Iran said on Saturday it had executed a former senior defense ministry official and a dual Iranian-British citizen, despite international warnings not to carry out the death sentence. The punishment further exacerbated tensions with the West nationwide anti-government demonstrations rocking the Islamic Republic.

The hanging of Ali Reza Akbari, a close associate of senior security official Ali Shamkhani, is a sign of the ongoing power struggle in Iran’s theocracy, which is trying to contain demonstrations over Death of September Mahsi Amini. It also brought to mind the massive military purges that took place immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Akbara’s hanging immediately drew the ire of London, which along with the US and others imposed sanctions on Iran for the protests and supplying Russia with bomb-carrying drones now targeting Ukraine.

Ali Reza Akbari
Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a meeting to launch the book “National Nuclear Movement” in Tehran, Iran, in this photo released on October 14, 2008.

Davu Hosseini, IRNA via AP

“This was a callous and cowardly act by a barbaric regime that has no respect for the human rights of its own people,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverley summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in the United Kingdom and separately warned: “This will not go unchallenged.”

Britain imposed sanctions on Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, on Saturday night “with immediate effect” over Akbara’s execution.

Iran similarly summoned the British ambassador after the execution.

Iran’s Mizan news agency, linked to the country’s judiciary, announced Akbara’s hanging without saying when it happened. However, there were rumors that he had been executed days earlier.

Iran claimed, without providing evidence, that Akbari served as a source for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. A lengthy statement released by Iran’s judiciary alleges that Akbari received large sums of money, British citizenship and other assistance in London for providing information to intelligence agencies.

Still, Iran has long accused those who travel abroad or have Western ties of espionage, often using them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

The anti-government protests currently rocking Iran are one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest challenges since the 1979 revolution.

At least 520 protesters were killed and 19,400 people were arrested, according to Human Rights Watch in Iran, a group that monitored the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided official data on the dead and those arrested.

Iran executed four people after they were found guilty of charges related to the protests in similarly criticized trials, including attacks on security forces.

Akbari, who ran a private think tank, is believed to have been arrested in 2019, but details of his case have only emerged in recent weeks. Those accused of espionage and other national security crimes are usually tried behind closed doors, where human rights groups say they do not choose their lawyers and are not allowed to see the evidence against them.

Iranian state television showed a heavily edited video of Akbara discussing the allegations, footage that resembled other reported confessions that activists called coerced confessions.

The BBC’s Farsi-language service broadcast an audio message from Akbara on Wednesday in which he talks about the torture.

“Using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me insane and forced me to do whatever they wanted,” Akbari said in the audio. “By force of arms and threats of death, they forced me to confess to false and corrupt statements.”

Iran does not comment on claims of torture. However, the United Nations human rights chief warned Iran against “weaponizing” the death penalty as a means of suppressing protests.

On Friday, State Department Deputy Press Secretary Vedant Patel also criticized the pending execution of Akbara.

“The charges against Ali Reza Akbari and his death sentence were politically motivated. His punishment would be unfair,” he said. “We are deeply troubled by reports that Mr. Akbari was drugged, tortured while in custody, interrogated for thousands of hours and forced to make false confessions.”

He added: “More broadly, Iran’s practice of arbitrary and unjust detentions, forced confessions and politically motivated executions is completely unacceptable and must be stopped.”

Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, said he was “appalled” by Akbara’s execution.

“Unjust detentions, forced confessions, sham trials and politically motivated executions in the Islamic Republic must be stopped,” he wrote online.

French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned what he called a “disgusting and barbaric act”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock said on Twitter that the execution “is yet another inhumane act by the Iranian regime.”

Iran is one of the leading executioners in the world. However, it was unclear when the last time a former or current high-ranking official was executed. In 1984, Iran executed the commander of its fleet, Admiral Baharam Afzali, along with nine other military personnel on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.

Iran’s government has tried for months to claim – without providing evidence – that foreign countries fueled the unrest that has gripped the Islamic Republic since the death of 22-year-old Amini in September after she was detained by morality police. Protesters say they are outraged by the country’s collapsing economy, brutal policing and the strengthening of Islamic clerical power.

For several years, Iran has been locked in a shadow war with the United States and Israel, marked by covert attacks on its controversial nuclear program. The assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in 2020, which Iran blamed on Israel, suggests that foreign intelligence agencies have had serious repercussions. Iran mentioned this scholar when discussing Akbara’s case, although it is unclear what, if any, current information he had about him.

Akbari previously oversaw the 1988 ceasefire between Iran and Iraq after their devastating eight-year war, working closely with UN observers. He served as deputy defense minister under Shamkhani during the administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, which likely made his credentials even more suspect to hardliners in Iran’s theocracy.

Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security body overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an audio message broadcast by BBC Persian, Akbara said he was accused of receiving top-secret information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt”. However, Shamkhani seems to be sticking to his role.

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