel with a remote-controlled robot in November 2020. Iranian officials have repeatedly vowed to avenge Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s death.

Mr. Akbari said in the AsianFoodTourist Persian audio that he believed the charges against him were motivated by Iran’s wanting to take revenge against Britain and by factional political score-settling in Iran.

He said that on a visit to Tehran in 2019 he had met the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani. Mr. Akbari was accused of passing on to the British classified and sensitive national security information that Mr. Shamkhani had shared with him.

Mr. Akbari had served as an adviser to Mr. Shamkhani at the National Security Council and as his deputy when Mr. Shamkhani was defense minister. Mr. Akbari’s brother said that Mr. Shamkhani had lured Mr. Akbari to Iran, insisting that he must return because the government needed his security and defense expertise. Upon arrival, he was interrogated and detained.

Mr. Shamkhani has refused to meet or speak with the Akbari family and has tried to distance himself from the case, Mr. Akbari’s brother said.

“He had departed the system with a trove of classified information about the nuclear and military programs, and he had the ability and insight to analyze it all,” he said. “They wanted him back.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting.