In April 2008, a senior British intelligence official flew to Tel Aviv to ship an explosive revelation to his Israeli counterparts: Britain had a mole in Iran with high-level entry to the nation’s nuclear and protection secrets and techniques.
The spy had offered invaluable info — and would proceed to take action for years — intelligence that will show important in eliminating any doubt in Western capitals that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons and in persuading the world to impose sweeping sanctions in opposition to Tehran, in keeping with intelligence officers.
The identification of that spy has lengthy been secret. However on Jan. 11, the execution in Iran of a former deputy protection minister named Alireza Akbari on espionage prices delivered to gentle one thing that had been hidden for 15 years: Mr. Akbari was the British mole.
Mr. Akbari had lengthy lived a double life. To the general public, he was a non secular zealot and political hawk, a senior navy commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a deputy protection minister who later moved to London and went into the non-public sector however by no means misplaced the belief of Iran’s leaders. However in 2004, in keeping with the officers, he started sharing Iran’s nuclear secrets and techniques with British intelligence.
He appeared to get away with it till 2019, when Iran found with the help of Russian intelligence officers that he had revealed the existence of a clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons program deep within the mountains close to Tehran, in keeping with two Iranian sources with hyperlinks to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Along with accusing Mr. Akbari of showing its nuclear and navy secrets and techniques, Iran has additionally stated he disclosed the identification and actions of over 100 officers, most importantly Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief nuclear scientist whom Israel assassinated in 2020.
Britain has by no means publicly acknowledged that Mr. Akbari, who turned a British citizen in 2012, was its spy. “It’s our longstanding coverage to not touch upon issues regarding intelligence,” stated William Archer, the spokesman on Iran for the British International Workplace.
The New York Occasions reported in September 2019 that the supply of the intelligence on the nuclear web site, known as Fordo, was a British spy. The intelligence on Fordo that Mr. Akbari offered was one of many revelations that the British intelligence official handed on to Israeli counterparts and different pleasant companies in 2008, in keeping with three Western intelligence and nationwide safety officers.
The State Division and the Nationwide Safety Council stated they might not touch upon questions on Mr. Akbari.
The next account of Mr. Akbari’s actions is predicated on interviews with American, British, Israeli, German and Iranian present and former intelligence and nationwide safety officers and senior diplomats. Some requested anonymity as a result of they weren’t approved to talk on the file.
A Fast Rise in Iran
Mr. Akbari, who was 62 when he was executed, was an unlikely spy. He displayed a fanatical allegiance to the beliefs of the Islamic Republic and unwavering help for its leaders, in keeping with interviews together with his brother Mehdi Akbari and individuals who knew him.
His most distinct bodily characteristic was a dent on his brow — an indication of his devotion to the Shia religion of Islam that got here from urgent his brow to the mohr, a clay stone utilized in every day prayers. He held extremist political opinions, expressed in fiery writings, speeches and interviews and, in keeping with a senior Iranian diplomat and an adviser to the federal government, in official conferences, he argued that Iran ought to purchase a nuclear weapon.
“My brother was deeply spiritual and really revolutionary, extra so than anybody in our household,” stated Mehdi Akbari.
Mr. Akbari, who was born right into a conservative middle-class household within the metropolis of Shiraz, was a teen when the Iranian revolution in 1979 toppled the monarchy and struggle with Iraq adopted, his brother stated. Infected with revolutionary ardour, he and an older brother enlisted as troopers, and by the point he left the entrance traces nearly six years later, he was a embellished commander of the Revolutionary Guards.
Returning to civilian life, Mr. Akbari ascended the ranks, rising to deputy protection minister and holding advisory positions on the Supreme Nationwide Safety Council and different authorities our bodies. He solid shut relationships with two highly effective males: Mr. Fakhrizadeh, the nuclear scientist, and Ali Shamkhani, the top of the council, whom he served as a deputy and an adviser.
“He was extraordinarily formidable, a wonderful analyst with superior writing and talking expertise and other people trusted him,” stated Foad Izadi, a coverage analyst in Iran who’s near the federal government and the Revolutionary Guards. “He had entry to numerous delicate, secretive info on nuclear and navy applications.”
In 2004, amid rising suspicions in Israel and the West that Iran was secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Mr. Akbari was answerable for convincing key embassies in Tehran that it was not, assembly commonly with the ambassadors of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
A Story of Recruitment and Spying
In eight brief movies aired by state tv after his execution, Mr. Akbari, wearing fits, clear shaven and sitting in an workplace, detailed his spying actions and his recruitment by Britain at a operate on the British Embassy in Tehran. However later, in an audio message broadcast by BBC Persian — it had been obtained via his household, in keeping with Mr. Akbari’s brother — Mr. Akbari stated the confessions had been coerced.
The motivation for Mr. Akbari’s actions stay unclear. He stated within the video that he was pushed by “greed and energy,” although additionally denied having monetary issues. Iran says Mr. Akbari betrayed the nation and traded state secrets and techniques for cash. His household denies he was a spy and says that many assertions within the movies had been fabricated by the Iranian authorities. However, they are saying, most of the dates and occasions within the movies had been right.
Within the movies, Mr. Akbari stated he was recruited in 2004 and instructed he and his household can be given visas for Britain. The subsequent yr, he traveled to Britain and met with an MI6 handler, he stated. Over the following few years, Mr. Akbari stated he created entrance corporations in Austria, Spain and Britain to offer cowl for conferences together with his handlers. Iran has stated that MI6 paid Mr. Akbari practically 2 million kilos, presently about $2.4 million.
Mr. Akbari met with the British ambassador in Tehran as a part of his official job, and traveled to Europe usually for enterprise, Mehdi Akbari stated. He stated that his brother, like many Iranian officers, had began branching out into varied companies whereas he was employed by the federal government, and that he was financially safe.
Mehdi Akbari described a scene wherein the brothers sat in a Tehran backyard one summer time afternoon in 2006 chatting about work. When he urged that they begin an oil and fuel consultancy enterprise, his brother declined, confirmed him a enterprise card that stated he was a board member of an vitality firm in Austria and stated he “was extraordinarily tied up” with this new enterprise.
Mr. Akbari retired from his official posts in 2008, his brother stated, however continued to function an adviser to Mr. Shamkhani and different senior officers.
Later that yr, Mr. Akbari was arrested and held for 4 months on accusations that he was spying for Britain, in keeping with his brother and two household mates. The interrogations didn’t yield a confession, and plenty of of Mr. Akbari’s highly effective mates vouched for him, they stated. He was launched on bail, his brother stated. The case was closed and he was allowed to journey freely.
In April 2008, Britain obtained and shared with Israel and Western companies the intelligence about Fordo, a uranium enrichment facility deep inside an underground navy complicated, that was a part of Iran’s efforts to construct a nuclear bomb. Fordo’s discovery modified the world’s understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and redrew the West’s navy and cyber plans for countering it.
“The details about Fordo shocked us,” Yoni Koren, who was the chief of workers for Israel’s protection minister on the time, stated in an interview in 2019. (Mr. Koren died in January.)
“The nice contribution of the British to the mixed Western efforts to collect information from contained in the Iranian nuclear venture was all the time in human intelligence,” he stated. “That they had a foot on the bottom in locations the place neither we nor the Individuals had a presence.”
The intelligence Britain shared with Israel in 2008 was quickly handed on to Western intelligence companies, in keeping with an individual who held a senior place in German intelligence on the time. In September 2009, at a Group of seven summit in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama, together with the leaders of Britain and France, revealed that Fordo was a nuclear enrichment plant.
Western intelligence companies had lengthy been conscious via satellite tv for pc imagery that Iran was constructing a facility deep contained in the mountains at Fordo. However that they had thought the location was a navy storage facility and had been unaware of its transformation right into a secret nuclear enrichment web site.
“The invention of Fordo radically altered the perspective of the worldwide neighborhood towards Iran,” stated Norman Roule, the previous nationwide intelligence supervisor for Iran on the C.I.A. He added that it helped persuade China and Russia that Iran had not been clear about its nuclear program and drove the push for extra sanctions.
Even after his temporary arrest and retirement from official jobs, International Ministry officers continued to hunt recommendation from Mr. Akbari, and knowledgeable him about closed-door conferences about insurance policies and nuclear negotiations, in keeping with a senior Iranian diplomat.
Mr. Akbari additionally was touring commonly to London. In 2010, he had a coronary heart assault there, his brother stated, and stayed. He was quickly joined by his spouse and two daughters, and finally obtained British citizenship, dwelling off an funding portfolio and touring to Iran to take care of contacts with senior officers. Within the movies, Mr. Akbari stated he faked the guts assault in an effort to keep in Britain.
Nonetheless, he traveled backwards and forwards from London to Tehran not less than 3 times from 2010 to 2019 and stayed at a household house he had saved in Tehran, his brother stated.
A Remaining Return to Iran
In 2019, Mr. Akbari flew to Iran for a last time after Mr. Shamkhani, the Supreme Nationwide Safety Council head, instructed him the nation wanted him on an pressing nuclear and protection matter, his brother stated.
Just a few days after his return to Tehran, he was summoned to the Intelligence Ministry. Nervous, he known as Mr. Shamkhani, who instructed him that the authorities had heard he was involved with MI6 and urged him to cooperate to show his innocence, his brother stated. After a number of interrogations, he was arrested.
Sooner or later, Iran found that Mr. Akbari was the supply of the Fordo leak, in keeping with the two Iranians with connections to the Revolutionary Guards, info that was confirmed by Russian intelligence. It’s unclear how Russia, a detailed ally of Iran, found the knowledge.
In 2020, a yr after Mr. Akbari’s arrest, Israel assassinated Mr. Fakhrizadeh, the nuclear scientist, with a remote-controlled robotic as he was driving to his weekend house in a mountain village close to Tehran.
Mr. Akbari was detained by the Intelligence Ministry and held in solitary confinement for months in an underground detention after which in Tehran’s infamous Evin jail, his brother stated. The household was instructed to maintain the arrest beneath wraps. Iranian officers stated on state media after his execution that that they had him commonly log in to a pc offered by the British and talk together with his handlers to mislead them.
In January, somewhat over three years after Mr. Akbari’s arrest, as Iran was reeling from months of anti-government protests, a crackdown by the authorities and a brand new spherical of worldwide sanctions, the Iranian authorities introduced that he was a spy.
Execution of senior officers is extraordinarily uncommon in Iran. The final time a senior technocrat was executed was in 1982. However simply days after Mr. Akbari’s arrest turned public, jail guards escorted him at dawn to a walled out of doors area, in keeping with Iranian sources and diplomats. A rope was positioned round his neck and, inside minutes, his lifeless physique was dangling from a gallows.
Mr. Akbari was buried in an enormous cemetery within the outskirts of Tehran with out his family’ data or presence. His household stated the authorities solely confirmed them a video of his physique being washed and ready in keeping with Islamic rituals.
“We might have by no means imagined this, and I don’t perceive the politics behind it,” stated Mr. Akbari’s spouse, Maryam Samadi.
Britain condemned Tehran for executing Mr. Akbari, briefly recalled its ambassador and imposed new sanctions on Iran.
Mr. Akbari’s household was allowed to carry a memorial service in Tehran 40 days after his demise. They rented a corridor in a mosque, organized white flower baskets and served trays of halvah, the normal candy served at funerals. They sat on chairs that lined the partitions, able to greet a procession of his mates, colleagues and associates from his varied roles serving the Islamic Republic for 40 years.
However no person got here, they stated. Solely his household attended.
Farnaz Fassihi reported from New York, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Mark Landler contributed reporting from London.
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