Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national who had previously held a senior position in the Iranian government, was executed on Saturday morning, despite urgent calls for his release by the UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly.
The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, called it a “cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people”.
Sunak, writing on Twitter, said: “I am appalled by the execution of British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari in Iran.
“My thoughts are with Alireza’s friends and family.”
Cleverly said it would not go unchallenged. “This barbaric act deserves condemnation in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “This will not stand unchallenged.”
In response, Iran summoned the British ambassador to Tehran.
“In response to Britain’s unconventional interventions, including in the national security field of the Islamic Republic of Iran, today Simon Shercliff, the ambassador of this country in Tehran, was summoned,” the ministry said in a statement.
Amnesty International condemned the execution and called for an investigation into allegations that Alireza was tortured before his death.
The French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Paris over the execution and said Iran’s repeated violations of international law could not go unanswered, particularly with regard to the treatment of foreign nationals.
Akbari had been found guilty of spying for MI6, charges his family deny.
Family members insist a confession was only extracted after torture, more than 3,000 hours of interrogation, the administration of mind-altering drugs and promises that he would be able to see his family.
He was arrested more than three years ago on a state-sanctioned visit to Tehran and sentenced to death in the summer, but it was only in the past few days that the Iranian government let it be known that he was to be executed.
His British-based family, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, had decided to keep the case private in the belief that private pressure, and pleas for clemency were the best route to his release. Right up to the last minute the family had been given false hope by Iranian intelligence that his life would be spared. A final meeting with his Iranian-based family was cancelled. He leaves behind two daughters.
On Friday, Cleverly said Iran must not follow through with the execution of Akbari.
Senior British MPs, including the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns, had on Thursday called for the British ambassador to Tehran to be withdrawn if Akbari was executed. The UK is also in the midst of deciding whether to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the UK.
Kearns told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “Parliament wants to see the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps proscribed and this will be a big shift in policy because it will be the first time that we recognise that the state can conduct terrorism.”
She also called for the closure of the IRGC outreach office in London, adding that the Foreign Office would have to decide whether to expel the chargé d’affaires and recall the British ambassador to Tehran.
Akbari’s wife told the Guardian earlier this week that her husband was “the victim of an internal power struggle” inside Iran.
Akbari had been a deputy in the defence ministry in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, who served as the Iranian president from 1997 to 2005. He had been responsible for implementing the UN peace terms after the Iran-Iraq war.
Saeid Dehghan, a Tehran-based human rights lawyer, said the death sentence was political, adding it was “unprecedented” for such an execution in the case of a dual national. He said the timing was deliberate ahead of the IRGC being placed on the UK terror list.
Some claim he was targeted by a branch of the intelligence services in order to undermine the powerful Ali Shamkhani, the secretary since 2013 of the supreme national council, but previously a long-serving defence secretary under Khatami. Shamkhani and Akbari had been close, and attacking Akbari is seen as a way of undermining Shamkhani’s efforts to stay in office.
If so, it would be a further blow to those hoping Iran will not turn its back on the west. A fierce debate is still under way in Iran within the regime over Iran’s refusal to agree terms to relaunch the 2015 deal constraining Iran’s nuclear programme.
Some Iranian diplomats have been warning Iran’s hardline stance means the country is paying a heavy price in sanctions and is increasingly being drawn into the Russian sphere of influence, symbolised by the controversial supply of Iranian drones for use by Russia in the war in Ukraine.
In a sign of the internal ferment, Seyyed Mohammad Sadr, a former general director of Europe and USA, in Iran’s ministry of foreign affairs, gave an interview on Saturday warning Iran was on a dangerous course since it was perceived to have lost its neutrality in the Ukrainian war and had become an accomplice of the Russians.
After the defeat of the reformists, Akbari had worked in thinktanks before deciding to enter private business, travelling to Austria, Spain and the UK, where he settled.
In a lengthy statement justifying Akbari’s execution, the Iranian judicial news agency said he had been found guilty of corruption and extensive action against the internal and external security of the country through espionage for the intelligence agency of the British government.
They claimed he had received €1,805,000, £265,000 and $50,000 from the UK security services using bank accounts in Austria, Spain and the UK.
The Iranian agencies claimed in return for information, he had been provided with British citizenship information training, anti-prosecution training, anti-interrogation training, information cover, information collection training, details on how to establish a cover company abroad from the country in order to mislead Iran’s security institutions, as well as special communication tools.
The Iranians claim that after he had retired, he was cultivated by the British intelligence services, as well as by the British ambassador in Tehran, Richard Dalton, meeting agents in Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Spain and Austria.
Enemy intelligence officers met Akbari on various occasions during his personal trips – including George, Marco, Jessica, Colin, David – all pseudonyms used by MI6 officers, the Iranian state media claimed.
The Iranians claimed “Akbari collected important information of the country on strategic issues in the field of domestic and foreign policy, regional, defence, missile, nuclear negotiations and economic issues related to sanctions and delivered it to British intelligence officers in a fully informed and targeted manner”.
In one of the many unsubstantiated claims, the Iranians alleged he provided information about the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated on 27 November 2020, alleging he introduced his name to the intelligence services. At the time of Fakrizadeh’s assassination, Akbari was already under arrest.
The Iranian intelligence services claimed special arrangements were made for the meetings, and on every trip a room was reserved in the hotel where the foreign officer was also present.
They also claimed British intelligence arranged for him to be given indefinite leave to remain and paid for his accommodation.