Analysis: Tehran executes British national as Labour calls for tougher action

Ayatollah Khamenei. Image Credit: Tasnim News, CC BY 4.0.

Labour came out in support of proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps this week, as the Iranian regime continues its attempts to crush protestors.

What happened

  • On Saturday, Iran announced that it had executed a dual Iranian-British national, Ali Reza Akbari, who had previously served a deputy defence minister, amid international outcry over his death sentence.
  • Iran’s Mizan news agency announced that Akbari had been hanged on Saturday, without indicating when his execution took place, amid rumours that he had been executed days previously.
  • Akbari was hanged after being convicted of “corruption on earth and harming the country’s internal and external security by passing on intelligence”, Mizan’s website said.
  • Tehran had accused Akbari of spying for MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency, in return for around $2 million, without providing evidence.
  • A highly edited video of Akbari discussing the allegations was also shared by state media, resembling what activists have described as a coerced confession.
  • The execution came amid the nineteenth week of protests in Iran, which began in mid-September.

A recap

  • Protests against the theocratic regime were initially sparked by the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who died at the hands of the “morality police” after allegedly not wearing her hijab properly.
  • Over 1,100 protests – the vast majority of them led by women – have so far taken place in 157 cities and 143 universities.
  • In an attempt to cover-up its violent response to the biggest protests against the regime since it came to power over 40 years ago, Tehran has shut down the internet in many parts of the country.
  • The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said the rising number of deaths at protests reflects a “hardening of the response by security forces” and underlined “the critical situation in the country”.

The government moves

In response to the execution, the UK government announced a further round of sanctions against senior regime figures, including prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who London claimed was “at the heart of Iran’s use of the death penalty”. Prime minister Rishi Sunak likewise described the execution as “a callous and cowardly act”. In response, Tehran summoned the British ambassador “in response to Britain’s unconventional interventions, including in the national security field”, a statement said. It accused the UK of “acts of sabotage” against Iran and asserted that “the continuation of such illegal and criminal actions cannot be tolerated in any way”.

Labour’s announcement

Following the execution and the government’s modest sanctions announcement, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, both longstanding LFI parliamentary supporters, released a statement backing calls for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to be formally proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

  • The move, an endorsement of a longstanding LFI campaign goal, represented a call for more “robust action” against Tehran in response to Akbari’s execution.
  • “The Iranian regime’s actions against courageous protestors seeking a better future, as well as British nationals imprisoned in Iran and its threats to UK security, mean robust action is needed now”, the statement read.
  • “Labour supports proscribing the IRGC either through the existing process” – which has been used to proscribe Hamas and Hezbollah after LFI campaigns in the past – “or through amending the National Security Bill”, it continued.
  • The move followed reporting in the media that the government is preparing to proscribe the IRGC, but which has yet to be substantiated or confirmed by the government itself.
  • LFI director Michael Rubin welcomed the news: “We strongly welcome this move by David Lammy and Yvette Cooper, a clear sign of just how far Labour has come since 2019. The IRGC is Tehran’s ideological terror army and LFI has long called for its proscription. For too many years the government has been too soft on the Iranian regime and they must now finally act.”

Westminster debates

Last week saw an extended debate on the treatment of protestors in Iran in Parliament, reflecting the feeling on the Labour benches of the need for the government to take action.

  • LFI vice-chair John Spellar twice repeated LFI’s longstanding policy ask of proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s ideological terror army, as a terrorist group. Spellar pointed to the example of the proscription of Hezbollah in 2019, where the government similarly dragged its feet in making and imposing a decision.
  • PLP chair John Cryer MP similarly expressed his frustration at the slow pace of progress towards IRGC proscription, asking ministers: “I can’t see exactly what’s stopping [you] from finally making that decision?”
  • LFI parliamentary supporter Fleur Anderson MP echoed the recommendations of LFI’s 2022 pamphlet, Iran: A Darkening Picture at Home and Abroad in calling for the IRGC to be proscribed, for the UK’s sanctions against Iranian human rights abusers to be expanded, including against those responsible for the 2019 crackdown against protestors, and to “speak the truth plainly when calling out Tehran’s malign behaviour including being bold enough to label the regime’s state hostage-taking policies for what they really are”.
  • Fleur’s calls were echoed by LFI parliamentary supporter and former international development secretary Hilary Benn MP, who drew attention to the regime’s “state policy” of “holding dual nationals hostage”, something the UK government has repeatedly failed to call out for what it is.
  • LFI parliamentary supporter Lilian Greenwood MP similarly spoke in the debate, calling for the government to “set out how [the UK] plans to hold the Iranian regime to account for its gross human rights violations” including joining the US in proscribing the IRGC, including tackling IRGC activity in the UK, and imposing further sanctions.
  • Aside from responding to the ongoing protests, LFI parliamentary supporter Christian Wakeford drew attention to the ongoing, and often neglected, threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In doing so, he pushed for “new, innovative ways to address” Tehran’s nuclear activity in collaboration with international allies, in the absence of a functioning JCPOA, which he declared “dead for three years”.
  • Finally, Wakeford also used the debate to highlight the Iranian regime’s record of sponsoring antisemitism and Holocaust denial, alongside its “very negative approach not just towards the State of Israel but Jewish people across the world”.

What happens next

Media speculation suggests that the UK government will finally announce its intention to proscribe the IRGC soon – though this has been awaited for some three weeks now since it was first reported. LFI and Labour will continue to push the government to take a firmer line against the Iranian regime, its human rights abuses and malign activities abroad.