The number of executions carried out by Iranian authorities — often hanging dubiously convicted citizens from construction cranes in public — has risen sharply since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August, a surge most likely because of a secret power struggle within Iran’s notoriously veiled political system.
Away from positive news coverage of the Obama administration’s push for nuclear detente with Iran, the Islamic republic is executing about 66 people per month, 19 more per month than during the 2-year period before Mr. Rouhani took office, according to an analysis of figures compiled by nonpartisan groups including Amnesty International, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and various Iranian opposition activists in Washington.
Critics of the nuclear deal are citing the executions as evidence that Mr. Rouhani is far from the moderate reformer that many portrayed him to be upon his ascension to the presidency.
But U.S. intelligence sources, human rights advocates and high-level sources on Capitol Hill caution against jumping to that conclusion. In interviews with The Washington Times, several sources said reasons for the surge in executions are complex.
“There are indications that the Iranian regime is executing more people now compared to just a year ago,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Times on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive issues. “But it’s difficult to identify any overarching political strategy behind Tehran’s actions.”
Mr. Rouhani may have a political mandate from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to thaw relations with the West. But sources say the president may have limited control over the nation’s judiciary, where decisions are made by other players — including Islamist hard-liners with mandates of their own from Ayatollah Khamenei.
A leading theory is that the leader of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, is green-lighting more executions in an attempt to smear Mr. Rouhani’s image as a moderate. The spike in hangings also may result from Ayatollah Khamenei’s desire to hammer home to Iranians that the mullahs’ grip on society remains tight — even if Mr. Rouhani is seen to be spreading the rhetoric of reform on the world stage.
Human rights outrage
Either way, human rights advocates say, Iran is flagrantly violating international law.
After Amnesty International’s claim that 33 people were hanged in a single week last month, the top human rights office at the United Nations noted that “28 women and a number of political prisoners” were among those executed in 2013. The office also said the killings were based on convictions that do not meet the “most serious crimes” threshold under international law.
“The persistent execution of individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, association and affiliation to minority groups contravenes universally accepted human rights principles and norms,” said Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran.
An analysis of statistics compiled by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center shows that in the six months since Mr. Rouhani took office, 399 people — or 66.5 per month — have been executed. In the 31 months prior, a total of 1,457 — 47 per month — were put to death.
The number of Iran’s executions was higher in 2011, when 660 were killed, according to the center, which is based in New Haven, Conn. In 2012, the number dipped to 522 but then climbed to 624 last year.
The United States, which often is criticized for its capital punishment practices, carried out 43 executions in 2011 and in 2012, and 39 in 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
While there are some pointed examples of people being hanged purely for ethnic and political reasons, human rights groups say about 70 percent of executions were for drug-related charges.