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.
With little evidence that the charges were fabricated as cover to execute opposition activists, some wonder whether a cadre of hard-line judges may be engaged in a campaign to discourage drug use — particularly in anticipation of a surge after the much-anticipated U.S. military pullout from neighboring Afghanistan, the source of much of the heroin, opium and other drugs on the Iranian black market.
The catch is that Iran’s narcotics law makes no distinction between possession and heavy trafficking, which has paved the way for authorities to execute people on minor charges. It’s a reality made all the more disturbing, human rights groups say, by the fact that Iranian minorities — specifically Kurds — make up a disproportionate number of those being hanged.
The helpless president
Some believe Iran’s executions will derail prospects for a long-term thaw in relations with West.
“Iranian authorities’ attempts to change their international image are meaningless if at the same time executions continue to increase,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a deputy director at Amnesty International, which opposes all executions everywhere.
The situation is adding to unease in Washington, where lawmakers are split over the recent push for diplomacy with Tehran. Most Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, call for patience while nuclear negotiations proceed.
Many Republicans say Tehran simply can’t be trusted.
“History has taught us that we are not dealing with an honest broker,” Rep. George Holding, North Carolina Republican and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor last week. “The election of President Rouhani does nothing to change the fact that the supreme leader is still in charge.”
Others argue that Mr. Rouhani is under immense pressure, walking a tightrope between easing tensions with the West and preventing disruption inside Iran.
“We’re clearly seeing a power struggle playing out in Iran between the hard-liners, who aren’t willing to compromise an inch on the nuclear program, and Rouhani, who has placed great emphasis on engagement with the West,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“The hard-liners,” Mr. Engel told The Times, “are willing to do what it takes to sully the image of Rouhani in the eyes of the West.”
The Larijani theory
The U.S. intelligence official said Iranian Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani “could be trying to send a message that tolerance has its limits.”
Iranian sources highlight Mr. Larijani as the face of Tehran’s resistance to international criticism over executions. He responded harshly to the United Nations last week, declaring at a meeting with religious and political leaders in Iran that the Islamic republic “will never cave to this type of pressure” from Western-backed entities, according to a report by Al-Monitor, which cited a pro-regime Persian-language website as its source.
There are signs that some in Mr. Rouhani’s inner circle are at odds with Mr. Larijani and have been angered by the executions. As hangings spiked in November, Ali Younesi, a reformist member of Iran’s parliament and Mr. Rouhani’s special assistant in ethnic and minority affairs, said “extremist elements” in the government were responsible.
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.”