Iran has killed a British-Iranian national accused of spying for the UK. What does it tell us about the relationship between the two countries?
“Iran state media has reported that British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari has been executed.”BBC News
Alireza Akbari’s plight only became public a few weeks ago, by which point he was already set for the gallows.
“Mr Akbari, who is a former deputy defense minister for Iran, was detained three years ago and charged with spying for the United Kingdom.”BBC News
There have been several British-Iranian dual nationals imprisoned in Iran in the past decade – including, most famously, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who returned to the UK last year.
Iran’s government typically uses these detainees to extract concessions: prisoner swaps or money they believe is owed to them.
In the past, they’ve detained students, teachers, academics.
Alireza Akbari didn’t fit that profile, because he used to be an Iranian politician.
He served inMohammad Khatami’s government.
Mohammad Khatami was a reformist president who is disliked by the Islamic Republic, which rules Iran.
He recently voiced support for the protest movement against the Islamic Republic that was sparked by the death of the Iranian woman Mahsa Amini.
After Mohammad Khatami lost power, Alireza Akbari left Iran and became a naturalised UK citizen.
But three years ago, he returned to Tehran. His nephew said he was asked to come back by a former boss, who still works for the Islamic Republic.
Alireza Akbari was arrested and accused of spying for the UK.
Iran claimed that he received millions of pounds from the UK security services, that he met with MI6 officers, and that he traded information about Iran’s top nuclear scientist, who was assassinated by the Israeli government at the end of 2020.
These allegations are straight out of Iran’s playbook.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals have faced unfounded accusations of espionage and double dealings.
And like many other prisoners, Alireza Akbari claimed he was forced to confess to the charges against him.
Here’s a recording obtained by BBC Persian.
“During all those 3,500 hours [of torture] which took more than 10 months, they were recording my confessions with 10 cameras to make their Hollywood-style film.
“By using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me to madness and forced me to do whatever they wanted. By the force of gun and death threats they made me confess to false and corrupt claims.”Translation of recording of Alireza Akbari, BBC Persian
Alireza Akbari’s experience was similar to other dual nationals detained in Iran, but with one tragic difference.
He’s thought to be the first dual citizen to be executed by the regime since the 1980s.
So why did it happen?
The UK and Iran have always had a turbulent relationship – and things have gotten worse in the past few months.
“After months of denial Iran has finally admitted it supplied Russia with drones, but only before the war.”Al Jazeera English
“It is no secret that we have become a nuclear threshold state and this is a reality. It is also no secret that we have the technical capabilities required to manufacture a nuclear bomb.”Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s atomic agency
But it’s not just what Iran is doing on the world stage that has angered the British government.
The country is targeting people in Britain itself.
“Iran projects threat to the UK directly through its aggressive intelligence services at its sharpest. This includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”Kenneth McCallum, director general of MI5
That’s the head of the UK security service, MI5 – Kenneth McCallum – speaking in November.
He revealed that Iran had made 10 threats to kill or kidnap people in the UK over the course of just a few months.
“The foreign secretary made clear to the Iranian regime just last week that the UK will not tolerate intimidation or threats to life towards journalists or any individual living in the UK.”Kenneth McCallum, director general of MI5
Many Iran experts believe that Alireza Akbari’s execution is linked to the UK’s relationship with Iran.
In recent months, Britain has sanctioned top Iranian officials connected to the country’s judicial and prison systems.
And it is pondering whether to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard… a branch of the army with huge political and economic heft… as a terrorist organisation.
Alireza Akbari may well have been a victim of a power struggle within the Iranian regime.
But his death serves as a warning from Iran to the UK. Target us, and we’ll target you.
On the one hand, UK wants to hold an isolated regime to account.
On the other, the UK still hopes it can revive the nuclear deal that had tried to unwind Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
And Britain knows, too, that it is home to a whole host of dual British-Iranian nationals whose families face threats back in Iran, and who feel danger on their own doorsteps in the UK.
The risks to those dual citizens will only increase if relations with Iran sour further.
The death of Alireza Akbari brings all that into focus.
This episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.