Foreign Secretary James Cleverly makes a statement to the House of Commons and answers questions on the execution in Iran of Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the execution of a British national in Iran.
On Saturday morning, Iran’s regime announced that it had executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national. I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with his wife and two daughters at the time of their loss. They have shared his ordeal—an ordeal that began just over three years ago when he was lured back to Iran. He was detained and then subjected to the notorious and arbitrary legal process of the regime. Before his death, Mr Akbari described what was done to him and how torture had been used. Let there be no doubt: he fell victim to the political vendettas of a vicious regime. His execution was the cowardly and shameful act of a leadership that thinks nothing of using the death penalty as a political tool to silence dissent and settle internal scores.
In February last year, Mr Akbari’s family asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for our support, and we have worked closely with them ever since. I want to pay tribute to them for their courage and fortitude throughout this terrible period. In line with their wishes, the Minister of State, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, lobbied Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK as soon as we learned that Mr Akbari’s execution was imminent. We maintained the pressure right up until the point of his execution, but, sadly, to no avail.
When we heard the tragic news on Saturday morning, we acted immediately to demonstrate our revulsion. I ordered the summoning of Iran’s chargé d’affaires to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make clear our strength of feeling. Our ambassador in Tehran delivered the same message to a senior Foreign Ministry official. Ten other countries have publicly condemned the execution, including France, Germany and the United States, and the European Union has done the same. I am grateful for their support at this time.
We then imposed sanctions on Iran’s Prosecutor General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who bears heavy responsibility for the use of the death penalty for political ends. His designation is the latest of more than 40 sanctions imposed by the UK on the Iranian regime since October, including on six individuals linked to the revolutionary courts, which have passed egregious sentences against protesters, including the death penalty. In addition, I have temporarily recalled from Tehran His Majesty’s ambassador, Simon Shercliff, for consultations, and we met and discussed this earlier today. Now we shall consider what further steps we take alongside our allies to counter the escalating threat from Iran. We do not limit ourselves to the steps that I have already announced.
Mr Akbari’s execution follows decades of pitiless repression by a ruthless regime. Britain stands with the brave and dignified people of Iran as they demand their rights and freedoms. Just how much courage that takes is shown by the appalling fact that more than 500 people have been killed and 18,000 arrested during the recent wave of protests. Instead of listening to the calls for change from within Iran, the regime has resorted to its usual tactic of blaming outsiders and lashing out against its supposed enemies, including by detaining a growing number of foreign nationals for political gain. Today, many European nationals are being held in Iranian prisons on spurious charges, including British dual nationals, and I pay tribute to our staff—both in Tehran and here in the UK—who continue to work tirelessly on their behalf.
Beyond its borders, the regime has supplied Russia with hundreds of armed drones used to kill civilians in Ukraine. Across the middle east, Iran continues to inflict bloodshed and destruction by supporting extremist militias. And all the while, the steady expansion of the Iranian nuclear programme is threatening international peace and security and the entire system of global non-proliferation. In the last three months alone, Britain has imposed five separate packages of sanctions on Iran, and today we enforce designations against more than 300 Iranian individuals and entities. We have condemned the regime in every possible international forum, securing Iran’s removal from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and, alongside our partners, creating a new UN mechanism to investigate the regime’s human rights violations during the recent protests.
The House should be in no doubt that we are witnessing the vengeful actions of a weakened and isolated regime obsessed with suppressing its own people, debilitated by its fear of losing power, and wrecking its international reputation. Our message to that regime is clear: the world is watching you and you will be held to account, particularly by the brave Iranian people, so many of whom you are oppressing and killing. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Minister.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I am responding on behalf of the Opposition as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is on a visit to Northern Ireland and so is unable to be here.
The execution of Alireza Akbari is the most horrendous human rights abuse—a barbaric act of politically motivated murder at the hands of the Iranian regime. The whole House’s condolences and solidarity are with his family at this time of unimaginable grief.
That the Iranian regime chose to take Mr Akbari’s life to make a political point to the British Government is a disgrace. The death penalty should never be used for any crime, but we must call these executions in Iran what they are: a gross attempt to silence a protest movement by striking fear into the hearts of ordinary Iranian people. In Mr Akbari’s case, his execution is a direct message to the British Government. Such executions are, in the words of Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state-sanctioned killings.
Mr Akbari returned to Iran after a successful career in business in the UK to advise the Government on the nuclear deal between the west and Iran. He wanted to see a successful deal to end the western sanctions on the country.
We have discussed many times in this House the importance of a strong response to this brutal regime. The Government must now proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, either through the existing process or by amending the National Security Bill to create a new process of proscription for hostile state actors. The playbook of the regime is to use brutality and violence for its own political ends and its own survival. In his most recent threat update, MI5 director Ken McCallum referred to 10 kidnap and death plots by the Iranian regime on British soil. When an organisation threatens the lives of British journalists and British Iranian activists in the UK, that organisation is a terrorist organisation.
When will the Foreign Secretary proscribe this heinous organisation, and what action will he take to protect the lives of British Iranians in the UK and in Iran? I heard what he said about the condemnation internationally, but what further conversations has he had with international partners to ensure a co-ordinated response to condemn and curtail the regime’s appalling attack on the lives and human rights of its own people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the solidarity that the whole House sends to the family of Mr Akbari. He will know that the future proscription or sanctions designation of individuals or entities is not something that we speculate about or discuss at the Dispatch Box. However, he should know that we share the revulsion that he expressed.
As I said, we do not limit ourselves to the actions that we have already announced. I have spoken with His Majesty’s ambassador to Tehran and I will of course be speaking with other parts of Government about what further action we can take in response to the vile behaviour of the regime. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we speak regularly with our international friends on our collective response to Iran, both in the region and beyond, and we will continue to do so.
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The thoughts of the entire Committee are with Mr Akbari’s family.
From hostage taking to terrorist plots, assassinations, nuclear extortion and destabilisation of the middle east and Europe, Iran is a terrorist state and it has weaponised human life. This is the first murder of a dual national since the 1980s. It is a clear escalation.
I make four asks. First, the House is clear that we need to proscribe the IRGC. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that he recognises that that is a policy decision, not a legal one? Secondly, we need to close down the IRGC’s operating centres within the UK, such as the one in Maida Vale. These are centres for spreading hostile influence within the UK. Can the Secretary of State also confirm that he will consider reactive sanctions to help the ordinary Iranians for whom no one else will stand up? After every state murder, we should impose sanctions to show we will give their voice some support. Finally, can he reassure me that he is confident of the safety of our staff in Tehran? I remember the stories of my colleagues who were under siege by the Iranian state in the past, and I am gravely concerned about their safety at this time.
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee raises incredibly important points. She knows the long-standing convention about speculating about sanctions and proscriptions, but I absolutely take the points that she has made about ensuring that the response we take here in the UK and, indeed, in conjunction with our international partners sends an incredibly clear message to the regime that these actions are unacceptable and will be responded to each and every time they take place. With regard to the actions that we take domestically here in the UK, I can assure her that we work closely with our Home Office colleagues on our collective response, and I agree with her that the safety of our team in Tehran is incredibly important. I pay tribute to them for the work that they do in incredibly challenging circumstances, and I also pay tribute to the demonstrations of international solidarity that we regularly receive from other platforms in Tehran.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
May I also thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement? The SNP utterly condemns the execution of Alireza Akbari in the strongest possible terms, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family. Once again, this execution highlights the serious injustice and failings of the Iranian judicial system. The Foreign Secretary’s decision to sanction Iran’s prosecutor is welcome, but as we have been calling for many times, I urge the Foreign Secretary again to go further and to take forward the formal proscription of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. I ask him again: will he commit to that?
We remain deeply concerned about the safety of other arbitrarily detained UK-Iranian nationals. Morad Tahbaz has been held for five years. Mehran Raoof has been held since 2020. Their families just want to see them come home safely. What are the Government doing to make that a reality? Does the Secretary of State know just how many dual UK-Iranian nationals are detained in Iran, and can he tell us that number?
The Foreign Office cannot make the same mistakes it has made in the past with other dual nationals, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other UK-Iranian nationals detained and, as we have heard, sometimes tortured. This shameful execution should serve as an urgent wake-up call. These people and their families deserve better. What lessons have this Government learned, and what are they going to do differently in future to support these people?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we work tirelessly to support the release of British dual nationals held in detention in Iran. Our consular team supports their families. The work that we, our ambassador and his team do in Tehran is incredibly important. Their presence is to ensure that British dual nationals, whether they have been in incarceration or not, are supported, and we will continue to work with our international friends and allies to secure the release of those individuals. In regard to proscription, he raises an important point. He will have heard the answers I have given to other colleagues—we do not limit ourselves to the responses we have already announced.
It is a terrible day when we see the execution of a British subject. Some broadcast media have said that the decision by the Iranian regime to execute this individual came as a response to the repeated calls for proscription of the IRGC in a debate last week. Contrary to that, broadcast media not only showed an interview with his family, but also broadcast his comments about his torture by this vile regime. Does that show the Secretary of State, as it does me, the power of the media broadcast, but will he also ensure that the funding of BBC Persian radio will continue to ensure that the people of Iran can hear the truth and one day oversee the downfall of this vile regime?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point about our ability to project our values into Iran. The fact that millions of Iranians are protesting against their own Government shows that many people in Iran share our values and are deeply opposed to the regime that oppresses them. I have spoken to BBC senior leadership about the funding of our foreign language BBC World Service broadcasts, including the Persian broadcast. I assure him that whether through the BBC World Service or the work of our embassy by the ambassador and his team, we will continue to project our values into Iran and hopefully reinforce, and indeed show solidarity with, those brave Iranians protesting against their own regime.
Mr Akbari was my constituent and I offer my sympathies to his family here and abroad. I have represented their interests for the past year and I have had extensive contact with them over the past few difficult days. Their strength and courage have been extraordinary in the face of the brutality and cruelty of the Iranian regime.
Earlier today, I spoke to Mr Akbari’s daughter in the UK and she asked me to raise a further distressing matter with the Foreign Secretary. The regime refuses to release Mr Akbari’s body or to allow burial in the place chosen by him, and has made threats to destroy his body unless the family co-operate with its instructions. The cemetery where the family were told he should be buried informed them that burial had already taken place last week, which casts doubt on the time of his execution. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me and the family in the UK and do what the Government can to ensure that in death, if not in life, Mr Akbari is treated with dignity and respect?
The points that the hon. Gentleman just raised fill us all, I am sure, with revulsion; we will continue to support the family in whatever way we can. He is absolutely right to call on the regime to treat Mr Akbari in death with the deference and respect that is legitimate. I will follow up on his points with our ambassador and communicate our incredible discomfort with those points, and as I say, we will continue to support the family in whatever way we can.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke eloquently about the brutal hostility that the regime in Tehran is visiting on not only on its own citizens, but Ukraine through its support for Russia, on neighbouring countries in the middle east, and, of course, on a UK passport holder through his execution. Does that not now mean that we should proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and review the UK’s involvement in the Iran nuclear agreement?
My hon. Friend raises incredibly important points. We will continue to work with our friends and allies to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. With regard to our further action, we do not limit ourselves to the announcements that we have just made. Part of the reason why I have temporarily recalled His Majesty’s ambassador to Tehran is so that we can discuss cross-Government what our further response might be.
Mr Akbari’s judicial murder is particularly poignant for us because he was a dual national, but all the murders that have been committed by the Iranian Government over the last few days and weeks prove that they give a new meaning to the term “criminal justice system”—more criminal than justice. I worry, however, that the Secretary of State is always reluctant to talk about further sanctions. Government Ministers invented the rule that they are not allowed to talk about them at the Dispatch Box because it is a bit inconvenient for them, but is it not time that we had a proper parliamentary process for determining some sanctions? Frankly, if it was up to the Foreign Affairs Committee, or I suspect the House, we would have taken action six months ago and we would not still be hanging around.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion on this. I know that he takes a personal interest in the use of sanctions, and we have discussed this in my appearances before the Select Committee, but I think it is important that we maintain a clear distinction between the Executive functions and the scrutiny functions. Although I understand that there is a huge amount of embedded experience in the House, I think that the job of the Government is to govern and the job of this House is to scrutinise the Government, which is why that division of labour is important.
The execution of Alireza Akbari was a hideous act. It is clear that the Iranian regime will stop at nothing in its desire to repress its people, whether that is through the arrest, torture or, indeed, murder of innocent citizens, many of whom are women. Many colleagues across the House have called for the IRGC to be proscribed, and I would like to add my name to that list. I would also urge the Foreign Secretary to continue working with our allies to try to get a global consensus on the issue.
My right hon. Friend highlights something that we should all consider, which is that the actions of the Iranian regime are a display of weakness, not strength. The regime lives in fear of the voices of the Iranian people, which is why it is responding so brutally. My advice to the regime—it will not take it, I have no doubt—is to listen to its own people, and to stop blaming external actors for actions stimulated by its oppression of its people. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will continue to work closely with our international friends and allies, so many of whom have expressed solidarity over the weekend in response to Mr Akbari’s execution.
The execution of Alireza Akbari is horrendous. If we ever wanted proof that we are dealing with barbarians, it is this and what has happened over the last few months.
While the Foreign Secretary is considering proscription and the harshest possible sanctions—I would like to add the voices of the Liberal Democrats to that and offer our support—I urge him to consider another move. We have learned from the war in Ukraine that going after individuals and the spoils of their human rights abuses is also a very effective way of sanctioning. What consideration have the Government given to auditing the assets of those we have sanctioned, particularly the assets of family members who may be resident in the UK, and can he assure the House that not a single penny of their spoils is sloshing around the British economy?
We will of course always examine ways of ensuring that our sanctions are most effective and have the deterrent effect as well as the punitive effect that they are designed to have. I can assure the hon. Lady that, as I have said, we will continue working internationally with our friends and allies who share our revulsion at the actions of the Iranian regime. She describes the regime as barbarian, and one of the great ironies is that Iran has a long history—a multi-millennial history—of sophistication and thoughtfulness. That history and reputation is being destroyed on a daily basis by the people currently holding the levers of power in Tehran, and I think that is a massive shame for the Iranian people more broadly.
I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and to express my sympathy to Mr Akbari’s family, who are going through such a terrible time. We should remember that Iran carries out the second highest number of executions anywhere in the world—second only to China—so this is not something isolated, but something the regime implements. I recommend that my right hon. Friend reads the Hansard report of the debate we had last Thursday, when more than 30 Members from across the House contributed excellent examples of what is happening in Iran. He can negotiate with our allies to impose sanctions against Iran totally, which will isolate the regime, and he can also talk to the Home Secretary about proscribing the IRGC, which is the settled view of this House. He has the support of the House on all sides and from all parties, which is surely enough to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety and to sequestrate its assets once and for all.
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the strong and clear stance that the House has taken in response to the brutality meted out by the Iranian regime. I assure him and the House that we will continue to work cross-Department, and internationally, on the most effective ways of curtailing Iran’s malign activity, both within Iran, in the region and globally.
I send my sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of Mr Akbari. The use of the death penalty is appalling under all circumstances, as are the practices of torture and prolonged solitary confinement, all of which Mr Akbari was subjected to while being held by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty has called for the UK Government to work with international bodies to fully investigate Mr Akbari’s allegations of torture and all other ill treatment, and to pursue the criminal investigation of officials reasonably suspected of involvement in crimes under international law. Will the Foreign Secretary today agree to take up those calls for justice?
I assure the hon. Lady that we will not rest until this regime is held to account for the brutality and atrocities that it has meted out to its own people, and we will do so in close co-operation with our friends in the international community.
Southampton has a significant Anglo-Iranian community, many of whom have made the point to me that this is a regime that can maintain its position only through terror and torture. But they are scared. They are scared for their family members, for women, for dual nationals and for students. They want the proscription of the IRGC, and they want me to leave my right hon. Friend in no doubt that Anglo-Iranians in this country wish to see our Government do more.
I assure my right hon. Friend that we will continue working cross-Department and across Whitehall to ensure that those Iranians who have chosen to make the UK their home, and Anglo-Iranians who live in the UK, feel safe. The first duty of Government is to protect the people within these shores, and I assure her that we take that responsibility incredibly seriously.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he has said about the brutal murder of Mr Akbari. The sad truth, however, is that the Iranian regime does such things because it can. There are voices that have called for the joint comprehensive plan of action process to be abandoned, and I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell the House what his current view is. I caution him, however, because in absence of that process, what other means would we have of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which, given its current behaviour, is surely unthinkable?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. We hear calls from Tehran for us to lift sanctions, and we remind them that the sanctions are imposed because of their behaviour, be that human rights violations, brutality against their own people, support for militias in the region, or attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. We will continue to work closely with our international partners in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Negotiations on the JCPOA have not progressed, and the ball is very much in the court of the Iranians. I say strongly to them that the world will continue to work in concert and solidarity to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and if they wish sanctions to be lifted, the regime has to fundamentally change its behaviour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) was right to draw attention to the power of the media in exposing what is going on in Iran, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware of the continuing threats against journalists working for Iran International, whose headquarters in Chiswick is under permanent armed police guard. Will he make it clear to the Iranian regime that threats of that kind on British soil are utterly unacceptable? Will he consider extending the sanctions against anyone in the Iranian regime responsible for making threats against journalists?
My right hon. Friend echoes the point that the Iranian regime is fearful of criticism, and particularly fearful of criticism from within Iran itself and from Iranians internationally. That is why it behaves so petulantly and aggressively towards journalists. We have an incredibly important responsibility to protect those journalists and support those dissenting voices. I assure him on behalf of my colleagues in the Home Office and the security services that we will continue to support the free expression of those brave Iranian voices criticising a regime that currently has a stranglehold around their country.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of Mr Akbari. The Iranian regime is using the death penalty as a tool of political repression against courageous protesters. As we have heard, the IRGC also threaten the lives of journalists and British-Iranian activists here in the UK. Last week we saw cross-party support for proscribing the IRGC. I ask again—this time for the Secretary of State to answer—will the UK Government take action and urgently brand the IRGC as a terrorist organisation?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the need to respond to the actions taken by the Iranian regime. As I said, I announced an initial set of responses immediately after the execution of Mr Akbari. I am consulting with His Majesty’s ambassador in Tehran—I have done so today—and we will work across Government to ensure that our response to Iran is robust and deters further such actions.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent statement. Will he confirm that he will discuss the execution of Mr Akbari on his visit to Washington this week and assure us that with our allies he will seek to co-ordinate the strongest response to this latest state-sponsored torture and killing, as well as Iran’s escalating human rights abuses against women and the wider security threat?
I assure my hon. Friend that I will address our response to the Iranian regime in general and the response to this execution in particular with both my American and Canadian counterparts when I visit those two countries later this week. I assure her, and indeed the House, that the messages of solidarity that we have received from our international partners reflect the strength of feeling that I hear in my conversations about the issue.
The vile Iranian regime are operating through proxies in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and I have been working closely with the police in respect of the Islamic community centre in Maida Vale, where the weekly counter-protests that now occur there are causing very real concern in that residential community. Will the Secretary of State tell us what investigations he is carrying out into the operation of those centres and how they can be managed to protect local communities, including the very diverse Muslim communities in that area?
The hon. Lady will understand that actions here in the UK are the responsibility of the Home Office, but I assure her that my Department and that Department work closely on such issues and will continue to do so.
These are the words of Hassan Firouzi:
“Whether or not I sign confession papers, they will kill me. My only wish is to see my daughter one last time. After 10 years, God finally gave us a child. I only got to see her for 18 days before being arrested for protesting. I miss my daughter so much. My only wish is that I get to see my daughter one last time before they kill me.”
He is another citizen who has been condemned to death. I have adopted his case at the urging of a close Iranian friend in my constituency. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it is helpful for Members of Parliament to adopt individual people on death row in Iran to publicise their cases and put maximum pressure on the regime?
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that particular case. I know the Iranian regime hates it when its actions are called out on the international stage. I have made it clear to the Iranians that if they want the criticism to stop, their behaviour must change. Their behaviour at the moment deserves criticism in this Chamber and internationally. I commend all colleagues, where they have the opportunity to do so, to raise cases and demonstrate to the brave Iranians who are standing up against the brutality of their own Government that we show solidarity with them.
I add my condolences to the family of Mr Akbari at this very sad time. I cannot see why the Secretary of State is delaying proscribing the regime in Iran and call on him to do so immediately. In my human rights city of York, we have serious concern about the use of the death penalty. There are over 20,000 people on death row across over 55 jurisdictions right now. Will he lead a discussion in the UN to bring the use of state-authorised death to an end across the world? When it is condoned in one country, it gives Iran more liberty to apply it in its own.
The hon. Lady will, I am sure, know that the UK opposes the death penalty in all respects. We have communicated that internationally and we have communicated that to the Iranian regime. Our position is long standing, it is principled and it will not change. We will highlight our opposition to the death penalty whenever we have the opportunity to do so.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I know that Lord Ahmad will have done everything in his power to stop this despicable act. I condemn the execution of Mr Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national, and I want to place on record my condolences to his wife and two daughters. Does the Foreign Secretary have concerns that ending the talks on the nuclear deal in the face of ongoing turmoil in the country could see Iran speed up its uranium enrichment programme or pull out of the treaty altogether?
The international community, the signatories to the JCPOA, have given the opportunity to the Iranian regime to make changes. It has thus far failed to grasp the opportunity presented to it. We will continue working to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but the ball, ultimately, is in its court. If it wants sanctions lifted, it has to change—fundamentally change—its behaviour.