It has never been quite clear what the circumstances of Shahram Amiri’s expatriation were. When he returned to Iran that same year, he insisted that he had been kidnapped by the CIA and offered a large sum of money for details of his government’s nuclear program, but had slipped away to the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani embassy in order to return home. On this basis, he was initially greeted as a hero by Iranian government officials, but the US denied his account and said that he had relocated to the US willingly.
In 2012, Amiri was convicted of national security crimes for supposedly selling state secrets to the US. According to IranWire, the initial sentence was 10 years imprisonment plus five years in exile. In light of that fact, his execution seems to have come as a surprise, perhaps even to his family, who had spent approximately five years unsuccessfully seeking information about his case and his condition, prior to being given the news that his execution had already been carried out.
On Monday, the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that a number of observers of Amiri’s case had speculated that his repatriation to Iran may have been motivated by threats to his family. There are numerous other cases in which Iranian political prisoners and their advocates have alleged that regime authorities used such threats to put pressure on the accused to sign confessions or to return to Iranian courts after escaping to foreign territory.
This is, however, only one potential explanation for Amiri’s case. And as IranWire puts it, his sudden execution now means that he has gone to his grave along with the secrets of his trip to the US. Furthermore, the execution arguably opens up a new mystery, namely when and why Tehran altered his sentence, and why it was carried out when it was.
The Washington Post pointed out on Sunday that the National Council of Resistance of Iran had issued a statement soon after the execution was revealed. In it, the opposition group described the incident as “a desperate attempt… to intimidate and terrorize the regime’s nuclear experts and scientists and to prevent them from leaving the country.”
On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this incident as having more general target, namely anyone who would travel to or collaborate with Western entities. This is seemingly supported by the rhetorical content of the regime’s commentary on the execution, which reiterates various statements that regime officials have made over the past several months. As Iran News Update has repeatedly pointed out, major factions of the regime have made it their apparent mission to enforce continued animosity between Iran and the US in the wake of the nuclear agreement that some people thought would lead to general reconciliation between the two.
Toward this end, Iranian chief prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei emphasized the regime’s hatred of the US in his commentary on Amiri’s case. “This person had obtained top secret information and established contacts with our number one sworn enemy, America,” he said. Mohseni-Ejei also described the information Amiri supposedly sold to the US as “our country’s most crucial intelligence,” thereby suggesting that Iran continues to regard its nuclear program as being of exceptionally high value, even after that program was supposedly compromised by the nuclear agreement reached with six world powers in July of last year.
To whatever extent Tehran’s execution of Amiri was simply an expression of defiance against the West and supposed Western collaborators, it goes hand-in-hand with various other recent expressions of the same. Anti-Western rhetoric in general has seemingly intensified in the roughly seven months since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. At the same time, Iranian authorities have vigorously cracked down on supposed domestic expressions of pro-Western sentiment, while also arresting or otherwise attacking various persons with known connections to the West.
Presently, the regime has at least two American citizens and three other citizens of Western countries in detention, and no clear account has been given of the accusations against any of them. They have been widely described as political prisoners, or even as hostages, with some of their advocates suggesting that the regime is holding onto some or all of these individuals in hopes of facilitating another prisoner exchange or other form of negotiation.
The use of the term “hostage” also helps to keep attention focused on a major story that emerged last week regarding Western policy toward Iran. It was then that additional details were confirmed regarding a prisoner exchange and partial settlement of an American debt, both of which coincided with the January implementation of the JCPOA. In pointing out that the US flew 400 million dollars in cash to Tehran on the night of the prisoner swap, opponents of President Obama’s Iran policy renewed their accusation that the debt repayment was in fact a form of ransom.
The USA Today published opposing viewpoints on that matter on Monday. Whereas the editorial defending the repayment said that it made sense for the two agreements to closely coincide, the rebuttal emphasized that the coincidence was too close to be interpreted as anything other than quid pro quo. The same article pointed out that President Obama himself had highlighted the danger of paying ransom for American prisoners, insofar as it gives incentive for more hostage taking. Other commentaries on the prisoner exchange have suggested that this is exactly what happened in its wake, leading directly to the taking of other dual citizens as hostages.
It is possible, however, that these activities would have proceeded regardless of the supposedly advantageous outcome of previous hostage-takings. After all, such arrests can easily be seen as reinforcing a more general anti-Western sentiment, which has evidently reached absurd levels of commitment in the midst of the current crackdown. In the latest example of this, Iran recently announced that it was banning the popular mobile app Pokemon Go throughout the country, even though the game had not actually been introduced there yet.
The USA Today quoted Abdolhassan Firouzabadi, the head of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council as saying, “Any game that wants to operate nationwide in Iran needs to obtain permission from the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, and the Pokémon Go app has not yet requested such permission.”
The statement is distinctly reminiscent of the regime’s reaction to other Western technologies and Western-based services that either already are present in the country or potentially could be. For instance, officials threatened to ban the popular instant messaging application Telegram unless the company moved information for Iranian users onto local servers. Telegram refused, but it was recently revealed that state-affiliated hackers had gained access to information for as many as three-quarters of the app’s 20 million Iranian users.
Also, in late July, Tehran issued a similar ultimatum to Apple, stating that iPhones sold or used in the country would have to be registered with the government, thus more fully enabling the monitoring of citizens. It is not clear that Iran would be able to implement a ban on iPhone service, but the threat highlights how seriously the regime is responding to instances of what it terms Western cultural and economic “infiltration.”
Now, the USA Today indicates that Iranian officials have suggested that Pokemon Go presents unspecified security risks. It is difficult to see what those risks could be, other than risks to the country’s cultural identity. And indeed, similar language was employed recently when the Basij militia destroyed some 100,000 satellite dishes, claiming that foreign media had undermined the nation’s security by encouraging inappropriate behavior and contributing to divorce rates, drug addiction, and so on.
This sentiment, together with Iran’s harshly punitive religious laws, may also justify the execution of certain persons deemed to be a cultural threat to the Islamic Republic. These may include individuals like Shahram Amiri, who arguably represent undesirable connections to the West. But they may also include political dissidents, members of religious minorities, and anyone with an alternative lifestyle.
Amiri’s execution was reportedly carried out one day after the mass execution of Sunni dissidents who were accused of terrorism but whose convictions may have been obtained through the use of forced confessions. But whatever the details of the case, it has led various human rights organizations to conclude that Iran’s relationship with the death penalty remains unchanged and may even be worsening.
Agence France-Presse reported on Monday that Human Rights Watch had confirmed the number of executions on Tuesday was at the highest end of preliminary reports. The organization called the 20-person mass execution a “low point” for Iran’s human rights, noting that it was one of the largest instances of mass execution in recent years. But last year, small groups of executions added up to nearly 1,000 hangings, pushing the overall rate to levels not seen in more than 25 years.
Iran consistently has the smallest per capita rate of executions in the world, and only a very small minority of those executions represents crimes serious enough that they meet international standards for when the death penalty may be justified.