Many birds, one stone: why did Iran execute 25 Sunni Kurds in August 2016?

The Kurdish Diaspora demonstrate to ask the release of the Kurdish political prisoners in Iran. May 2016. Aurore Belot SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 3 August 2016 Mohammad Javad Zarif, the
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Federica Mogherini, the High
Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,
started preliminary negotiations regarding the issue of human rights in Iran.

Only a few hours later, Mohammad-Javad
Larijani, the head of the human rights council in Iran, announced, “the hell with it if the west is dissatisfied with us
regarding human rights.”

Only one day before the negotiation, Iran executed
25 Sunni Kurds on charges of war against
God, Islam and the state, spreading corruption, and being members of the Tawhid
and Jihad group.

Just after the start of the negotiations, on 9 August, Iran executed six more Kurds,
including the political prisoner Mohamed Abdullahi on charges of war against
Islam and the state through membership in the Komala Party of Iranian
Kurdistan.

Human Rights Watch and twenty-two international human rights organizations condemned the
execution, stating unfair trials and confessions extracted under torture.

According to Kurdistan 24, since the beginning of August at least 48 Kurdish
prisoners were executed. Iran is one of the world’s top executioners with nearly
1,000 people executed in 2015 alone.

These executions, as well as their crucial
timing, have several global, regional, and local implications that are seldom
talked about.

Globally

Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan
(2001) and the Iraq War (2003), the US has claimed that Iran’s Revolutionary
Guard Corps (IRGC), specifically its Quds Force, have given aid to al-Qaeda. Consequently,
the US has designated the Quds Force a supporter of terrorism since 2007.

Just three weeks prior to the execution of 25
Kurds, the US Department of Treasury specifically designated Faisal al-Khalidi, Yisra Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Ghumayn as
al-Qaeda global terrorists. These three individuals live in Iran.

The execution of 25 individuals, linked to al-Qaeda,
according to the Iranian Intelligence, is a way for Iran to represent itself as victim instead of a supporter of terrorism. This issue is more interesting when we view
it alongside the fact that the operations of arresting, interrogating, putting
on trial etc., were all conducted by Iran’s RGC’s intelligence, which had taken
control of the operation in Kurdish and Sunni areas, particularly after the
Iranian Green Movement in 2009.

Regionally

Since Iran’s interference in the Syrian war, Saudi
Arabia’s foreign policy as well as the foreign policy of most GCC States has
shifted from interaction with Iran to collision. 

Adel al-Jubair, who was the target of a failed
assassination attempt by Iran’s RGC (according to the US Government), was appointed as the Saudi foreign minister
in April 2015.

In September 2015, the Mina stampede caused the death of at least 2,177 people, among them more than 550 Iranians, including
Ghazanfar Roknabadi the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon from 2010 to 2014.

This event intensified the tension between Saudi
Arabia and Iran since the 1987 Mecca incident to the point that Iran finally declared that it would not send its pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. 

The final straw came when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including the prominent Shia cleric and Iran’s
advocate Nimr al-Nimr, on 2 January 2016. Iran previously had warned Saudi
Arabia that the execution of Nimr al-Nimr would cost Saudi Arabia dearly. “The
Saudi government will pay a heavy price for adopting such policies,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Ansari.

The execution of Nimr al-Nimr ignited fury in
Iran, and protesters stormed and torched the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. The day
after, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry announced that it would cut diplomatic
ties with Iran. Only four days later, Iran’s foreign ministry made the claim that Saudi warplanes had “deliberately” targeted its embassy in Yemen in
the city of Sanaa.

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a member of
the Saudi royal family, previously head of Saudi intelligence for over two
decades, recently attended the 9 July rally backed by the Iranian
opposition group People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

The attendance and the speech he gave angered
many Iranian officials, particularly the IRGC. Mohsen Rezaei, IRGC commander
during the Iran-Iraq War and current secretary of the Expediency Council, accused Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries of supporting recent attacks by
Kurdish groups against Iran’s security forces. The attacks were the first major
clashes since the 1996 ceasefire between Iran’s RGC and members of the
Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. 

As such, the execution of 25 Sunni-Kurds not
only included the revenge of executing Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, it also
included a message to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala Party of Iranian
Kurdistan, as well as their allies (the
US, Israel and GCC states). 

By combining the Kurds with Islamic extremist
groups, Iran wanted to limit a successful coalition between the US and Kurds in
their wars against ISIL and Islamic extremism. This by default curtails efforts
toward the Kurdish dream of an independent state, which has never been so close
to becoming reality.

Locally

The local
repercussions of these executions are powerful, as they contain several
messages to the reformists and the general public.

Hasan Rouhani, by declaring the Iranian nuclear
issue and civil rights for all citizens the highest priority, won the eleventh
Iranian presidential election.

Rouhani received the highest rate of votes from the Sunni-Baloch province
of Sistan and Baluchestan (73.3%) and the Sunni-Kurdish province of Kurdistan
(70.85%). Fair trials were promised for all prisoners, including the Sunni
Kurds, Sunni Baluchis, Baha’i, and Iranian Green Movement’s prisoners. 

Rouhani founded a new government body under
the title “Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs” and selected the former
intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, as its senior adviser. In one of his
earliest interviews, Yunesi admitted that “many cases” of human rights violations, especially
against ethnic and religious minorities, were taking place in Iran’s courts and
prisons. He blamed these abuses on extremists within the government, who according to him are in “Iranian broadcasting, the Army of the
Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the judiciary and security organs, and
parliament.” 

In one of his interviews, Yunesi confessed that the Rouhani government wanted to but couldn’t appoint
individuals of ethnic or religious minorities to any governor or ministry position,
saying that the government also had no power over the house arrest of the Green Movement’s leaders. 

In his last interview on August 27, Yunesi stated, “the Iranian Sunnis can help with eliminating tension with neighboring
countries. We consider the Iranian Sunnis an opportunity for [achieving] more
security. They can help the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia in obtaining their
[demands],” confirming that the Sunni minority in the eye of the Iranian government
are nothing but pawns. 

Due to his focus on foreign policy and the nuclear
deal, Rouhani’s administration has done little to change the situation of human
rights in Iran. Based on surveys and statements from human rights
organizations, human rights during the presidency of Rouhani became much worse when
compared to the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“The human rights situation in the country
remains dire….Iranians are worse off than during the era of Mr. Rouhani’s
polarizing and relatively conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the former UN’s special rapporteur. 

After the Iranian nuclear deal, it seems that human
rights will occupy the primary place in Rouhani’s policy and plan for his
second campaign for office. Rouhani has called on Kurdish and Sunni voters (who represent 30% of the Iranian population)
for the next election. 

On the other hand, as the hardliners in Iran
did and still do all they can to prevent the Iranian nuclear deal, they will
use their entire force to prevent a human rights deal. It’s not without
significance that these executions – as a message from the hardliners to the
reformists – happened only one day before Mohammad Javad Zarif and Federica
Mogherini started preliminary negotiations.

In the chaos and instability that the region
is experiencing particularly after the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab
Spring, the religious and racial minorities now more than ever are situated
between a rock and a hard place, with barbaric and extremist groups like ISIL on the one hand, and totalitarian governments on the other. Each of these two sides has accused and punished
various minorities for supporting the other.

The rise of right-wing populism on both sides
of the Atlantic Ocean, with anti-immigration policies, does not leave much
choice for these minorities. In such a situation, human rights conventions seem
to be one of only few available options. However it appears, at least in the
Iranian case, that it will not be an easy task.

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