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His comments were cited by the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which said “sources close to the Rouhani government” privately claimed that some executions were “actions as sabotage.”

According to those sources, the execution surge is “intended to deprive the government of the chance to present a more positive portrayal of Iran on the international arena, and to discredit Rouhani and his team, casting doubt on whether he is able to deliver his campaign promises to safeguard the nation’s basic rights.”

But the extent to which blame should fall on Mr. Larijani is not clear. Another source who spoke with The Times said human rights advocates may be overlooking evidence of closeness between the judiciary chief and Mr. Rouhani.

One of Mr. Larijani’s brothers is parliament Chairman Ali Larijani, who is believed to be closely aligned with Mr. Rouhani in the push for a nuclear deal with the West.

Others point out that Mr. Rouhani named Mostafa Pourmohammadi in August to become justice minister. At the time, Human Rights Watch noted that Mr. Pourmohammadi, previously a deputy intelligence minister, has long been implicated in the government’s 1988 executions of thousands of political dissidents, as well as the assassinations of several intellectuals in 1998.

Supreme leader’s power

Overanalysis of the politics behind the spike in executions may be irrelevant, said some Iran analysts. They said that whatever is playing out in Tehran is occurring beneath the gaze of the supreme leader — the only figure truly capable of changing the nation’s policies.

After Tehran’s violent crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators in 2009, it has been a common perception in Washington that widespread public frustration burns deeply beneath the Islamic republic’s surface.

“At times of widespread popular discontent, the regime in Tehran uses executions, in particular public hanging of convicts, as a means of terrorizing the public and reminding Iranians of the power of the central government,” said Ali Alfoneh, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in the inner workings of the Iranian regime.

“Therefore,” Mr. Alfoneh said, “the rise in the number of executions signifies both popular discontent and the regime’s nervousness.”

Ali Safavi, an Iranian opposition activist and the spokesman in Washington for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said the “wave of executions since Rouhani took office has all the eerie hallmarks of 1988,” when Tehran’s leaders yielded to a U.N.-brokered deal to end the Iran-Iraq war.

With no clear victory in the war, acceptance of the Western-backed negotiation triggered infighting across the highest ranks of Tehran’s secretive power structure and resulted in increased domestic repression.

At the time, Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously proclaimed that he “drank the chalice of poison of the cease-fire,” said Mr. Safavi, adding that “this time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has reluctantly begun drinking the chalice of poison of nuclear retreat.”

“The regime is keen to warn the Iranian people that the smiles and sweet-talking with Western interlocutors will not translate into any easing of the absolute repression that has permeated the country in the past three decades,” said Mr. Safavi, known in Washington for his close ties to the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, a group also known as the MEK.

“The question for the international community,” Mr. Safavi said, “is whether they will focus on these egregious abuses of the most fundamental rights of the Iranian people and hold the regime accountable, as they attempt to resolve the nuclear question.”