Iran hangs former defense official Ali Reza Akbari on espionage charge

Iran said on Saturday it had executed an Iranian-British national who once held a senior position in the country’s defense ministry, despite international warnings to halt his execution, further escalating tensions with the West amid nationwide protests now rocking the country. 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 protests over the death of Mahsa Amini in September.

It also harkens back to the massive military purges that immediately followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Akbari’s hanging caused immediate outrage from London.

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

He added: “This will not go unchallenged.”

Akbari was accused by Iran of spying for the British Secret Intelligence Service.

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

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

But 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, is believed to have been arrested in 2019, but details of his case have only emerged in recent weeks. Those accused of espionage and other national security crimes 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.

Flag of Iran.
The BBC’s Farsi service broadcast an audio message from Akbari describing being tortured.
AFP via Getty Images

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

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

“Using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me crazy and forced me to do whatever they wanted,” Akbari said in the audio. “By force of arms and threats of death I was made to confess to false and corrupt allegations.”

Iran has not commented on the torture allegations. However, the UN human rights chief has warned Iran against the “weapon” of the death penalty as a means to quell protests.

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

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

Iran signs against executions.
Iran is one of the world’s leading countries in executions.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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

Iran is one of the top performers in the world.

Iran’s government has for months tried to claim – without offering evidence – that foreign countries have fueled the unrest that has gripped the Islamic Republic since Amini’s death in September after she was arrested by morality police. Protesters say they are angry about the collapsing economy, heavy policing and the entrenched power of the country’s Islamic clergy.

For several years, Iran has been locked in a shadow war with the United States and Israel, characterized by covert attacks on its disputed nuclear program. The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in 2020, which Iran blamed on Israel, showed that foreign intelligence agencies had made major inroads. Iran cited this scientist when discussing Akbari’s case, although it is unclear what, if any, current information it had on him.

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

Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security body overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Akbari’s audio message broadcast by BBC Persian included him being accused of receiving 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 rocking Iran are one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest challenges since the 1979 revolution.

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

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