The execution of Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national who previously served as Iran’s deputy defense minister, comes amid local unrest and is likely to usher in a new period of escalating tensions with the West.
Iran’s announcement of the ex-official’s hanging on Saturday after he was convicted of espionage for British intelligence services could herald significant changes in how Tehran and the West manage their relations and has sparked speculation that more potential changes will come within the Iranian establishment.
Akbari was arrested in 2019 after returning to Iran from the United Kingdom, where he had lived for 10 years, but his case had not been made public by Iranian authorities.
According to The Guardian, he had been asked to return to advise the Iranian government on the Iran nuclear deal.
British officials and his family had chosen not to discuss his case publicly, hoping his release could be privately secured.
Instead, Iran’s judiciary confirmed the 61-year-old’s execution just days after news of his arrest and death sentence was announced.
Claims that he was a “super spy” who was lavishly paid and vigorously trained by British intelligence were central to the judiciary’s description of his case and videos of his “confessions” released by the state media.
The British Foreign Office and Akbari’s family have denied the allegations and maintained his innocence.
There is now evidence of a fierce international backlash, particularly from the UK.
Following Akbari’s execution, top British officials significantly increased their rhetoric against Tehran, denouncing the Islamic Republic as a “barbaric regime” and promising action.
Hours later, London said it had blacklisted Iran’s attorney general while recalling its ambassador to Tehran.
The French foreign ministry called on the Iranian chargé d’affaires to protest the execution, and the United States also condemned the action, calling for an end to “politically motivated executions”.
The timing of the performance suggests its significance in several aspects.
First, because the top Iranian authorities, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regularly accuse the West of being behind the country’s ongoing unrest.
Dozens of foreigners have been arrested since protests erupted across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in mid-September, following her arrest by vice squads for allegedly failing to comply with a mandatory dress code for women.
Four people have been executed in cases related to the protests. Akbari’s case – and the responses to it – very openly emphasize the authorities’ view that the UK and its Western allies are actively engaged in “intervening” in what the Iranian authorities consider to be internal affairs.
“Decisive action to protect the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran will not depend on the satisfaction of other governments, including Britain,” the British envoy was reportedly told on Saturday after being summoned by Iran’s foreign ministry after the UK criticized Iran. for the execution of Akbari.
European ambassadors have been regularly summoned to listen to Tehran’s protests over their governments’ “interventionist” attitude during the protests.
On the other hand, Akbari’s execution comes as the UK – and the European Union – consider designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist” organisation.
The US banned the elite force, a key pillar of the Iranian establishment, in 2019, a year after former President Donald Trump unilaterally renounced Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
At the time, many European politicians opposed the move, but with the EU imposing sanctions on Tehran for allegedly supplying Russia with drones for the war in Ukraine, and the bleak prospects of restoring the nuclear deal, the political landscape has changed significantly.
Meanwhile, anti-Iran groups have called for the expulsion of its ambassadors in European countries and the recall of ambassadors in Tehran.
European politicians have long refrained from such a move, preferring to maintain diplomatic relations to keep the lines open for direct dialogue.
Mohammad Sadr, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, warned on Saturday that UN sanctions lifted as part of the nuclear deal could be reinstated if there is no course correction from Iran’s leadership.
“Iran would face international political, economic and security isolation, which would be a prelude to other issues. I hope we will never get to that stage and implement reforms,” Sadr, who was also a former diplomat, told Etemad newspaper in an interview.
Akbari’s family have also told British media that his execution could be linked to power struggles within the Iranian establishment, due to Akbari’s ties to the country’s security chief Ali Shamkhani.
Akbari was deputy defense minister about 20 years ago when Shamkhani was defense minister.
Shamkhani, now the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), is said to have counted Akbari among his closest allies for many years.
After Akbari’s case was publicized, there were rumors that Shamkhani would soon lose his position, and several people were named as possible replacements.
Similar changes have happened recently; Iran’s police chief was replaced earlier this month amid the ongoing unrest.
But Nournews, a news outlet associated with the SNSC, tried to quell the speculation, saying any news of Shamkhani’s removal was “completely false”.
“A few people, whose outrageous rhetoric and actions have always caused a lot of trouble for the establishment, have now, by publishing false and biased news using the arrest of the British super-spy as an excuse, have chosen a path that will promote national unity. harm and the local divisions,” read a post on Nournews’ Twitter account on Friday.