On Tuesday, NPR was among the outlets to report on recent remarks by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, commenting on the aftermath of last week’s ISIL-linked terrorist attacks in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi claimed over the weekend that the mastermind of the attacks had been killed by Iranian security forces in a border region. He added that those forces had also broken up 25 terrorist cells in just the past three months.
Yet these remarks also come after Iranian officials had downplayed the seriousness of last week’s attacks on the parliament building and monument to Ruhollah Khomeini, suggesting that ISIL had little recruiting reach inside the country. The persons who were directly involved in the shootings and bombings are believed to have been Iranian nationals, though some had also reportedly traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIL in regions where the Sunni militant group controls territory.
Tehran and particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have recruited thousands of fighters for Shiite militant groups operating in Syrian and Iraq, some of which have sworn allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The recent revelations about ISIL affiliates highlight a competing trend and raise questions about the effect of Iran-backed sectarian conflict on local populations. But they also potentially give Iran further incentive and justification for cracking down on those local populations, specifically the already-persecuted Sunni minority.
This is something that the Center for Human Rights in Iran warned about in a statement on June 7. The Center noted that “whenever the Iranian state has perceived external threats, the intelligence establishment, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has seized the opportunity to further infringe upon the civil rights of the Iranian people.”
The statement went on to say that just as international authorities should not be selective in their criticism following such tragic events as the attacks that killed 17 people and wounded dozens of others, neither should Iranians exploit such incidents for political purposes. But the statement acknowledged that this is already happening, and it specifically referred to Iranian officials blaming critics of the security forces for supposedly encouraging the country to let down its guard in the midst of the threat from foreign-linked terrorists.
But the security establishment is notorious for its criminalization of peaceful activism, independent journalism, and so on. Sometimes these things are conflated with terrorism and other serious crimes, as evidenced by the number of peaceful activists who have been sentenced to long prison sentences or even death for charges such as “enmity against God,” a category technically reserved for persons who use deadly weapons in opposition to what the Iranian regime considers to be an Islamic way of life.
On its own, this fact raises questions about the nature of the arrests that have been carried out since the Tehran terrorist attacks. Reuters reported on Friday that Iranians had already arrested 41 people from various provinces as a direct result. Authorities alleged that each arrestee was connected to the attacks, although it was not clear whether any evidence had been produced to substantiate this claim.
Iranian security forces routinely arrest people on the basis of the barest suspicion and hold them in detention without charge for weeks or even months while interrogating them and attempting to build a case. This sort of practice is familiar to cases of political imprisonment including Western nationals like the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was released in a prisoner swap coinciding with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal in January of last year. Additionally, the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have also been denied charges or trial despite having been held under house arrest since 2011 and being subject to promises from President Hassan Rouhani that they would be released under his administration.
In using the terrorist attacks as grounds for dismissal of criticisms of an ongoing domestic crackdown, Tehran is continuing a pattern of denying past wrongdoing while perpetuating the same trends. These trends include not only repressive methods of law enforcement but a particular pattern of judicial punishment, including outmoded practices like amputation and a world-leading rate of executions.
President Rouhani is poised to begin his second term in office in August, and the number of executions carried during his first have by most accounts exceeded 3,000. Some analysts followed Rouhani’s own narrative in suggesting that his May 19 reelection would provide the Iranian president with the political capital to begin to exhibit the moderate domestic behavior that had been expected of him following his first election four years ago. But this development does not appear to be coming to pass, as evidenced by the ongoing security crackdown and the fact that at least 20 people had been executed in the three weeks immediately following Rouhani’s reelection.
The Tower reported upon this statistic last week and added that Rouhani’s record with respect to executions is worse than that of his acknowledged hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also noted that the year 2015 saw the highest number of confirmed executions in Iran since 1989. The year prior to that, the Islamic Republic had carried out a massacre of political prisoners, primarily targeting the opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and killing an estimated 30,000 people in the course of about three months.
The 1988 massacre was subject to a veil of secrecy for many years as the regime steadfastly denied its responsibility for past killings and discouraged any conversation thereof. But that veil began to lift last year with the release of an audio recording in which the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri described the massacre as the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.” Yet this only led to certain authorities including President Rouhani’s Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi to defend the killings. In fact, Pourmohammadi had declared a leading role in them and declared last year that he felt “proud” of having helped to carry out “God’s command” of death for the PMOI.
Furthermore, the regime went on to run another member of the 1988 “Death Committee,” Ebrahim Raisi, as a candidate for president, challenging Rouhani’s bid for reelection. In case this was not sufficient to demonstrate the regime’s lack of remorse or shame regarding its history of politically motivated killings, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei broke his own silence over the 1988 massacre on June 4, describing it as an appropriate response to threats to the regime’s survival, for which that regime has been “unfairly judged.” The Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted Khamenei’s speech in a report last week.
Shortly after making this declaration and thereby defending the regime’s direct culpability for politically motivated killings, the supreme leader issued comparatively vague accusations against the United States, accusing it of being responsible for the creation of ISIL. “That the US joined the anti-ISIS coalition is a lie. They're against an unrestrained ISIS but agree with a controlled ٍٍٍ#ISIS,” Khamenei said on Twitter, without further explanation, according to US News and World.
Al Jazeera notes that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif quickly followed up on this commentary by levying similar accusations against regional rival Saudi Arabia and saying that it was “actively propping up” terrorist groups on both the eastern and western borders of Iran. These statements appear to reflect further Iranian efforts to politicize the Tehran terrorist attacks, at a time when the regime is facing down renewed emphasis by the White House and its allies on Iranian human rights violations and support for terrorism.
This foreign policy rhetoric also comes at a time when mutual conflicts against ISIL are increasingly causing Iran and the United States to butt heads in Syria and Iraq. The USA Today reported on Tuesday that Iran-backed militias are striving to secure Syrian supply lines as ISIL loses ground. Meanwhile the Washington Post indicates that it is US backed forces, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces, that are closing in around Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital.
Under these competitive circumstances, Iran stands to benefit greatly if it can make itself look like a more legitimate opponent of ISIL, compared to the United States. And this claim is in turn made more plausible if the Islamic Republic can deflect legitimate criticisms of its own sectarianism, Islamic extremism, and associated domestic abuses.