On Tuesday, the organization Iran Human Rights published a 120-page report, co-authored by Together Against the Death Penalty, detailing the usage of capital punishment in Iran since the election of President Hassan Rouhani. The report noted a significant increase in the total number of executions compared to the period overseen by Rouhani’s avowedly hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The findings seemingly reinforce the conclusion that many Iranian dissidents and human rights activists made immediately after the current president took office in 2013, namely that expectations of reform under his leadership were groundless.
Rouhani’s election came as a surprise to many observers of Iranian affairs, given that he was not the favored candidate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or any other powerful hardline official. This in turn led some commentators to describe the 2013 election as a partial vindication of Green Movement from four year earlier, which emerged grew out of disputes regarding Ahmadinejad’s supposed election. But underlying the expressions of surprise was recognition of the fact that clerical authorities wield tight control over the electoral process, particularly via the Guardian Council’s power to bar undesirable candidates.
Dissident groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran highlighted this feature of the ruling system in order to argue that if Rouhani’s election was, at best, a concession in name only. Many of Rouhani’s early supporters seemed to embrace this conclusion during his first term in office, which was marked by inaction on virtually all of the progressive talking points that had defined his campaign.
It is generally understood that when the Islamic Republic holds its next presidential election in June, Rouhani’s successor will be drawn from the hardline faction that is closely associated with Khamenei and the regime’s paramilitary force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some Western policymakers have expressed concern over the impact this transition may have on negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. But Tehran has already taken a distinctly hardline position on the status of the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Rouhani has personally insisted that the US must remove all sanctions before Iran takes any steps back toward compliance with the restrictions that deal imposed.
Of course, the deal itself was harshly derided by some Western policymakers as well as by representatives of Iran’s regional adversaries. Skepticism about the regime’s supposed moderation under Rouhani’s nominal leadership helped to drive the US withdrawal, in May 2018, under then-President Donald Trump. His successor, Joe Biden, has signaled willingness to rejoin the pact, but the two sides are recognizably at an impasse and the European signatories are struggling to achieve a breakthrough before Rouhani is replaced.
The potential implications for the JCPOA are unclear, but what is even less clear is what, if any, practical impact Rouhani’s exit will have on domestic affairs in the Islamic Republic. The recent report on capital punishment raises the possibility that a “hardline” presidency could actually coincide with a downturn in certain indicators such as the number of executions. More to the point, the report reinforces the NCRI’s position that the political affiliation of leading figures is irrelevant as long as the existing system of government remains in place. In recent years, that position has been publicly embraced by large numbers of Iranian citizens, via their participation in at least three nationwide uprisings that featured slogans such as, “Hardliners and reformists: the game is over!”
The first of those uprisings took place in December 2017 and January 2018, and encompassed well over 100 cities and towns. A subsequent uprising in November 2019 saw participation in nearly 200 localities and also led to perhaps the most severe political repression since the 1980s. In a matter of only days, the Revolutionary Guards fatally shot approximately 1,500 people, while another 12,000 were arrested. Many of those arrestees were subjected to torture over a period of weeks and months, and a full accounting of the death toll may never been known.
Naturally, deaths from shooting incidents and torturous interrogation are not counted in the official tally of the regime’s executions. This goes to show that the difference in scale of government-sanctioned killing under Ahmadinejad and Rouhani may be even greater than the Iran Human Rights report suggests. While acknowledging that all Iranian death penalty statistics are estimates, the report concludes that 3,327 people were hanged during eight years of the Ahmadinejad administration, and about 4,050 have been hanged so far during Rouhani’s. This breaks down to an average of 35 executions per month in the first place, and 45 per month in the second.
This is contrary to what one might expect if one were to focus solely on news that comports with Rouhani’s moderate public image. In 2017, the Iranian parliament changed the law to allow for lesser sentences in the case of non-violent drug crimes that traditionally accounted for the majority of the country’s executions. This should have led to a precipitous drop in annual death penalty statistics, but in reality the drop-off was modest and was preceded by an especially prolific period of executions.
What’s more, the number of hangings soon began to rise again, owing both to capricious application of the parliamentary reform and to an increase in the pace of implementation for other types of death sentences, including sentences for political charges like “enmity against God” and “spreading corruption on earth.” Iran Human Rights Monitor recently reported that after a 20-day pause in hangings around the time of the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, the Iranian judiciary implemented at least 14 capital sentences during a one-week period.
Although Iran Human Rights acknowledged that the judiciary is technically independent of the presidency, it also emphasized that this does not necessarily absolve the president of responsibility for the overall pace of execution or other forms of corporal punishment. At no point since he took office has Rouhani lived up to his moderate credentials by urging clemency or speaking out publicly against instances of politically motivated execution or execution for crimes that do not rise to the international standard for “most serious.”
Although it is virtually certain that Rouhani’s successor will be similarly deferent to the judiciary and to other hardline authorities, the final months of his eight year administration will most likely reinforce one legacy ahead of all others: confirmation that a moderate public image makes little to no practical difference where the character of an official in the Islamic Republic of Iran is concerned.