Ali Reza Akbari spy case ‘linked to Khamenei-IRGC power struggle’

IRGC-affiliated outlets highlight his ties to Khamenei-appointed official

British-Iranian citizen Ali Reza Akbari. AFP
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British-Iranian citizen Ali Reza Akbari was arrested in 2019, but the death sentence announced this week and reports of his imminent execution may be the result of internal conflicts and score-settling between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the supreme leader, analysts say.

The UK government has appealed for a stay of execution and his safe release after Iran this week sentenced Mr Akbari to death and broadcast what media described as a forced confession from him saying that British intelligence asked him for information on a top nuclear scientist who was later assassinated.

Mr Akbari previously served as Iran's deputy defence minister and an aide to supreme leader Ali Khamenei-appointed Supreme National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani.

The move to sentence Mr Akbari this week is an attempt to diminish Mr Khamenei's influence, the head of Iran Studies at the Emirates Policy Centre (EPC), Mohamad Al Zghool, told The National.

The video released by state media site Irna, showing Mr Akbari's supposed confession, shows him in photos sitting next to Mr Shamkhani, whose face is blurred.

"This is a shot at Shamkhani as Akbari is pictured in the Irna documentary with Shamkhani, although Shamkhani is blurred out of photos," Jason Brodsky, policy director of the United Against Nuclear Iran (Uani) advocacy group said in a tweet.

Irna and other state media outlets, such as Fars, have "adopted the same [anti-Shamkhani] narrative", Mr Zghool said.

Shortly after news of Mr Akbari's death sentence and the circulation of his ties to Mr Shamkhani, an IRGC-affiliated Telegram channel said Mr Shamkhani would be leaving his post as head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

SNSC affiliate Nour News released a statement denying the reports.

Iran International, Persian language news channel based in London, said it obtained documents from a "source close to the IRGC" showing that Mr Akbari's death sentence was designed to "weaken Shamkhani's position in the clerical regime".

Iran is not run by a single individual but by a coalition from the IRGC and the supreme leader's organisations, Mr Zaghool said.

"These two factions are often vying to expand their domination and authority," he said.

Mr Zghool said the reason for the IRGC response was the supreme leader's decision to remove Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC's intelligence service, in June last year.

"Another is that Khamenei put Shamkhani in charge of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia via Iraq," Mr Zghool added.

In 2021, AFP news agency reported that Mr Shamkhani led the Iranian delegation that met Saudi officials in Iraq to discuss a potential rapprochement.

Several Iranian media outlets have reported that Mr Akbari has already been executed, but his family insists that he is still alive.

Efforts to release him are still being made by the British government.

Updated: January 14, 2023, 10:34 AM