On January 10, 2018, Iran moved to scale back its death sentences for those incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Though in the works since 2016, the timing of this decision is a clear attempt to shift the international community’s focus away from Iran’s current tumultuous internal strife.
While this appears on the surface to be a solid step for Iran’s political ethos, recent protests beginning at the end of 2017 and spilling into the new calendar year underline a distinct domestic cynicism. First, we’ll take a look at Iran’s history of executions as it relates to its new policy; then we’ll delve into the ongoing protests. We’ll conclude with the global implications of Iran’s actions; Mark Dubowitz is one expert who has written about this.
Iran’s Record(ed) Numbers
Iran’s use of Sharia law in governance has spurred endless criticism from the international community. Past conduct that warranted execution in Iran for “non-violent” crimes includes insulting the Prophet, apostasy, homosexuality, adultery, and drugs or drug-related crimes. Nearly three decades ago, Iran reportedly had the highest rate of executions in the world. Though numbers still ran high, they dipped until 2015, when it spiked to a reported 1,000, accounting for 55% of the world’s executions that year. Additionally, there are 73 known cases of juvenile offenders executed since 2005. Currently, Iran is second only to China in the number of executions per year.
The new changes exempting some drug-related crimes from the death penalty could reverse of the fate of approximately 5,000 people currently on Iran’s death row for that class of crime. According to Iran’s Parliament, those in line for execution can have their cases fully re-examined. However, the new amendment stipulates that those possessing or distributing more than 50 kg of narcotics will still face capital punishment. Previously, 5 kg of opium or 30 g of heroin was enough to warrant the death penalty.
Protests and The Price of Eggs
The reduction in qualifiers for execution is objectively good news, but tempered with the recent flare-up of protests, one must wonder if the impetus for the decision is a temporary measure to save face.
In late December of 2017, protests erupted across Iran. On the surface, the protests broke out over a 40% increase in the price of eggs. However, the bigger picture clearly shows that a stagnant and corrupt economy has enriched the mullahs while leaving the Iranian people struggling.
This most recent spark in protests began in Mashhad, known as Iran’s spiritual capital, with a population of conservatives who largely voted for Rouhani’s opponent, Ibrahim Raesi, in the last election. Because it is a 3-million-strong hub of pilgrimage and tourism, the drive to turn a dime (or rial) on those travelers is exacerbating the class divide. The effort to draw people with luxurious accommodations and entertaining places to stay contrasts with the city’s scanty infrastructure. Additionally, the rural poor and traditionally austere pilgrims have felt alienated in a city rooted in spirituality but lacking in affluence.
President Rouhani’s official reaction to the protests stated that Iranians do have a right to criticize the government, especially since the people have long experienced corrupt governments under the Islamic Republic. However, during his four-and-a-half years as president, Rouhani has failed to take any meaningful steps to strengthen Iran’s human rights. In this context, the protests mark a direct repudiation of Rouhani’s record.
However, as protests and clashes with police spread across the country, the government blocked access to Iran’s popular social media app, Telegram, and also restricted use of Instagram. Officials claimed the social media apps were being used to coordinate among protesters to spread violence. The protests as a whole have remained peaceful, while government officials and IRGC representatives issued sharp statements demonizing those protesting as enemies of the state.
Though full access has since been reinstated first to Instagram, then to Telegram, the latter was restored only after two full weeks of shuttered free speech and communication.
When Will Iran Be Held Accountable?
Mark Dubowitz, a financial and economic analyst who serves as CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan think tank, has highlighted Iran’s deplorable human rights record and the lack of accountability enforced by the U.S. and the international community. Despite protests and unrest with Iran’s own people, the global spotlight more often focuses on Iran when the topic turns to their nuclear interests.
The JCPOA has been a hotly debated topic in the United States since its finalization in 2015, particularly in light of President Trump’s reluctance to sign off on Iran’s compliance. Mark Dubowitz (www.markdubowitz.org) has warned that Iran’s compliance is merely a means to regain access to their financial assets. He argues that Iran’s financial gains would not got towards the betterment of its own people, but rather for more sinister reasons. Dubowitz and FDD have long been fighting for stricter sanctions against Iran for its history of stirring up instability, and the threat it poses to America, its allies, and the well-being of its own people.
Dubowitz has been championing the need to hold Iran accountable for its regional aggression and domestic repression. These are lessons that we should learn from to keep America and its allies safe.