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Iran executes former defense official, a dual UK citizen, on spy charges


Alireza Akbari in an undated photo. He was former defense minister in Iran and a dual citizen of Iran and Britain.


By FARNAZ FASSIHI


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.


Akbari, 61, was arrested in Iran in 2019. His detention and death sentence were revealed Wednesday. A former senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard 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 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 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,” Akbari’s wife, Maryam Samadi, said in a telephone interview 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.”


The British government reacted Saturday by condemning the execution as “barbaric.” It temporarily recalled its ambassador from Tehran, imposed sanctions on Iran’s prosecutor general and summoned Iran’s top diplomat in the U.K.


“Our response to Iran is not limited to today. We are reviewing further action,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a tweet. The U.S. and France also condemned the killing.


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.”


President Emmanuel Macron of France condemned the execution of Akbari as “a despicable and barbaric” act. “His name adds to too long a list of victims of repression and the death penalty in Iran,” Macron wrote on Twitter. “Solidarity with the UK. Solidarity with the Iranian people.”


Akbari moved to Britain a decade ago, but it remained unclear under what circumstances a senior Iranian defense official and Guard commander attained British citizenship. His brother Mehdi Akbari said in an interview that he was 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 Friday night. “It’s all scenarios written by the intelligence ministry, and they have offered no proof or evidence.”


Akbari’s relatives were called to Evin Prison on Monday for a final meeting with him, 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 Guard is highly unusual. In June, The New York Times reported that a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guard, Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri, had been secretly arrested on allegations of spying for Israel.


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,” Akbari said in the interview.

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


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


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 Akbari confessing to being recruited as a spy by British diplomats, and BBC Persian publishing audio footage of 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, 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 Fakhrizadeh’s death.


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


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