The Iranian regime has a long history of projecting its own wrongdoing and illicit behaviors upon foreign adversaries. For any given topic that brings substantial international criticism to the Islamic Republic, it is a safe bet that there will be examples of Iranian officials responding by simply levying similar or identical accusations against other parties, often without evidence.
This practice can be seen, for instance, in the operation of the Iranian Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights. Ostensibly, this body and its lead official, Ali Baqeri Kani, function to review and address allegations of domestic human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice.
But in practice, the council rarely takes any action other than issuing statements that contradict credible accounts of such abuses. These reports often amplify longstanding Iranian talking points that reject the very concept of universal human rights in favor of a brand of cultural relativism that allows Iran to set its own standards for what constitutes appropriate judiciary processes and modes of punishment.
Iran’s Judicial Security Document and Ebrahim Raisi’s Gesture
Last November, Kani penned a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he rejected in its entirety the UN’s latest report on the overall situation of human rights in Iran.
“The politicized, unfair, unjust and unprofessional treatment with human rights concepts and issues does not open a knot and does not solve the problems of human beings, but rather downgrades human rights into a tool for advancing the illegitimate goals of superpowers,” he said before shifting attention from Iran’s domestic human rights abuses to outdated and irrelevant issues of Western foreign policy such as alleged sales of chemical weapons to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.
Kani also used the letter to praise the Iranian regime’s approach to drug trafficking, even though this has traditionally been a major point of contention regarding Iran’s excessive and inappropriate use of the death penalty.
He lamented the impact that foreign sanctions have had on the Islamic Republic’s ability to obtain military equipment for use in narcotics-related law enforcement and suggested that Western nations owed Iran a debt of gratitude for violently interfering with the drug trade along routes that potentially lead to Europe.
In this way, the letter implicitly rejected those aspects of international law that state that the death penalty should be reserved only for the worst crimes, namely those that involve intentional killing.
Traditionally, the largest number of Iran’s annual executions have been carried out on individuals who were convicted of non-violent drug crimes. This has changed in recent years following the parliament’s adoption of new sentencing laws, but these laws have been arbitrarily and inconsistently applied, with the death penalty still being implemented especially for alleged drug traffickers who are also members of religious or ethnic minorities.
What’s more, although the annual rate of executions has declined, it remains the highest in the world, as a function of the national population. This is large because the Iranian judiciary routinely applies the death penalty to cases in which killings evidently took place accidentally, as in the context of a fight.
But far worse than this is the fact that the death penalty is also applicable to a range of offenses that would not be recognized as crimes in most any other country, such as “spreading corruption on earth,” “insulting sanctities,” and “enmity against God.”
These sorts of vague charges are regularly applied to cases that are purported to involve national security, but that label may be based on as little evidence as preexisting connections between an accused individual and a Western nation that is considered by the Iranian regime to be an “enemy” or “hostile state.”
There is a long history of Iran levying accusations of spying against these sorts of individuals, often in absence of due process, and sometimes with corresponding threats of execution or fatal mistreatment during a period of detention.
Among the latest of these cases is that of Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish doctor and academic who was arrested in 2016 after participating in a conference and was later handed a capital sentence on the basis of an unsubstantiated espionage charge.
Djalali has informed his supporters and loved ones that he was approached by Iranian authorities and asked to spy on their behalf after returning to Europe, and became a target for punishment after he refused.
On November 23 he was transferred to solitary confinement in preparation for his hanging, but the judiciary later announced the execution had been delayed. No further information has yet reached Djalali’s foreign advocates, though it has been suggested that he is being kept as a bargaining chip and that the threat of execution was scaled back after the Belgian government announced that it would sever all relations with the Islamic Republic if the hanging went forward.
Djalali’s transfer closely coincided with the start of a trial in Belgian federal court for an Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, who has been identified as the mastermind of a terror plot that aimed to blow up a gathering of Iranian expatriates near Paris in June 2018.
Assadi’s dual roles as terrorist and diplomat, as well as his tenuous connection of Iran’s own judicial cases, make him a notable focal point for multiple instances of the Iranian regime projecting its wrongdoing onto foreign adversaries.
This was especially evident on Saturday when a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that the Islamic Republic had formally complained to the United States about “illegal actions” against Iranian diplomats at the United Nations.
The announcement did not elaborate, other than to say that Iran was considering taking the U.S. to the World Court over the matter. The reference to UN diplomats seems to exclude the possibility that the complaint specifically refers to Assadi, the former third counselor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, although Tehran has certainly complained about Assadi’s detention and has argued that he has far-reaching diplomatic immunity regardless of the nature of the charges he is facing.
Tehran’s latest complaint is perhaps best understood as a public relations gesture and an under-developed plan to distract international attention from the verdict and sentencing in Assadi’s case, which is due at the end of this week.
For anyone who is only paying minor attention to the two stories, the existing Belgian court case and the potential case at the World Court may give the impression that Iran and the West are subject to similar accusations of diplomatic malpractice.
But for anyone who is familiar with the details, it will no doubt remain clear that Tehran is uniquely guilty of that charge, especially if the judge in Assadi’s case expresses formal agreement with the prosecutors’ description of his plot as being directed by high officials in the clerical regime.
The mismatched details of these two cases are surely reminiscent of the mismatch between cases involving accusations of spying, which are rarely if ever as lacking in credibility in Western courts as they so often are in Iran.
While this phenomenon was evident in the case of Ahmadreza Djalali, who was deprived of access to a lawyer and coerced into providing a false confession, it is especially obvious in the case of Emad Sharghi, who was not given the luxury of a trial at all.
The Iranian-American businessman was summoned to a Tehran court on November 30 and was promptly informed that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on a charge of espionage.
Sharghi’s case was only publicly revealed this week because his family had declined to bring attention to the story. The families of Iranian prisoners are routinely warned against communicating with the media and are often led to believe that public statements would prolong their detention or result in worse treatment.
The source and rationale for the eventual disclosure were not immediately clear, and it is possible that Iranian authorities leaked the information, perhaps for the purpose of once again distracting from a story that reflects badly on their own behavior.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the United States had filed charges against Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a 35-year resident of the U.S. who has been presenting himself as a foreign relations expert and political analyst but was recently revealed to be an agent of the Iranian government tasked with promoting skewed talking points and gathering information from Americans.
Unlike Iran’s cases against Sharghi, Djalali, and others, the case against Afrasiabi is reportedly backed up by specific information including records of payments and instructions from his handlers.
Also differentiating this case from that of his counterparts in Iran, Afrasiabi was not isolated after his arrest and has not protested mistreatment or misrepresentation. Still, the historical record suggests that such details will not stop Tehran from seizing upon the case in order to present false equivalencies to the international community and to argue that this likely Iranian intelligence asset is just as much a hostage as the Western businessmen and academics currently being abused and subjected to arbitrary detention and mistreatment in the Islamic Republic.