Iran’s hard-liners are using mass executions to undermine the nuclear deal.
Negotiations between Iran and the world powers will determine not just the future of Iran’s nuclear program, but also whether moderate forces can consolidate their tentative hold on power and shape the country’s direction for years to come. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani secures a nuclear deal that delivers sanctions relief and boosts the economy, he will validate his argument that reconciliation with the outside world benefits Iran and unlock the possibility of far-reaching domestic reform. If the talks fail, however, hard-liners will have the ammunition they need to undercut the new president and shift the political pendulum back in their favor.
With so much at stake, Iran’s hard-liners are determined to sabotage Rouhani at every turn. Their latest effort appears aimed at spoiling the international community’s appetite for diplomacy: In a deeply troubling turn, Iran’s judiciary — which is not under the control of the Rouhani administration — has dramatically increased the number of executions in the country. At least 500 people were executed last year, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while at least another 176 have been hanged so far in 2014.
Rouhani has thus far insulated himself from criticism on nuclear negotiations by gaining the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While Khamenei is more closely aligned with the hard-liners and is skeptical of diplomacy, his shift can be partially attributed to the need to shore up political legitimacy in the wake of the stolen 2009 presidential election and subsequent crackdown on Green Movement activists. If Khamenei openly denied the Iranian people’s will yet again, he would risk deepening political fissures that could threaten the survival of the regime. Instead, the supreme leader has gone along with Rouhani’s diplomacy, gambling that he will either be credited with helping secure a nuclear deal, or that the negotiations will collapse and the West will impose new sanctions, giving him an excuse to rein in Rouhani and his moderate allies.
Rather than directly challenge Rouhani — and by extension Khamenei — on the nuclear issue, the hard-liners have instead worked to stymie domestic reform. Overcoming their obstruction will likely depend on striking a nuclear deal that strengthens moderate forces and vindicates the new president’s leadership. If the threat of war remains, hard-liners will be able to further perpetuate Iran’s security-dominated political atmosphere in order to hinder domestic reform. Similarly, if sanctions continue, middle-class Iranians that could form the core of a democratic movement will continue to bear the brunt of the country’s economic plight.
Iran’s hard-liners have bet their political future on the hope that the international community will fall into their trap. The spike in executions — which frequently target alleged drug offenders, as well as political opponents and religious minorities — has been overseen by the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. The Larijani family represents a formidable political bloc in Iran: Sadeq and his four brothers all hold prominent positions in Iran’s political establishment. Sadeq’s brother Ali currently heads Iran’s parliament, which is also dominated by hard-liners, ensuring that the Larijanis exert a powerful influence over two very powerful institutions.
But if Rouhani is successful and fulfills many of his campaign promises, moderates have a strong shot at winning the parliamentary elections in 2016 and booting Ali Larijani from his speakership. Hence, the Larijanis and their hard-line allies have added motivation to ensure that Rouhani fails. The Iranian people, unfortunately, are suffering the consequences.
If Rouhani openly takes on the conservatives over human rights abuses, he will have opened a new front in this political war — but one in which he does not enjoy Khamenei’s support. This in turn could overextend his political capital and limit his ability to get a nuclear deal. If he chooses to deprioritize human rights and stay silent in the face of these abuses — which appears to be the case — the situation is likely to deteriorate even further, and the Green Movement veterans and reformist-oriented voters, who make up an important portion of his base, will be jeopardized.
The rising number of executions also presents the world community with a dilemma. If the United States and Europe use the human rights violations as a justification to punish Iran with sanctions, the hard-liners will get their excuse to end nuclear negotiations. But if the world ignores the abuses, the hard-liners may further intensify the violations to beget a response.
This balancing act will be difficult for both the Rouhani government and the international community. Ignoring the human rights abuses cannot be an option, nor can cancellation of diplomacy. In the near term, diplomats can shine a spotlight on these abuses and push for them to stop — if the international community specifically calls out the conservative-controlled judiciary as the responsible party, the hard-liners will be put on the defensive. Their effort to pass the responsibility for their abuses to the moderates will have failed.
In this process, dialogue is a far more effective method of pressure than threats. European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton’s recent trip to Iran serves as a prominent example. While nuclear negotiations were the primary purpose of her trip, Ashton pressed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on human rights and was able to meet with Iranian women’s rights activists at the Austrian Embassy. The world also has other avenues of highlighting abuses and pressing for change: U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Ahmed Shaheed just issued a new report outlining concerns with the human rights situation in Iran, and should continue his important work.
This balancing act also shows the importance of reaching a nuclear accord — and doing so quickly. The sooner a nuclear deal is struck, the sooner the hard-liners’ trap will fall apart.