Tehran’s execution on Saturday of Iranian-British dual national Alireza Akbari for spying has been condemned by Britain, France, the US and human rights organisations, and could further deepen hostility between Iran and the West.
Relations deteriorated last year after the collapse of negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal – which limits Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief – and Iran’s crackdown on protests against repression and economic hardship.
Iran’s intelligence ministry described Akbari, a naturalised British citizen, as “one of the most important infiltrators in the country’s sensitive and strategic centres”.
A former Iranian deputy defence minister and Revolutionary Guard colonel, Akbari was the second senior official to be condemned to death for espionage. The first, Iranian naval commander Bahram Afzali, was executed in 1984 for spying for the USSR.
A proponent of the nuclear pact, Akbari was arrested in 2019 after being invited to return from exile to advise on Iran’s response to the US withdrawal from the deal. He was charged with having been recruited by British intelligence and providing information on top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whose 2020 assassination was blamed by Tehran on Israel.
In Akbari’s edited recorded confession, he denied involvement in the murder, but said British intelligence had asked for information about the scientist.
Akbari’s family have told British media that his arrest and execution may be a manifestation of a power struggle between ruling factions. He served under Iran’s defence minister Ali Shamkhani from 1997-2005. Shamkhani is current head of the national security council (SNSC), and remains a powerful figure in Tehran.
President Ebrahim Raisi, intelligence minister Esmail Khatib and interior minister Ahmad Vahidi reportedly want to replace Shamkhani, as he has failed to order the Revolutionary Guards to crush protests sparked by the September 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was detained for not wearing her hijab.
The SNSC-connected Nour news agency tweeted: “During the last few days, some fake and false news were published by unofficial news channels regarding the imminent transfer of Admiral Shamkhani from the Secretariat of Iran’s SNSC, while no decision has been taken to change the management of the Secretariat of this Council.”
Nour accused “radical circles” of undermining “national unity”.
Akbari’s execution followed the hanging of four protesters, and is seen as a further warning to dissidents that they will receive no mercy if they continue to demonstrate. The Human Rights Activists News Agency has reported that 520 protesters have been killed and 18,5000 arrested.
The hanging also sent a message to the West not to meddle in Iran’s affairs. Tehran has repeatedly claimed that the West and Israel have been backing protests which the authorities call “riots”.
Iran has been criticised for backing Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement and sending armed drones to Russia during its war with Ukraine. It has also sent missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels who are fighting US-allied, Saudi-sponsored forces.
Although Iran has not enriched uranium to the 90 per cent purity needed for nuclear weapons or developed the means to weaponise it, Israel’s outgoing army chief Aviv Kochavi has claimed Iran has enough enriched uranium for four bombs.
The Iranian foreign ministry has so far failed to respond to a request for comment on the execution of Akbari.