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Sensemaker: Tehran’s terror

Sensemaker: Tehran’s terror

What just happened

Long stories short

  • China’s population fell in 2022 for the first time since 1961 (more below).
  • Germany named Boris Pistorius as the country’s new defence minister. 
  • Boris Johnson signed a deal with HarperCollins to publish a memoir of his time in office.

Tehran’s terror

On Monday British foreign secretary James Cleverly condemned the “cowardly and shameful” execution of Iranian-British dual national Alireza Akbari. But the tone among MPs is that the UK government is also living up to those words, in being too slow to respond. 

So what? The UK is currently considering whether to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation – the first time the UK would apply such a designation to a branch of a foreign state. This was in play before Akbari’s execution, but his death has led to increased pressure for a hardline response.

Akbari, Iran’s deputy defence minister until 2005 under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, was executed on Saturday. He was arrested in 2019, spending three years in prison on charges of spying for the UK, which he strongly denied. 

His death comes amid the most serious anti-government protests in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The UK and other world powers have condemned Iran’s response to the protests, in which more than 500 people, including 70 children, are believed to have died. The UK has also criticised Tehran for supplying military equipment to Russia for its war in Ukraine. 

Cleverly told MPs that Akbari had “[fallen] victim to the political vendettas of a vicious regime”, and that the Foreign Office had “acted immediately to show our revulsion”. 

So far, measures include:

  • Sanctioning Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri;  
  • Summoning Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK, Mehdi Hosseini Matin, to the Foreign Office;
  • Temporarily recalling the British ambassador to Tehran. 

But MPs across the political spectrum want the UK government to go further. The Labour party has called for the guards to be designated a terrorist organisation, saying the move is justified by the imprisonment of British citizens in Iran, longstanding concerns about Iran’s threat to Israel and its support for violent groups across the region. 

MPs yesterday also highlighted comments made last autumn by Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency. He warned that Iran had sought to kidnap or kill “at least 10” British or UK-based individuals in less than a year.

Why the delay? Lord Simon McDonald, the UK’s former top diplomat, told BBC Radio 4 that a decision appeared to be “imminent”. But, he added: “it has never been done before and so there will be ramifications for including an organ of a foreign state as a terrorist organisation.”

These ramifications could include:

  • Retaliation against British-Iranian dual nationals in the country;
  • the door closing on further talks to revive the stalled 2015 nuclear deal, and 
  • regional escalation – former US president Donald Trump designated the guards a terrorist organisation in 2019, which led to increased tensions in the Gulf. 

What about Europe? The EU could join forces with the UK in designating the guards a terrorist group. France said last week it had not ruled out the idea (the Eiffel Tower lit up last night with the Iranian protesters’ slogan: Women. Life. Freedom). Germany’s foreign minister said it was “politically important and makes sense”, but added that legal hurdles still had to be cleared. A hundred MEPs have asked for the guards to be designated a terrorist entity and the issue will be debated today in the European parliament. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s cruelty continues. When Akbari’s family arrived to collect his body at a pre-ordained cemetery, they were told he had already been buried.


China’s plunging population
China’s population is officially shrinking. The government said today that 9.56 million people were born in China last year, while 10.41 million people died – the first time deaths outnumbered births since Mao’s Great Leap Forward led to widespread famine in the 1960s. The data might mean that India has already overtaken China as the world’s most populous country, something that was not expected until later this year. The birth rate was also the lowest on record – with the country’s strict zero-Covid measures blamed for causing couples to delay having children. Beijing also released data showing its economy grew by 3 per cent last year, its slowest rate in decades. 


TikTok off campus
It’s been two years since former US president Donald Trump boldly claimed he would ban TikTok from the US over fears the app, owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, is not fully independent from Beijing and could be spying on Americans. Trump may have gone, but the concern remains. Nineteen states have now banned the app in some form on government devices. A bipartisan bill in Congress introduced last month would ban the app completely. Universities have restricted the app on their campus WiFi networks over “cybersecurity” concerns. This won’t deter the app’s most avid users – students simply need to switch to their mobile data plan – but it does show how the pushback has trickled down from Washington. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Gender rejection
The UK government has blocked legislation passed in the Scottish parliament that would make it easier for transgender people to self-identify. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack says the decision to use Westminster’s veto – untouched since devolution in 1998 – is because the reforms would have “significant impact” on UK-wide equalities law. Cue a constitutional clash: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described it as “a full-frontal attack” on Scottish democracy and an attempt to use trans people as a ”political weapon”. The SNP has vowed to fight the veto, most likely via judicial review. What’s less clear is what voters will make of the fight.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Dnipro defenceless
Ukrainian air defences cannot shoot down Russian Kh-22 ballistic missiles – like the one that took at least 44 civilians’ lives in Dnipro. This kind of anti-ship missile has a range of up to 600 km, weighs approximately 950kg, can deviate from the target by 600m – and Ukraine has not been able to shoot down one of the 210 fired at it since the war started, say its military officials. Russia has hundreds of Kh-22 missiles, in addition to modified long-range С-300 and С-400 ones. Only Western-supplied anti-aircraft missile systems like Patriot PAC-3 or SAMP-T can shoot these missiles down. The US will supply the Patriot system soon; Ukrainian soldiers have reportedly arrived in Oklahoma for training. Poland is also asking Germany to place two Patriot batteries in Ukraine instead of Poland – with no success so far. 


Met Police
“He should not have been a police officer,” said Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley, apologising for the serial assault and abuse of 12 women by David Carrick. The 48 year-old pleaded guilty to 49 charges – including 24 rape counts – over the past two decades while serving in the force. The Met’s failure is significant. After Carrick joined the force in 2001, there were eight claims against him of rape and domestic abuse, but he faced no misconduct review or criminal sanctions. He was sacked today. These failures, the Guardian reports, are part of the reason Cressida Dick was replaced by Rowley, who is now promising major reforms and the review of 800 officers over 1,000 sexual and domestic abuse claims. 

And finally… A political consultancy that boasts of helping Conservative candidates “establish” themselves in Westminster is behind multiple parliamentary groups that have held meetings between ministers and businesses. Since December 2019 College Green Group is the named source of £636,000 in services, donations, gifts, benefits and other payments to four All-Party Parliamentary Groups, three of which were set up after the election and are chaired by Tory MPs from the new intake. A former Conservative MP said it was: “unaccountable, unelectable, secret,” adding: “it’s a very big can of worms.” There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing. Thomas Borwick, College Green’s founder, said: “We comply scrupulously with all APPG rules… When we offer secretariat services, we do so at the behest of the chairs.” Read the full story and explore the Westminster Accounts tool

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Catherine Neilan

Jessica Winch

Additional reporting by Nina Kuryata, Barney Macintyre and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Yan Dobronosov/Twitter

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