Iran Threatens to Accelerate Executions Amidst Tensions With the West

On Tuesday, it was reported that the Iranian judiciary was threatening to execute dozens of prisoners on accusations of spying for the United States. This comes roughly two weeks after one prisoner, Jamal Haji-Zavareh, was executed on that same pretense, although authorities provided no apparent evidence to substantiate the accusation, apart from a confession that was elicited under torture. It is not clear whether authorities are prepared to provide clearer justification for the potentially forthcoming executions, and the Islamic Republic has a long history of detaining and giving harsh sentences to dual nationals and persons with connections to the West.

The newly expanded threat of executions may have been motivated in whole or in part by escalating tensions between the US and Iran, following the removal of sanctions waivers and the addition of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Iran has already responded to that situation by targeting commercial tankers with limpet mines, shooting down a US drone near the Strait of Hormuz, and accelerating support for regional attacks by proxy groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

While these actions serve to project an image of foreign strength, the prospective hangings could function as a warning against domestic expressions of sympathy with the American position. Tehran may have good reason to expect such expressions, given that some of the past year’s large-scale anti-government protests coincided with the re-imposition of US sanctions that had previously been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The judiciary’s threat also coincides with Iran’s first major violation of that deal, as the regime attempts to put pressure on the European Union to provide additional financial incentives for returning to compliance.

The threat of mass executions is unlikely to help Iran’s case. Even though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the nations of Europe have variously expressed concern about Iran’s regional activities, ballistic missile development, and other malign activities, thereby putting extra strain on an agreement that the Iranian regime appeared reluctant to adopt in the first place.

At the same time, at least one of the European signatories to that deal is engaged in efforts to secure the release of one of its citizens from Iranian custody. This in turn focuses further attention upon the plight of Iranian political prisoners and on Iran’s human rights record more generally. And while the Iranian-British woman in question, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is not under any apparent threat of execution, it is not a foregone conclusion that she will survive her 10-year term of imprisonment.

This is largely because of growing concerns over her health, which have been exacerbated by a recent hunger strike that she undertook along with her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who continues to advocate for her release from their home in the United Kingdom. To a great extent, the protest was motivated by Iranian authorities’ prior refusal to allow Nazanin access to medical treatment for preexisting ailments. Such denial have been used as a form of extrajudicial punishment for a number of political prisoners, sometimes resulting in permanent health effects or even death.

Recently, human rights groups have expressed extreme concern about Arash Sadeghi, an imprisoned civil activist who has been diagnosed with cancer and is now suffering from a post-operative infection as a result of authorities returning him to his cell soon after the procedure, despite doctors’ warnings about the risk. Previously, his health problems were made worse by a hunger strike that went largely ignored by prison officials for a period of 70 days in 2016. The demonstration did, however, garner the attention of Iran’s domestic activist community, leading to solidarity demonstrations and additional pressure on the judiciary.

The partial success of that demonstration underscores the contempt with which the judiciary and prison staff tend to view activism within the prison population. This too can result in extrajudicial punishment, sometimes with fatal consequences. In recent weeks, the judiciary has come under fire for the murder of Alireza Shir-Mohammad-Ali, a political prisoner who had carried out a hunger strike and other demonstration in protest over prison conditions and the authorities’ failure to adhere to laws concerning the separation of prisoners according to the nature of their crimes.

Shir-Mohammad-Ali was killed at the hands of two hardened criminals who were being held in close proximity to him, and it has been widely alleged that prison officials either turned a blind eye to the attack or actively incentivized the perpetrators. Whatever the case may be, these and other apparent instances of death by extrajudicial punishment are not counted among the Iranian prisoners who are executed outright each year. That number declined last year following changes to the law concerning sentencing of non-violent drug offenders, but Iran nonetheless retained its status as the nation with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita.

Furthermore, the number of executions increased significantly in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year. Between January and June of 2018, at least 98 people had been put to death, and between January and June of 2019 the figure was 110. Among the latter group, only 37 of the executions were formally announced, and this familiar secrecy underscores the fact that the total number could still rise as human rights groups investigate further reports of hangings.

In any event, if the judiciary follows through on its threat to carry out dozens of additional executions based on vague accusations of spying, the overall rate is almost certain to increase once again in the latter half of the year. At the same time, the circumstances surrounding those executions would likely shine additional light upon Tehran’s tendency to use both formal and informal capital punishment for the purpose of political intimidation.