Analysis: Akbari execution signals rising Iran tensions with West

The execution of Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national who previously served as a deputy defence minister in Iran, comes amid local unrest and is likely to preface a renewed period of rapidly rising tensions with the West.

Iran’s announcement of the ex-official’s hanging on Saturday, after he was convicted of spying for British intelligence services, could be a precursor to significant changes in how Tehran and the West manage their relations and has bred speculation that more potential changes are coming within the Iranian establishment.

Akbari was arrested in 2019 after returning to Iran from the United Kingdom, where he had been living for a decade, but his case had not been publicised 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 elected not to discuss his case publicly, hoping his release could be secured privately.

Instead, Iran’s judiciary confirmed the 61-year-old’s execution mere days after news of his arrest and death sentence were publicised.

Claims that he was a “super spy” who was paid handsomely and trained vigorously by British intelligence were central in the judiciary’s description of his case, and in videos of his “confessions” released by state media.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office and Akbari’s family have denied the allegations, and have maintained his innocence.

Indications now point to a fierce international backlash, particularly from the UK.

After Akbari’s execution, top British officials significantly ramped up their rhetoric against Tehran, denouncing the Islamic Republic as a “barbaric regime” and promising action.

Hours later, London said it has blacklisted Iran’s prosecutor general while temporarily recalling its ambassador to Tehran.

France’s foreign ministry summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires to protest the execution, and the United States also condemned the move and called for a halt to “politically motivated executions”.

Important timing

The timing of the execution suggests its significance in several aspects.

For one, it comes as top Iranian authorities, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regularly accuse the West of being behind the country’s ongoing unrest.

Dozens of foreign nationals have been arrested since protests erupted across Iran following the mid-September death of Mahsa Amini, after her arrest by morality police for alleged non-compliance with a mandatory dress code for women.

Four people have been executed in cases linked to the protests. Akbari’s case – and reactions to it – very publicly emphasise the authorities’ notion that the UK and its Western allies are actively invested in “intervening” in what Iranian authorities perceive to be internal affairs.

“Decisive action to protect the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran will not be conditioned on the satisfaction of other governments, including Britain,” the UK envoy was reportedly told on Saturday after being summoned by the Iranian foreign ministry after the UK criticised Iran for Akbari’s execution.

European ambassadors have regularly been summoned to hear Tehran’s protests over their governments’ “interventionist” stances during the protests.

On the other hand, Akbari’s execution comes as the UK – and the European Union – are considering designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a “terrorist” organisation.

The US proscribed the elite force, a main pillar of the Iranian establishment, in 2019, a year after former President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

At the time, many European politicians were against the move, but with the EU imposing sanctions on Tehran for allegedly supplying drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine, and the dim prospects for restoring the nuclear deal, the political landscape has significantly changed.

Meanwhile, groups opposed to Iran have called for the expulsion of its ambassadors in European nations and for ambassadors in Tehran to be recalled.

European politicians have long refrained from such a move, preferring to maintain diplomatic relations in order to keep lines of direct dialogue open.

Mohammad Sadr, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, warned on Saturday that UN sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal could be reinstated if there is no course correction on the part of Iran’s leaders.

“Iran would face international political, economic and security isolation, which would be a prelude for other issues. I hope we will never get to that stage and engage in reforms,” Sadr, who was also a former diplomat, told the Etemad newspaper in an interview.

Power struggles

Akbari’s family have also told the British media that his execution could be linked to power struggles within the Iranian establishment, due to Akbari’s links with the country’s security chief, Ali Shamkhani.

Akbari was deputy defence minister about 20 years ago when Shamkhani was defence minister.

Shamkhani, now the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), reportedly counted Akbari among his closest allies for years.

After Akbari’s case was publicised, there were rumours that Shamkhani would soon lose his position, and several people were named as potential replacements.

Similar changes have happened recently; Iran’s police chief was replaced earlier this month amid the ongoing unrest.

But Nournews, a news outlet linked with the SNSC, tried to quash the speculation, and said any news of Shamkhani’s removal was “completely false”.

“A few people, who have always created many problems for the establishment with their excessive rhetoric and action have now, through publishing false and biased news with the arrest of Britain’s super spy as an excuse, chosen a path that will damage national unity and exacerbate local divisions,” a post on Nournews’ Twitter account said on Friday.

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