Russian intelligence reportedly helped Iran discover that a dual Iranian-British national who once served as its deputy minister of defense was leaking information about its top-secret nuclear weapons program.
In January, Tehran hanged Ali Reza Akbari over accusations of espionage, an execution that was harshly denounced by the UK and other Western nations.
According to an in-depth New York Times report released on Monday, Akbari was indeed a spy and began leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the British in 2004 — keeping his activities hidden for 15 years.
The report said that in 2008, a senior British intelligence officer told Israeli security officials during a meeting in Tel Aviv that the UK was working with an Iranian spy who had significant information about Tehran’s nuclear activities.
Citing “three Western intelligence and national security officials,” the newspaper reported that the UK passed on information from Akbari to Israel about Iran’s nuclear activities at the Fordo site and their ties to the country’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons — information not previously known to Western intelligence officials.
Iran has long denied pursuing a nuclear weapon and says its program is for civilian research purposes, but Western officials believe the country was actively pursuing weapons production until at least the early 2000s.
In 2019, the NY Times report claims, Iran was aided by “Russian intelligence officials” in pinpointing Akbari as the source of the leak about activities at Fordo. The newspaper wrote that it was not clear how Russia had been able to discover this.
Akbari also reportedly turned over the names of around 100 senior Iranian officials to British authorities, including that of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed in November 2020 in an attack that Tehran blames on Israel.
Akbari, who ran a private think tank, had not been seen in public since 2019, when he was apparently arrested.
He was executed in January after being sentenced to death for “corruption on earth and harming the country’s internal and external security by passing on intelligence,” the website of Iran’s judiciary reported.
Iranian state media reported that the 61-year-old Akbari had held high positions in the country’s defense establishment. His posts included deputy minister of defense for foreign affairs and a position in the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council. Akbari had also been an adviser to the commander of the navy, as well as heading a division at the defense ministry’s research center.
In videos released by state media following his execution — which Iran touted as a confession and his family said was forced — Akbari said he was recruited by British intelligence in 2004 with the promise of visas for him and his family.
Authorities did not release any details about his trial. Those accused of espionage and other crimes related to national security are usually tried behind closed doors where rights groups say they do not choose their own lawyers and are not allowed to see evidence against them.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said at the time that he was “appalled” by the execution.
“This was a callous and cowardly act carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people,” Sunak said in a statement.