On January 14, 2023, Iran executed Alireza Akbari, a former deputy defense minister (2000-2004), after he was convicted of spying for Britain and “corruption on earth.” Akbari, who served in the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, also had British citizenship after a decade living in Britain after he left government. He was arrested in 2019 during a visit to Iran. His execution triggered a flurry of international condemnation. Akbari’s execution was a “barbaric act that deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Akbari’s death “politically motivated and unjust” at a joint press conference with Cleverly on Jan. 17, 2023. “It fits a pattern of abuse by the regime: detentions, torture, forced confessions, unjust executions,” he said.
NEW: Iran's state TV has confirmed the execution of British-Iranian dual national Alireza Akbari.— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) January 14, 2023
An ex-deputy Iranian defence minister, Akbari was arrested in 2019 and convicted of spying for the UK, which he denied. pic.twitter.com/jSkm9yV2Uu
The Akbari case was a new flashpoint between Iran and the West at a time of tensions over Tehran’s nuclear advances, repression of dissent, and drone exports to Russia for use against Ukraine. The hanging also reflected tensions within Iran’s political establishment. “I can only speculate that there has been some power struggle at the very highest levels of the government and they have decided to create this plot against my uncle,” Akbari’s nephew, Ramin Forghani, told the BBC. In response, Britain also sanctioned the Iranian prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, and temporarily recalled the British ambassador to Iran.
Akbari, 61, was hanged despite life-long support of the Islamic Republic. In the 1980s, he served in the military during the Iraq war. Akbari held senior positions in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He pledged fealty when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was named supreme leader in 1989. From 2000 to 2004, he was the deputy to Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani. Akbari left government in 2004. In 2008, he was reportedly detained over suspicions that he was spying for Britain. He subsequently left Iran, worked in business and for a think tank, and became a naturalized British citizen around 2011.
In 2019, Akbari returned to Iran after an invitation to consult after President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal. Akbari’s brother claimed that Shamkhani, who was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), requested the visit. Upon his arrival, Akbari was detained and charged with spying for the MI6, the British intelligence service.
On Jan. 12, 2023, Iranian state media aired a video confession that allegedly implicated Akbari in the 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program. (Iran blamed the assassination on Israel.) In a recording released by BBC Persian, Akbari claimed that he was tortured for 3,500 hours over 10 months and forced to make a false confession. “By using the force of gun and making death threats they made me confess to false and baseless claims,” he said.
But Akbari started working with British intelligence in 2004, The New York Times reported in May 2023 based on interviews with Western and Iranian sources. Tehran alleged that the former regime insider had exposed nuclear and military programs as well as more than 100 Iranian officials, including Fakhrizadeh. Akbari had also reportedly revealed to the West that the underground military site at Fordo was a nuclear facility. Iran discovered that Akbari was a spy in 2019 with help from Russian intelligence.
The execution triggered questions about the fate of other national security officials, especially Shamkhani, given his ties to Akbari. Shamkhani headed the SNSC, which develops Iran’s strategy and foreign policy, under both centrists and hardliners. Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab and a former IRGC admiral who briefly lived in the United States, was appointed to the role in 2013 by President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist. He retained the post after the 2021 election of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and vocal critic of Rouhani.
In November 2022, Shamkhani reportedly faced criticism from hardliners for failing to quash the nationwide protests that erupted in September 2022. Shamkhani was a “moderate voice” who called for “discussions and dialogue,” Alicia Kearns, British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair, told the BBC in January 2023. IRGC-linked media reported that he might step down, but a news agency linked to the SNSC denied the reports.
Since the 1979 revolution, the theocracy has executed thousands for crimes ranging from murder and drug smuggling to harming national security and “corruption on earth.” Over the decade between 2012 and 2021, the Islamic Republic executed more than 4,000 people, second only to China. It executed at least 299 people in 2021, according to HRANA, a human rights group. In 2022, executions nearly doubled to at least 565. The following is a rundown of the international reaction to Akbari’s execution.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Jan. 17, 2023: “We stand with the British Government in condemning Iran’s execution of Iranian-British dual national Alireza Akbari, which was politically motivated and unjust. It fits a pattern of abuse by the regime: detentions, torture, forced confessions, unjust executions.”
“We’ll continue to work with the United Kingdom and our other allies and partners to hold Iran’s leadership accountable for these and other abuses.”
“We were appalled by the execution of Mr. Akbari, just as we’ve been appalled by everything we’ve been seeing on the streets of Iran over the last months since these protests began – mass arrests, sham trials, the executions, the use of sexual violence as a tool for protest suppression. We, the United Kingdom – but not just us – countries around the world are watching this, seeing this, and share the revulsion that we have.”
Secretary of State Blinken in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “The United States stands firmly with the UK in strongly condemning Iran’s execution of Iranian-British dual national Alireza Akbari. We mourn with his loved ones and will continue to hold Iran accountable for its sham trials and politicized executions.”
Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “Horrified to learn of the execution of Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian citizen. The Islamic Republic’s unjust detentions, forced confessions, sham trials, and politically motivated executions must end.”
Special Envoy for Iran Malley in a tweet on Jan. 18, 2023: “I conveyed my condolences in person to @CTurnerFCDO yesterday for Iran's politically motivated execution of UK citizen Alireza Akbari. We also discussed our work to counter Iran's transfer of weapons to Russia, growing nuclear program, and wrongful detention of US & UK citizens.”
I am appalled by the execution of British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari in Iran.— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) January 14, 2023
This was a callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people. My thoughts are with Alireza’s friends and family.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “I am appalled by the execution of British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari in Iran. This was a callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people. My thoughts are with Alireza’s friends and family.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly at a joint press conference with Secretary of State Blinken on Jan. 17, 2023: “We also discussed the situation in Iran, where the regime has committed a cowardly and shameful act by executing a British-Iranian dual national Alireza Akbari. I’m very grateful to the United States of America for publicly condemning the execution and for Secretary Blinken expressing his condolences in our meeting a few moments ago.”
“The UK has sanctioned involved with the execution of Mr. Akbari and those involved in the oppression of their own people, including the Iranian prosecutor general.”
“The execution of Mr. Akbari was a politically motivated act, and we acted swiftly to sanction the people involved with it, including the prosecutor general. We have already sanctioned members of the so-called morality police and of the members of the Iranian judiciary who have been involved with the crackdown of the legitimate protests of the Iranian people.”
Foreign Secretary Cleverly in a press release announcing British sanctions against Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, on Jan. 14, 2023: “The Prosecutor General is at the heart of Iran’s barbaric use of the death penalty for political ends. Sanctioning him today underlines our disgust at Alireza Akbari’s execution and our commitment to holding the regime to account for its appalling human rights violations.”
Foreign Secretary Cleverly in a statement on Jan. 14, 2023: “The execution of British-Iranian Alireza Akbari is a barbaric act that deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms. Through this politically motivated act, the Iranian regime has once again shown its callous disregard for human life.
This will not stand unchallenged and we will be summoning the Iranian Charge d’Affaires to make clear our disgust at Iran’s actions. Our thoughts are with Mr Akbari’s family.”
Foreign Secretary Cleverly in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “We’re holding the regime to account. The UK has today:
- Sanctioned the Iranian Prosecutor General
- Summoned the Charge d’Affaires
- Temporarily recalled the UK Ambassador for consultation.
Our response to Iran is not limited to today. We are reviewing further action.”
Foreign Secretary Cleverly in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “The UK has sanctioned Iran's Prosecutor General. Sanctioning him today underlines our disgust at Alireza Akbari's execution. The Prosecutor General is at the heart of Iran's use of the death penalty. We're holding the regime to account for its appalling human rights violations.”
Foreign Secretary Cleverly in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “Iran has executed a British national. This barbaric act deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms. This will not stand unchallenged. My thoughts are with Alireza Akbari’s family.”
President Emmanuel Macron in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “The execution of Alireza Akbari is a despicable and barbaric act. His name adds to too long a list of victims of repression and the death penalty in Iran. Solidarity with the UK. Solidarity with the Iranian people.”
The Foreign Ministry in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “The execution of Alireza #Akbari is yet another inhumane act by the Iranian regime. We stand with our British friends and will continue to closely coordinate our measures vis-a-vis the regime and our support for Iran's people.”
The European Union
In a statement on Jan. 15, 2023: “The European Union condemns in the strongest terms the execution in Iran of Iranian-British national Alireza Akbari and recalls yet again its strong opposition against the application of capital punishment in any circumstance.
“The European Union offers its condolences to Mr Akbari’s family and expresses its full solidarity with the United Kingdom. The execution of a European citizen is an appalling precedent that will be followed closely by the EU.
“The death penalty violates the inalienable right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
“The European Union calls on Iran to refrain from any future executions and to pursue a consistent policy towards the abolition of capital punishment.”
The Foreign Ministry in a tweet on Jan. 14, 2023: “Yet another appalling execution in #Iran. We strongly condemn the execution of British-Iranian dual citizen Alireza Akbari and call on Iran to immediately halt such barbaric acts. We fully oppose #CapitalPunishment and will continue to work for its global abolition.”
Foreign Minister Tobias Billström in a tweet on Jan. 15, 2023: “[Sweden and the European Union] condemns in the strongest terms the execution in Iran of Iranian-British national Alireza Akbari. The death penalty violates the Universal Declaration of HR. The European Union calls on Iran to refrain from any future executions.”
🇸🇪 and 🇪🇺 condemns in the strongest terms the execution in Iran of Iranian-British national Alireza Akbari. The death penalty violates the Universal Declaration of HR. The European Union calls on Iran to refrain from any future executions. @sweden2023eu https://t.co/kDgdYQI03b— Tobias Billström (@TobiasBillstrom) January 15, 2023
The Foreign Ministry in a tweet on Jan. 15, 2023: “Strongly condemn the execution of British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari in #Iran, expressing deep condolences to his family Such act is unacceptable and represents a breach of human rights. Solidarity w/ the British people giving full support to @10DowningStreet @JamesCleverly”
Connor Bradbury, a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, assembled this report.