Britain And The IRGC – OpEd


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, accused of spying for Britain, but was released on bail.  He moved to Europe and settled in England where, according to his brother Mehdi, he obtained British nationality in recognition of his substantial investments and job creation in the UK.  He thus became a British-Iranian dual national – a status recognized in the UK but not in Iran. 

Travelling back to Iran in 2019, he was arrested on a charge of spying for Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6.  

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”, and.  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 no doubt 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.

On January 11 the UK’s Middle East minister, Lord Tariq Ahmad, chanced to be 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 very next day, January 12, British parliamentarians voted unanimously in favour of a motion urging the UK government to proscribe Iran’s IRGC.  During the debate MP Bob Blackman said that 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.

Given the UK’s clear intention to act against the IRGC, the organization has stepped up its anti-British activities.  Its illogical response to the mass anti-government protests in the fall over the death of Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab “improperly” was to arrest seven people with links to the UK. 

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 at least 66 foreign and dual nationals have been imprisoned by Iran since 2010 – 15 with links to the UK. Those detained, in addition to the ill-fated Akbari, included the British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, who were released 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, 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 with consequently enormous military, political and economic power.  It uses its vast funds to support extremist governments and militant groups across the region. These include  its satellites – Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The former is a Shia organization in thrall to Iran’s Supreme Leader, but the latter is an off-shoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.  To this Iran has turned a blind eye. Overriding all other considerations is that both are dedicated to overthrowing Israel, a prime objective of the Iranian revolution. 

Of even greater concern to the UK is that Iran has supported Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by supplying President Vladimir Putin with hundreds of suicide drones and now, reportedly, with ballistic missiles. The IRGC is also a key player in Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear capability.  Alongside this, evidence is mounting about the extent of IRGC involvement in the international drugs trade.

Over the past few months the UK has subjected the Iranian regime in general, and the IRGC in particular, to an escalating set of sanctions, but the delay in designating the Guard Corps a terrorist organization is becoming increasingly indefensible. 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. The former British ambassador to Tehran, Richard Dalton, has suggested Akbari’s execution may be a warning to the UK not to go ahead with plans to proscribe the IRGC.

Meanwhile it seems that hardliners are intent on a confrontation with Britain over the issue. Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the Kayan, the newspaper closest to the IRCG, urged the government to exact revenge on Britain by revealing the true 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, as represented by its foremost protagonist the IRGC, now stand eyeball to eyeball.  

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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