Alireza Akbari, Iran's former deputy defence minister, speaks during an interview with Khabaronline in Tehran, in this undated picture obtained on January 12, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Tehran: Iran said Saturday it had executed a dual Iranian-British national who once held a high-ranking position in the country’s defence ministry despite international warnings to halt his death sentence, further escalating tensions with the West amid the nationwide protests now shaking the Islamic Republic.

The hanging of Ali Reza Akbari, a close ally of top security official Ali Shamkhani, suggests an ongoing power struggle within Iran’s theocracy as it struggles to contain the demonstrations over the September death of Mahsa Amini. It also harkened back to the mass purges of the military that immediately followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Akbari’s hanging drew immediate anger from London.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the execution was a “callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime”.

Iran’s rulers had “no respect for the human rights of their own people” Sunak said, adding that his thoughts were “with Alireza’s friends and family”.

“The execution of British-Iranian Ali Reza Akbari is a barbaric act that deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement. “Through this politically motivated act, the Iranian regime has once again shown its callous disregard for human life.”

He added: “This will not stand unchallenged.”

Iran’s Mizan news agency, associated with the country’s judiciary, announced Akbari’s hanging without saying when it happened. However, there were rumours he had been executed days earlier.

Large sums of money

Iran has alleged, without providing evidence, that Akbari served as a source for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6. A lengthy statement issued by Iran’s judiciary claimed Akbari received large sums of money, his British citizenship and other help in London for providing information to the intelligence service.

The report by Mizan accused Akbari, arrested in 2019, of receiving €1,805,000, £265,000, and $50,000 for spying.

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

Akbari, who ran a private think tank, is believed to have been arrested in 2019, but details of his case only emerged in recent weeks. Those accused of 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 highly edited video of Akbari discussing the allegations, footage that resembled other claimed confessions that activists have described as coerced confessions.

The BBC Farsi-language service aired an audio message from Akbari on Wednesday, in which he described being tortured.

“By using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me to madness and forced me to do whatever they wanted,” Akbari said in the audio. “By the force of gun and death threats they made me confess to false and corrupt claims.”

Iranian state media broadcast a video on Thursday that they said showed that Akbari played a role in the 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, killed in a 2020 attack outside Tehran which authorities blamed at the time on Israel.

In the video, Akbari did not confess to involvement in the assassination but said a British agent had asked for information about Fakhrizadeh.

Iran’s state media often airs purported confessions by suspects in politically charged cases.

Reuters could not establish the authenticity of the state media video and audio, or when or where they were recorded.

London-Tehran ties have deteriorated in recent months as efforts have stalled to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact, to which Britain is a party.

Britain has also been critical of the Islamic Republic’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests, sparked by the death in custody of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman in September.

A British foreign office minister said on Thursday that Britain was actively considering proscribing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation but has not reached a final decision.

Iran has issued dozens of death sentences as part of the crackdown on the unrest, executing at least four people.

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'3,500 hours of torture'

In the audio recording broadcast by BBC Persian, Akbari said he had made false confessions as a result of torture.

“With more than 3,500 hours of torture, psychedelic drugs, and physiological and psychological pressure methods, they took away my will. They drove me to the brink of madness... and forced me to make false confessions by force of arms and death threats,” he said.

Akbari was a close ally of Ali Shamkhani, now the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who was defence minister from 1997 to 2005, when Akbari was his deputy.

Iran has not commented on the torture claims. However, the United Nations human rights chief has warned Iran against the “weaponization” of the death penalty as a means to put down the protests.

On Friday, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel also criticized Akbari’s pending execution.

“The charges against Ali Reza Akbari and his sentencing to execution were politically motivated. His execution would be unconscionable,” he said. “We are greatly disturbed by the reports that Mr. Akbari was drugged, tortured while in custody, interrogated for thousands of hours, and forced to make false confessions.”

He added: “More broadly, Iran’s practices of arbitrary and unjust detentions, forced confessions and politically motivated executions are completely unacceptable and must end.”

Iran is one of the world’s top executioners.

Iran’s government for months has been trying to allege — without offering evidence — that foreign countries have fomented the unrest gripping the Islamic Republic since the death of Amini in September after her detention by the morality police. Protesters say they are angry over the collapse of the economy, heavy-handed policing and the entrenched power of the country’s Islamic clergy.

Shadow war

For several years, Iran has been locked in a shadow war with the United States and Israel, marked by covert attacks on its disputed nuclear program. The killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in 2020, which Iran blamed on Israel, indicated foreign intelligence services had made major inroads. Iran mentioned that scientist in discussing Akbari’s case, though it’s unclear what current information, if any, he would have had on him.

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

Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, the country’s top security body which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees. Akbari’s audio message aired by the BBC Persian included him saying he was accused of obtaining top-secret information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt.” However, it appears Shamkhani remains in his role.

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

At least 520 protesters have been killed and 19,400 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.

Iran has executed four people after convicting them of charges linked to the protests in similarly criticized trials, including attacks on security forces.

Iran and Britain’s history of strained relations
British-Iranian relations, which have been strained for decades, were back in the spotlight after Iranian authorities executed British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari for spying, charges he had denied.
Here is a timeline of main bilateral developments since the 1950s:
1953 - Britain and the United States help orchestrate the overthrow of popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restore Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power.
1979 - Islamic Revolution overthrows the US-backed Shah.
1980 - Britain closes its embassy in Tehran.
1988 - Britain restores full diplomatic relations with Iran.
February 1989 - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book “The Satanic Verses”, prompting Britain to break diplomatic relations in March.
1990 - Partial diplomatic relations are restored.
1994 - Britain accuses Iran of contacts with the outlawed Irish Republican Army, a charge Iran denies but relations worsen. Iran and Britain expel each others’ diplomats over the IRA issue.
1998 - Iran formally dissociates itself from the call to kill Rushdie.
1999 - Iran says relations between Tehran and Britain have been upgraded to ambassadorial level.
September 2001 - British Foreign Minister Jack Straw visits Iran to strengthen an international “anti-terror” coalition after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
2004 - Iran arrests eight British military personnel for straying into its waters from Iraq. They are later freed.
2005 - Britain says there is evidence Iran or the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah was the source of technology used in roadside bombs against British soldiers in Iraq, a charge Tehran Iran denies. The same year, Iran accuses Britain of being behind bombings that killed six people in Iran. London denies it.
March 2007 - Iranian forces seize eight Royal Navy sailors and seven marines from their patrol boat in the Shatt Al Arab waterway separating Iran and Iraq. They are freed in April.
June 2007 - Iran’s Foreign Ministry summons the British ambassador to protest against the award of a British knighthood to Salman Rushdie.
June 2009 - Britain freezes Iranian assets under Western sanctions imposed over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. The same month, Britain protests to Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls Britain “the most treacherous” of Iran’s enemies. London and Tehran each expel two of the other’s diplomats.
July 2009 - Iran releases on bail the last of nine Iranians who worked at the British embassy and who had been detained in June for alleged involvement in unrest following an Iranian election.
2011 - Britain imposes financial sanctions on Iran, ordering all UK financial institutions to stop doing business with Iranian counterparts and Iran’s central bank. Iran’s Guardian Council approves a parliamentary bill reducing ties with Britain.
November 2011 - Britain shuts Iran’s embassy in London and expels its staff, saying the storming of the British mission in Tehran that month could not have taken place without consent from Iran’s authorities.
2015 - Iran reaches a nuclear deal with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Under the agreement Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear programme in return for a lifting of many foreign sanctions. Iran reopens its embassy in London hours after Britain restores diplomatic ties.
April 2016 - Iran detains British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charity operating independently of Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters. She is later convicted of seeking to overthrow the clerical rulers, a charge she denied.
May 2019 - Twitter suspended Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s account over a tweet that said Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie was “solid and irrevocable”.
March 2022 - Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British-Iranian dual national, Anoosheh Ashoori, return to Britain from Iran.
August 2022 - Salman Rushdie is stabbed on stage at a literary event in New York state. Iran’s Foreign Ministry says no one has the right to level accusations against Tehran. Several Iranian hardline newspapers praise Rushdie’s attacker.
October 2022 - Britain imposes sanctions on three Iranian military figures and a defence manufacturer for supplying Russia with drones used to attack targets in Ukraine.
November 2022 - The head of Britain’s domestic spy agency says Iran’s intelligence services have made at least 10 attempts to kidnap or kill British nationals or individuals in Britain.
December 2023 - Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrest seven people with links to Britain over anti-government protests.
January 2023 - Iran sentences to death and executes British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari, a former Iranian Defence Ministry official, on charges of spying for Britain.
State media say he was involved in the 2020 assassination in Iran of a top nuclear scientist. Akbari denied the charges.
-- Reuters