Iran’s execution of a former Iranian official with British citizenship, Alireza Akbari, after accusing him of spying for Britain, sends messages in several directions, internal and external.
The execution itself reflects the regime leadership’s achievement of an unprecedented level of emotion and anxiety, prompting them to make sensitive decisions in a timely manner, despite the complications and dire political consequences at both the domestic and foreign levels.
Akbari, who was formerly deputy to Ali Shamkhani, the current head of Iran’s National Security Council, when the latter was defense minister under former President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, was accused of spying for Britain, whose prime minister called the execution “a cruel and cowardly act carried out by a barbaric regime,” which could be a milestone in the history of the Iranian regime.
Several reasons are involved in this, including international criticism of Iran’s ongoing executions. Among them is British intervention in this particular matter, given that Reza holds British citizenship in addition to Iranian citizenship. More important is the timing factor, since the execution implies an indirect threat to opponents and critics of the Iranian regime at home and abroad.
The Iranian regime is under pressure
The decision to execute is difficult to consider in isolation from the Iranian regime’s escalating pressure due to growing popular protests. The evidence suggests that Western outrage over the latest execution is not limited to Britain and its ally, the United States, which urged regime leaders in Tehran not to execute Akbari.
But there is a parallel Western anger related to Belgium, which recently summoned Iran’s ambassador after an Iranian court sentenced a Belgian aid worker to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of spying against Iran by cooperating with the US Government, foreign currency smuggling and money laundering. Clearly, the Iranian regime suffers from what can be described as a phobia of espionage.
Although the charge of espionage is always at the ready for most opponents of the regime, it now faces at least a death sentence or life in prison, since the latter case is often used for prisoner exchange deals and political pressure, especially since it is reserved for foreign nationals. British-Iranian citizens Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri were released.
They were allowed to leave Iran last year after Britain paid off debts Iran had been demanding for decades. Many factors contributed to the deepening of this phobia within the Iranian regime. Chief among them are the repeated security breaches that have occurred in Iran in recent years.
MANY MILITARY leaders and academics have been targeted and assassinated inside Iran. In particular, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most famous nuclear scientist, was targeted in 2020, which paints a ridiculous picture of Iranian security that failed to provide the necessary protection for such people inside their country.
In the case of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandikastel accused of spying against Iran, which he denies and Brussels considers it a trumped up charge, Iran wants to exchange him for diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who has been in prison in Belgium since last year on charges of plotting to blow up an Iranian dissidents’ gathering abroad.
The deal is in question because Belgium’s Constitutional Court has suspended the controversial prisoner exchange treaty, which could have underpinned the deal Tehran wants. Iran plans such potential deals from time to time by supplying the infamous Evin Prison with Western prisoners from various countries in the expectation of exchanging them for Iranian prisoners in those countries.
In all cases, the Iranian regime does not seek deals, except for the return of Iranian suspects accused of involvement in terrorist crimes in countries around the world. The ammunition of Western prisoners at Evin Prison is intended to resolve, arrest and prosecute the failure of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives to carry out planned crimes abroad.
Returning to the case of Akbari, who was executed after internal media hype described him as a super spy, perhaps to try to establish a conspiracy theory and promote the idea of an outside role in the ongoing popular protests in Iran. He said in a leaked audio message before his execution that he was lured to visit Iran.
Upon his arrival, he was arrested on charges of receiving top-secret information from Ali Shamkhani, secretary general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt. The decision to execute him is a heavy blow to Shamkhani, besmirching his reputation and damaging his history. Akbari was one of his most prominent confidants.
There were reports in the pro-regime media linking Akbari’s execution to the attack on Shamkhani. Shamkhani took positions and proposals different from those of the other regime leaders regarding the escalation of the protests last September and offered alternatives to reach a public consensus among the currents of the regime to avoid the consequences of these protests.
SHAMKHANI HAS been accused of failing in what he called “psyop and media warfare,” and shedding light on the current time on the “super spy” case, although his arrest was made in 2019 according to several reports, may be a multipurpose message. Some of it is a response to British and Western attitudes toward the protests in Iran.
Some have to do with intimidating opponents of the regime at home and abroad, especially after many symbols in the cultural and sports fields fled abroad and tried to gather their forces to create a strong opposition front abroad to manage the state of anger at home.
Media sources close to the IRGC also say that Ali Shamkhani, head of the National Security Council, will soon be fired after what they described as a “super spy scandal” and executed.
It reinforces the idea of revenge in the image of his adviser and former deputy that some wings within the regime see Shamkhani as a potential candidate in the upcoming presidential election and want to burn him politically and keep him off the stage from now on.
Although Tehran already understands the extent of the West’s anger in response to Akbari’s execution, it seems to have made up its mind on a number of issues concerning its relations with the West. It wants to send a strong message in response to what it sees as support or planning for popular protests in Iran.
Thus, this execution has put Iran’s relations with Western capitals on a direct line of confrontation. We believe that it has closed, even temporarily, any possible negotiations for the resumption of dialogue on the nuclear dossier.
Britain is also expected to take steps to impose further sanctions against Iran even after it has already imposed sanctions against the Iranian vice police and several high-ranking security officials.
London is likely to consider putting the IRGC on the terrorist list and join the US in this matter. The execution process removes the European troika of Germany, France and Britain from their cautious policies toward Tehran to reposition themselves with the US in managing relations with Iran in the next phase. Consequently, talk of resuming Iranian nuclear talks or even talking about an Iranian dossier will become unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.
The writer is a UAE political analyst and a former Federal National Council candidate.