Iran’s abuse of human rights, including the hangings of hundreds of dubiously convicted citizens — in several cases minors — has soared over the past year, even as the Obama administration has yielded to Tehran’s demand for an extension in precarious international talks over the Islamic republic’s disputed nuclear program.
With more than 560 executions over the past nine months, and a high-profile Iranian-American journalist detained for undisclosed reasons, rights groups and regional analysts say Iran’s record may be worsening in the backdrop of potential detente with the West.
While the State Department has voiced disapproval of “serious violations of due process” in the Islamic republic, the situation is prompting some in Washington to criticize the Obama administration for not applying more public pressure on Tehran to adhere to international human rights standards.
“The administration has really made a big mistake in not repeatedly highlighting abuses,” said Mark Dubowitz, an authority on U.S. nonproliferation strategy and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “By ignoring Iran’s poor human rights record, the administration is actually playing into the Iranians’ negotiation games, effectively legitimizing Tehran as a responsible international player.”
Mr. Dubowitz said the White House does not seem to be seizing on a classic human rights lesson of the Cold War era.
“The lesson from Ronald Reagan,” he said, “is that you can and should negotiate arms control agreements at the same time that you’re using the U.S. presidential bully pulpit to highlight the human rights violations of a given regime — in this case Iran, although back then it was the Soviet Union — in order to expose that regime as untrustworthy to follow through on any commitments, including arms control commitments.”
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Execution rates soar
During the 14 months since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office, Iranian authorities have carried out at least 936 executions, according to data compiled by the Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
The statistics are consistent with data collected separately by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a dissident organization with offices in Europe and Washington that is preparing to publish a book-length report on the executions titled “Behind Rouhani’s Smile.”
An advance copy provided to The Washington Times notes the executions of at least 22 women since Mr. Rouhani took office and highlights more than a dozen cases of people younger than 18 accused of crimes and hanged. One case involved Iraj Nassiri, whom the report says was “less than 15” when Iranian authorities accused him of “premeditated murder.”
State-sanctioned executions of people convicted of crimes committed as minors is a sensitive issue on the international stage. The U.S. made negative headlines around the world from 1985 to 2003 by carrying out 22 such executions.
But rights advocates and U.S. officials argue that the practice is particularly worrisome in Iran because of opaqueness in its legal system.
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Who gets hanged?
Some in Washington’s foreign policy community say Iran makes regular practice of executing political prisoners. But with less than half of the executions officially announced by Iran, uncertainty looms in many cases over who exactly is being hanged and on what charges.
There are pointed examples of people hanged purely for ethnic and political reasons, but Iranian authorities claim about 70 percent of executions are for drug- and trafficking-related convictions handed up by the Islamic republic’s judiciary.
It’s a factor that suggests a cadre of hard-line Iranian judges may be engaged in a campaign to discourage drug use — particularly with an expectation 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.
A rise in public hangings also may stem from a desire by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to hammer home that his grip on society remains tight, even if Mr. Rouhani appears to be spreading rhetoric of reform.
But a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke with The Times on Tuesday, noted that “in Iran’s judicial system, local authorities have enough autonomy to carry out draconian policies without necessarily having to be pushed from above.”
“There probably isn’t a single explanation behind the high level of executions taking place in Iran,” the intelligence official said. “Sure, drug smuggling convictions have historically accounted for a sizable percentage of these, but hard-line elements within the judiciary could also be trying to underscore that lenience isn’t going to be tolerated under their watch.”
Either way, the situation has stirred unease in Washington. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters in June that the Obama administration was “concerned about the large number of Iranians executed following trials involving serious violations of due process.”
Ms. Psaki suggested such concern is becoming more relevant as nuclear talks with Iran progress. A “key test in Iran’s reintegration with the international community,” she said, “is whether we begin to see progress in Iran’s respect for its international human rights commitments.”
She made the remarks roughly a month before the administration announced a six-month extension in the time frame allotted by Western powers for Iran to prove that it is not developing nuclear weapons in violation of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
A reporter jailed
Away from the issue of public executions, the State Department has homed in on Iran’s detention of several U.S. citizens by calling for their release.
The most recent, and perhaps most high-profile case, involves The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran, Jason Rezaian, who was detained in July along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi.
Ms. Salehi was freed on bail early this month, but Mr. Rezaian remains imprisoned and Iran has not stated why either was arrested or what charges they face. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told NPR in September that Mr. Rezaian, 38, a dual American and Iranian citizen, was under interrogation for “what he has done as an Iranian citizen.”
The Post’s foreign editor, Douglas Jehl, said in a statement Tuesday that he and others at the paper are “relieved that Yeganeh Salehi is home with her family in Tehran after more than 10 weeks in government detention.”
“But Jason,” Mr. Jehl said, “is still being held without explanation.
“It is long past time for the Iranian authorities to release Jason and to permit him and Yegi to leave the country.”
To speak out or not
Not everyone agrees with Mr. Dubowitz’s assertion that the Obama administration should seize the moment to call out Iran on such matters.
Rod Sanjabi, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, said nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran could be derailed if the administration pushes the human rights issue too aggressively.
“The way the conservative press and conservative politicians inside Iran react to these kinds of condemnations coming from the international community. It will simply raise the cost of continued negotiations and a conclusive settlement for the Rouhani administration,” Mr. Sanjabi said.
Countering the Iranian government’s human rights posture should be rooted in Iran’s independent civil society, said Mr. Sanjabi, who noted that the emergence of rights groups inside Iran will depend on the recovery of the Iranian middle class from crushing sanctions imposed by the West.
“The best way to achieve [the removal of sanctions] is to reach a nuclear agreement,” he said. “Anything that precludes a final solution to the actual nuclear issues is counterproductive.
“There’s also this added issue that, even if you are able to get human rights language included in any final agreement, there won’t be compliance from Tehran — and I can basically assure that,” Mr. Sanjabi said. “It just won’t yield the kind of results we want to see.”
Others disagree, asserting that human rights issues must be discussed as the nuclear talks proceed.
“The Obama administration has been quiet on the whole issue of egregious rights abuses by the Iranian regime perhaps because it does not want public criticism of the regime, mistakenly fearing that it would derail the pursuit of a nuclear deal,” said Soona Samsami, the representative in the United States for the National Council of Resistance of Iran. “In dealing with Tehran, all issues must be on the table, including the regime’s violation of human rights and its export of terrorism.
“Many of the executions are occurring in broad daylight, in public places, with people being hanged from construction cranes,” Ms. Samsami said. “Which other state in the world does that? This is only done to terrify and intimidate the public and, according to the U.N., breaches internationally recognized standards and the due process.”