Over the years, Iran has maintained a consistent response to persistent criticisms of its human rights record. If a report condemning Iran’s woeful human rights record is issued by an NGO, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, a statement is issued accusing the group of ‘toadying to the US and Israel.’ Their evidence is discredited as unsubstantiated and biased, as having been collected from ‘anti-Iranian outlets and terrorist groups.’ If the criticism comes from a foreign government then Iran has developed a strategy of drawing attention to double standards.
A case in point is Canada, which has led an international campaign to condemn human rights abuses in Iran since the 2003 murder of Canadian–Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kasen. Since then, Canada has successfully pushed through a number of resolutions in the UN condemning Iran’s human rights record. In response, Iran launched a counter-offensive highlighting Canada’s poor treatment of its native population. First, Iran summoned the senior diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran to criticize Canada for the poor educational, economic and professional conditions of Canadian aboriginal people. Then former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited leaders of the Canadian native community to Iran to discuss their plight.
More recently, Iran used the same tactic against the United States. Late last month, the Iranian paramilitary Basij force published a 28-page report slamming the US as “one of the main violators of human rights.” Many would agree that US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan led either directly or indirectly to egregious human rights violations. Iran may also be right to suggest that the international community shares its concerns over recent revelations surrounding the extent of US surveillance activities.
It might even find support for its claim that the sanctions Washington has marshalled against Iran have inflicted substantial suffering on innocent Iranians. Yet surely only a tiny proportion of those people would accept the claim made by Ahmed Esfandiyari, a lieutenant commander of the Basij, that Iran’s emphasis on human rights was “extensive”—unless, of course, Esfandiyari was referring to Iran’s emphasis on denying them.
Even Iran, however, struggles to cite double standards when it comes to warding off criticism of its use of the death penalty. The reason is simple: Iran has few peers when it comes to its enthusiasm for capital punishment. It is widely reported that Iran executes more prisoners per capita than any other state and is one of only a handful of countries that sentences juveniles to death. We now learn that executions have increased even further since the election of an apparently moderate new president last year.
When Hassan Rouhani won a surprise victory in last year’s presidential election there was some hope, both inside and outside Iran, that his calls for rationality and moderation would extend beyond foreign and economic policy and lead to an improvement in Iran’s human rights record. Certainly the reform block inside Iran hoped he would make progress, particularly in securing the release of a large number of political prisoners currently in Iranian jails. Some restrictions have been eased, particularly in terms of press freedom, but opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain confined to house arrest. Many see their situation as the key litmus test for how far Rouhani can change political conditions inside Iran.
Some observers see his attempts as increasingly stalled. Indeed, some reports suggest that President Rouhani has struck a deal with the Supreme Leader that sacrifices political reform for the time being. According to these reports, Rouhani has agreed not to press for an opening of the political and social space in Iran, including the release of political prisoners. In return, the Supreme Leader has apparently agreed to support his strategy of offering concessions on the nuclear issue in return for an easing of sanctions. This offers Rouhani vital protection from hardline opposition to his nuclear policy.
Nevertheless, the news that executions in Iran have actually increased since Rouhani took office came as some surprise. According to official figures, Iran executed twenty-one of its citizens in the first two weeks of January, but unofficial accounts put the number closer to forty. Various explanations for the increase can be considered. First of all, it should be noted that most of the executions are related to drug offenses. One of the less reported consequences of the war in Afghanistan has been a massive increase in the amount of heroin coming into Iran. Heroin addiction has reached epidemic proportions, and Iran now seizes more of the drug than any other country in the world. Despite clear evidence showing otherwise, the authorities insist that public executions are needed to dissuade further recruits. While the death penalty should be abhorred under all circumstances, Iranian officials could argue that any of the thirty-plus countries that have the death penalty for narcotics offenses would respond in a similar way.
But the fact that heroin use in Iran has been on the increase for some time leads some to conclude that the recent spike in executions is a calculated political message. The international community is focussed on what is undoubtedly an impressive strategic prize: a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis that, if not ended peacefully, could result in mass death and destruction.
The White House has openly admitted that human rights issues are not being discussed during the nuclear negotiations. Therefore, Tehran can be reasonably confident that it is insulated from international criticism for the time being. Another possible explanation is that Iran is trying to offset any criticism that it has gone soft by offering concessions on the nuclear issue.
This fits into the wider argument that the Supreme Leader is aiming to compartmentalize the engagement he has authorized with the West, the message being that Iran may be more flexible in responding to the West’s demands on its nuclear program, but it will not bend to Western political or judicial norms. In other words, the spike in executions may be part of a campaign to ratchet down the public’s expectations of an opening of the political space in Iran.
The pitiful public spectacle of Iranian citizens being hoisted to their death from cherry pickers may not be enough to disrupt the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and nor should they, to be frank. But they still represent a clear obstacle to Rouhani’s effort to soften Iran’s international image.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.