Iran has long had a simple and prolific response to political opposition and the worst criminal offenses, namely death by shooting or hanging. Whether opening fire on the streets or leading the world in carrying out the death penalty, the regime insists that morality is on its side.
In early September, before Iran's latest bout of anti-government protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, there was another, quieter demonstration: Relatives of several prisoners sentenced to death staged a sit-in outside the judiciary headquarters in Tehran, urging the authorities to waive the sentences. The crowd, which doggedly refused to disperse, included the convicts' young children.
Executions have been a part and parcel of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception in 1979. The new authorities began shooting cadres of the fallen monarchy with unseemly zeal, usually after a summary trial. On Feb. 14, 1979, barely three days after the regime was installed, the first four of the Shah's generals were shot inside a secondary school in Tehran.
To this day, the regime continues to opt for death by firing squad for its political opponents; the execution method-of-choice for more socio-economic blights like drug trafficking has been death by hanging.
The jurist Abdulkarim Lahiji, who has followed the regime's record of executions, says most former revolutionaries including Islamic liberals or socialists, who now reject the regime and its ways, had an early role in turning executions into a tool of government.
A member of the National Front, a secular party formed in the mid-20th century, Lahiji says not only the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but other clerics, Islamists and "all revolutionary groups, including the Left and the Mujahedin" approved the executions. He was referring to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a Marxist group that fell afoul of the ayatollahs and ultimately saw many of its own members shot in prison in 1988.
Sadiq Khalkhali was a junior cleric and gun-toting prosecutor for the regime in its early days. Once retired, he wrote in his memoirs that Iran's new rulers believed that without use of state terror, "the revolution might not last and people would rise against it." Of the execution of the four generals, he wrote, he had "sentenced 26 people that evening," but unspecified "interventions" prevented him from having more than four shot that night. In time, he added, "I managed to execute all 26."
Hangings for the poor
After the Shah's generals and ministers, Khalkhali proceeded to deal with restless minorities like the Turkmens and Kurds, but also non-political offenders like drug traffickers. It's notable that in a country that has hanged so many for drug-related crimes, not a single big mobster has been executed. Those hanged are usually the destitute who thought they could make a living through drugs. Many in Iran believe there is a reason for this, namely that regime cronies and even generals are the ones running the vast and lethal narcotics trade.
Those hanged are usually the destitute who thought they could make a living through drugs.
Iran is listed as the biggest executor in the world after China, though China's figures are a secret. In terms of executions in proportion to the population, Iran is in fact ahead. From January to mid-September, the Islamic Republic executed 413 convicts, sharply up from the 117 executed in those months in 2021.
This year, 103 of the hanged or more than 25%, were Baluchis, from one of the country's poorest ethnic groups (living near Pakistan). According to the NGO Iran Human Rights, more than 1,500 drug convicts are awaiting execution just in the Qazalhesar prison in Karaj, outside Tehran.
Protesters in the streets this week in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini
The Islamic Republic says executions are needed to curb crime, though figures would contradict them. The UN's drugs and crime agency lists Iran as the second country with the most drug addicts and the first for heroin users. The Coroner's office in Iran itself reports a 23% increase in addiction nationwide. More than 5,300 Iranians died of drug abuse in the Persian year to March 20, 2022, which was 15% more than in the previous year. If executions were a deterrent, surely Iran should have the lowest figures on all these fronts.
Separately, many executions in Iran happen in retaliation for a homicide, in line with the country's talion law. This means the Islamic Republic effectively tasks the family of a victim with executing the killer. This is simple revenge, unrelated to any form of justice.
Fortunately in recent years, more families of victims have accepted hefty payments of blood money in lieu of an execution. When it comes to retaliatory killings, the Islamic Republic claims it does not favor executions but submits to public demand and Islamic laws.
A weapon for quashing dissent
Executions are the regime's ultimate tool in crushing opposition. There is a hike in execution numbers after every bout of protests or mass unrest, and no doubt that can be expected in response to the current uprising that has galvanized the nation. The regime's forces have opened fire in the streets, killing unarmed protesters, with the death toll rising to 76.
There is a hike in execution numbers after every bout of protests or mass unrest.
With the nuclear talks stalled but not in total breakdown, a global energy crisis and the stress of war in Europe, what better time than this for another jab at killing Salman Rushdie or silencing critics as far away as New York? And now, in the streets of Tehran, and around the country, state-sponsored execution rolls on 40-plus years after the revolution.