British-Iranian man appears in heavily edited confession aired on Iranian TV
Alireza Akbari, the British-Iranian dual national sentenced to death for allegedly spying for MI6, gave his British handlers reports on Iran’s nuclear programme and efforts to evade western economic sanctions, according to an edited TV confession aired by news agencies close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
In the video, which was aired on Thursday and appeared to be heavily edited, Akbari was also asked about the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who was shot dead in in Tehran in 2020.
In the interview, Akbari said: “They wanted to know about high-ranking officials depending on the major developments … for example [a British agent] asked me whether Fakhrizadeh could be involved in such and such projects, and I said why not.”
Iran has a history of airing enforced confessions in high-profile cases, and the video, alongside lists of Akbari’s alleged crimes posted on social media, looked like an attempt to create a public mood ahead of his planned execution.
It was alleged he had three different M16 handlers over five years, but his friends said the people were in reality an estate agent, an immigration lawyer and an education admissions adviser.
News of Akbari’s sentencing was released by Iranian officials on Wednesday even though he was arrested more than three years ago and found guilty of espionage last summer. He had been taken to solitary confinement in Rajaei Shahr prison in Karaj, north-west of Tehran.
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, on Wednesday demanded his release while the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns, on Thursday said the British ambassador to Tehran should be withdrawn if Akbari is killed.
She said that if the UK diplomatic mission “can have no meaningful effect, remaining there sends the message that we support a continued relationship with the Iranian regime, and we have to question whether we wish to send that message”. She also called for the expulsion of the Iranian chargé d’affaires, if the execution is carried out.
Kearns was speaking in a debate on Iran in the Commons in which overwhelming cross-party support was voiced for Britain to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.
The UK government, in parallel with the EU, has been examining the legal and diplomatic implications of such a move for months, and is reported to believe there is enough evidence of IRGC terrorism to justify the move.
The Europe minister, Leo Docherty, told the Commons he had no update about Akbari’s fate, but repeated the calls for his release.
It is understood senior Iranian government officials have urged the family, spread between Britain, Canada and Iran, not to speak publicly, taken as a sign that there is still hope of a last-minute reprieve. Some Iranian news outlets claimed on Thursday that Akbari had been executed, but there was no official confirmation of this.
During the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, Akbari was the adviser and deputy minister of defense to Ali Shamkhani, who is now the secretary of the supreme national security council. There has been speculation that revelations about Akbari’s “treason” are designed to weaken Shamkhani amid a power struggle about Iranian foreign policy.
Akbari has largely been an advocate for engagement with the west, a position now largely rejected by the current president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Akbari’s friends say he only confessed to helping MI6 after more than 3,000 hours of interrogation, the injection of psychedelic drugs and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.
The main challenge to Iranians’ claims that Akbari was a valuable British spy is that he left government service about the 2015 election of the then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fierce conservative nationalist with whom he disagreed.
He continued to act as a widely published commentator on issues such as the nuclear talks, and the need for Europe to take a different approach to the nuclear deal to that of Donald Trump, but these views were published in the Iranian press and hardly represent a state secret.