The video sought to portray Iran, the world’s only modern theocracy, as “un-Islamic,” highlighting its persecution of Sunni Muslims who might pose an ideological challenge to the ruling Shiite clerics. This sort of ISIL propaganda has a great deal of factual information to draw upon, including the world-leading rates of executions in the Islamic Republic, which by some accounts are disproportionately punitive to Sunnis, whether or not they are targeted explicitly for activism on behalf of religious minorities.
Last month, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Iran’s leading Sunni cleric had written to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in order to call attention to claims that the judiciary had expedited the executions of Sunnis, and not Shiites, who had been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. These sorts of crimes make up the largest portion of capital sentences in the Islamic Republic, and the accelerated implementation of them comes at a time when there is much talk about the possibility of changing the law to diminish the number of these executions.
Of course, the specific focus on Sunni offenders indicates that the type of crime is not the only consideration that the Iranian judiciary looks at in determining when to levy a death sentence and when to carry one out. And this imbalance is only one of many indicators of religious persecution under Iran’s theocratic system, which formally recognizes a handful of religious minorities including Sunni Muslims while effectively codifying in law the persecution of others.
Among those groups that are persecuted relatively openly is the Baha’i faith, which has its origins in 20th century Iran. Meetings between Baha’i activists and Faezeh Hashemi, the outspoken daughter of late Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani are reportedly part of the reason why she was arrested earlier this month in the midst of an accelerated crackdown on dissent. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that the judiciary had sworn last year to punish her for her support of minority and civil rights activists, and that she was now facing a trial in mid-April on charges that the judiciary refuses to make public.
Successful prosecution in this case would send a clear message to supporters of such groups. The message to Sunni activists may be less clear, but their persecution is also serious, even if it is somewhat more clandestine. The ISIL propaganda video notes that at least 18,000 Sunnis have been executed by the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979. And while many of these executions may have been justified with reference to other crimes, the numbers can certainly be expected to contribute to sectarian tensions not just inside Iran, and not just stoked by ISIL, but also throughout the broader Middle East where they can find their outlet among a wide variety of militant groups on both sides of the divide.
Opponents of the Islamic Republic, such as the coalition of largely exiled dissidents known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have been keen to highlight Iran’s contribution to the sectarian divide. On this basis, many have argued that regional stability will not be much improved simply by defeating ISIL, if doing so results in continued growth of influence for the Islamic Republic and particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
These sorts of arguments have apparently found a more receptive audience within the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who during his first month in office initiated the process that could lead to the IRGC being designated as a foreign terrorist organization. More recently, that effort received some congressional support in the form of a sanctions bill proposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which would effectively blacklist the IRGC.
It remains to be seen whether that provision will go forward to be voted on by the legislative body as a whole, since the Senate bill must still be reconciled with a competing sanctions bill put forth by the House, which omits the reference to the IRGC. But as that process or reconciliation continues, there is considerable support for the provision, and critics of the Iranian regime are keen to make sure that that support is recognized and taken into consideration.
Toward that end, the NCRI recently held a reception at its Washington offices on the occasion of the Persian New Year, in which it hosted, Former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, Obama administration State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley and former Marine Corps Commandant U.S. General James Conway, all of who support the Senate committee’s bill, according to Voice of America News.
But as much as the NCRI may be a force for organization of this support, it faces opposition from other individuals and groups that prefer measures that are less punitive and more favorable to reconciliation in Iran-U.S. relations. But according to the Iranian regime’s own claims, some of the people lobbying for these alternatives are paid representatives of that regime itself.
The NCRI and other dissident groups have made the same claim about “pro-Iran lobbyists,” with many of them identifying the National Iranian American Council as a prominent group used by Tehran to put pressure on Washington legislators. Both the claims of Iranian officials and the claims of Iranian dissidents were conveyed last week in an article at MatthewAid.com, which pointed out that Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi had recently “bragged about the Islamic Republic’s ability to operate an unnamed “lobby group” in D.C. that helps to push the regime’s hardline agenda.”
These claims do more than call into question whether the Iranian Resistance and the Trump administration will be successful in their bid to take on the IRGC. They also point to the fact that the IRGC is one aspect of an Iranian constitutional mandate to operate beyond the country’s borders and spread the principles of the Islamic revolution. That fact was further underscored on Tuesday when the Associated Press reported that a Pakistani national by the name of Haider Syed Mustafa had been sentenced to four years and three months in prison in Germany for operating there as a spy on behalf of the IRGC’s foreign special operations division, the Quds Force.
Mustafa was reportedly given the specific task of identifying potential targets for terrorist attacks, photographing them, and preparing reports on them for IRGC operatives. In the past, the IRGC and its proxies have been linked to various successful terrorist attacks and thwarted terror plots, including the bombings of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of pro-Iranian lobbying, these and other incidents are sure to be cited as parts of arguments in favor of designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization and regarding the Iran Regime, as a much higher threat than the ISIL.