by Neville Teller
Alireza Akbari, an Iranian politician and once a senior officer in Iran’s notorious IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), was deputy Minister of Defense from 1998 to 2003. In 2009, he was arrested and accused of spying for Britain, but after posting bail, he was free to go. Akbari moved to Europe and settled in England, where, according to his brother Mehdi, was obtained British nationality in recognition of his substantial investments and job creation in the UK. So, he gained both British and Iranian citizenship, which is recognized in the UK but not in Iran.
While traveling back to Iran in 2019, he was arrested again on a charge of spying for Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6.
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On January 11, 2023, BBC Persian broadcast an audio message in which Akbari said he had been tortured and forced to confess on camera to crimes he did not commit. The next day, Iran’s intelligence ministry posted a video of him confessing to the spying charge and described him as “one of the most important agents of the British intelligence service in Iran.”
On the same day, the UK’s Middle East minister, Lord Tariq Ahmad, was in Jerusalem meeting Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen. “I expressed my hope,” said Cohen,” that the UK would soon declare the IRGC as a terror organization.” Such a step would send an “unequivocal message to the Iranian terrorist regime against the terrorist activities it leads in the Middle East and around the world.”
The next day, January 12, all British lawmakers voted in favor of a motion that asked the government to ban Iran’s IRGC. During the debate, MP Bob Blackman said the UK should “refer the regime’s appalling dossier of systematic violations of human rights and crimes against humanity to the UN Security Council.”
The IRGC should be proscribed “in its entirety,” Blackman added, echoing the words of then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the US listing of the IRGC as a “foreign terrorist organization” back in 2019.
Two days later, on January 14, the Iranian judiciary announced that Akbari had been executed by hanging.
Iran’s decision to go ahead with Akbari’s execution was undoubtedly accelerated by two factors: the upcoming 44th anniversary of the Iranian revolution on February 11 and growing signs that the UK was preparing to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
The BBC reported as early as January 1 that government sources had confirmed the UK’s intention to do so.
Given the UK’s clear intention to act against the IRGC, the organization has stepped up its anti-British activities. It didn’t make sense for it to arrest seven people with ties to the UK after many people protested against the government in the fall over the death of Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab “incorrectly.”
On January 17 the UK House of Commons issued a research paper titled Dual Nationals Imprisoned in Iran. It quotes research published in 2022 that suggests Iran has imprisoned at least 66 foreign and dual nationals since 2010–15, with links to the UK. Along with the unfortunate Akbari, the British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were also held. They were freed in March 2022. Morad Tahbaz, an American-Iranian national who also holds British citizenship, remains in Iran, as does British-Iranian Mehran Raoof.
The IRGC was set up over 40 years ago to defend Iran’s Islamic revolution, and it has been the enforcer and exporter of Iran’s revolution ever since. It has become the world’s top terror organization and is now arguably the most powerful paramilitary organization in the Middle East.
Running a multi-billion dollar business empire across the Iranian state, the IRGC has unlimited resources and enormous military, political and economic power. It was heavily funded to help extremist governments and violent groups all over the region. These include its satellites – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The first group is a Shia group that follows Iran’s Supreme Leader. The second group is a branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Overriding all other considerations is that both are dedicated to overthrowing Israel, a prime objective of the Iranian revolution. To this, Iran has turned a blind eye.
Even more worrying for the UK is that Iran has helped Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by giving President Vladimir Putin hundreds of suicide drones and now, according to reports, ballistic missiles. The IRGC is also essential to Iran’s work to get a nuclear weapon.
Also, more and more evidence is showing how much the IRGC is involved in the international drug trade.
Over the past few months, the UK has imposed more sanctions on the Iranian regime, especially on the IRGC. But it’s getting hard to explain why it’s taking so long to call the Guard Corps a terrorist group. Richard Dalton, who used to be the British ambassador to Tehran, thinks that the execution of Akbari may be a warning to the UK not to go through with plans to ban the IRGC. UK security services have done an outstanding job in preventing an IRGC-backed attack in the UK, but, as the accepted rubric goes, the group needs to be lucky only once.
Meanwhile, hardliners are intent on a confrontation with Britain over the issue. The editor of the Kayan, the closest newspaper to the IRCG, Hossein Shariatmadari, asked the government to get back at Britain by revealing the actual names of the British intelligence agents who supposedly worked with Alireza Akbari. Shariatmadari wrote: “it would be a terrible blow to the body of the British spy system and its foreign intelligence and espionage department, MI6”.
Britain and the Iranian regime, which the IRGC best represents, are now on the same side.
The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com