The gallows are working overtime in Iran.
Those who hoped that the election last June of moderate Hasan Rouhani as the Iranian president would be a step forward for the theocratic state will be disappointed by reports circulating this week that executions have actually increased. According to Iran Human Rights, a group based in Norway, the number of executions was 15 percent higher in 2013, despite President Rouhani's attempts to moderate the image and policies of Tehran.
Almost 500 people were hanged in the weeks and months that followed Rouhani's surprise election last summer. By comparison, just 200 were executed in the preceding months. Elected on promises of reform, Rouhani has seen his limitations becoming evident by the boldness with which the more conservative elements in power have proceeded with executions. The message seems to be that no matter what changes are actually carved out by Rouhani and his supporters in the realm of either the much-needed structural economic reform or the delicate nuclear negotiations, the totalitarian regime will itself not be dislodged.
Capital punishment is deeply engrained in Iranian life. Under Iranian law, a victim's family is able to decide on the appropriate punishment for a criminal perpetrator. As a result, an eye-for-an-eye attitude is prevalent. In fact, hundreds of people often assemble to see a public execution. In 2013 alone, there were almost 60 such spectacles. Interestingly, like many aspects of life in today's Iran, the burdens imposed by the totalitarian regime do not sit equally on the shoulders of all Iranians. Wealthy Iranians are often able to pay victims' families blood money in order to avoid a hangman's noose. Unfortunately, those who are poor do not have the same options.
The concern of many in and out of Tehran is that with reactionary forces tightening their grip, human rights will not remain a sufficiently high priority for either the Rouhani administration or the West. Many are worried that Rouhani is in fact succumbing to pressure from hard-liners within the regime to deliver relief from the crippling nuclear sanctions while pushing off indefinitely any attempts at meaningful social reform. The fact that Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the two leaders of the ill-fated Green Movement, which arose after the disputed 2009 elections, are still under house arrest demonstrates how little has changed in the inner workings of the regime.
The conservative judiciary has also demonstrated that it has more than just death penalties at its disposal. Last month, Maryam Shafipour made international headlines when she was sentenced to seven years in prison as a result of her nonviolent protests. After the massive demonstrations that followed the 2009 elections, large-scale purges were orchestrated to re-establish state control. Five years on, a more focused approach appears to be the order of the day.
The recent Persian new year celebration, known as Nowruz, brought little joy to those middle-class Iranians hoping for improvements to their economy and liberalizations across their society, despite President Barack Obama's video greeting that was recorded for the occasion. As long as the international sanctions are in place, the Iranian economy will continue to be ground down. Inflation is a pernicious challenge, with the prices of staples such as bread and lamb doubling and tripling in recent years. A proposed increase in the national minimum wage of 25 percent would do little to make up for the skyrocketing costs of living, even if the Rouhani administration were able to get it passed.
With the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in control of huge segments of the Iranian economy and the corruption endemic after the previous government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are no simple or straightforward solutions to taming inflation and driving real economic growth. Confronting the economic interests of the entrenched governing elites directly is unlikely to produce success in the short term and could deny Rouhani whatever meaningful spirit of support and collaboration he currently enjoys from key economic decision-makers.
Meanwhile, the voters in Iran now expect meaningful change after putting their faith in Rouhani and his promises of reform. The challenges of governing are, of course, much different from the challenges of campaigning. Having surprised many by winning the election, Rouhani must now deliver on his promises in a country where his powers as president are even more circumscribed and limited than the chief executives elsewhere around the world.
Rouhani must constructively engage the theocratic hierarchy and the upper echelons of the IRGC in order to have any hope of achieving his goals. Unfortunately, these elites are keen to demonstrate that Rouhani's recent rise in no way equates to a corresponding decline in their ultimate authority.
The busy gallows are a grisly reminder of where real power continues to reside in today's Iran.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.