"No one is executed in Iran for political motives; our judiciary is independent," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a November 6 interview
with the French daily, "Le Monde."
Most of the executions carried out in Iran occur as a consequence of drug-trafficking convictions. But human-rights groups say the death penalty continues to be used as a tool
to stifle political dissent, especially among ethnic minorities.
Zarif made his comment two weeks after 16 prisoners were hanged in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province in an apparent retaliation for the October 26 killing of 14 border guards along the border with Pakistan. Iranian officials said the men were "bandits linked to groups hostile to the state." Officials said they had been convicted and sentenced previously.
About 10 more prisoners were executed in November for a variety of offenses. Among those put to death was Kurdish activist Sherko Moarefi
, who had been sentenced on charges that included Moharebeh (waging war against God) and membership in the leftist group Komala, which has been branded a terrorist organization by Iran.
A translation of Zarif's interview with "Le Monde," particularly his comment regarding executions, was discussed among Iranians on social media and condemned by some who accused him of lying to portray Iran positively ahead of nuclear talks with Western powers.
The talks in Geneva ended on November 9 without an agreement, though another round of talks is expected in 10 days.
Many Iranians are hoping for a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers that could lead to an easing of Western sanctions, which have made their life increasingly difficult.
Yet, some are also wondering whether a nuclear deal with Iran would mean an end to Western concerns over the human-rights situation in the Islamic republic.
The fact that Zarif's statement about executions went largely unnoticed and the relatively muted Western reaction to the recent execution wave in Iran have contributed to the perception that once a nuclear deal is signed, human-rights abuses will go ignored. On the other hand, a nuclear deal could also lead to a relative opening up of the domestic atmosphere and an improvement in the rights situation.
The Iranian judiciary, which Zarif claimed is independent, has been one of the main instruments through which hard-liners have silenced and pressured their opponents over the years. The recent surge of executions in Iran is being seen by some observers as a show of force by the hard-liners, who would like to maintain the status quo.
Some analysts believe a nuclear deal could give Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his team more leverage to put promises of moderation on the domestic front into action. Rohani has criticized state interference in the lives of Iranians. He's also spoken against censorship and said that Iranians should have access to information.
Since the cleric came to power in August, the heavily securitized atmosphere in Iran has slightly loosened up, activists inside the country say. But there is still a long way to go for Iranians to be able to enjoy basic rights.
Well-known religious and nationalist activist Taghi Rahmani says a nuclear deal leading to a lifting of the crippling sanctions that Iran faces would create a "positive psychological shock" in Iranian society.
"It would give Rohani and his team more bargaining power with the hard-liners. A successful deal would definitely, positively impact social and political conditions inside of Iran," Rahmani said in a November 8 interview
with RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, a former deputy culture minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, also told RFE/RL that a nuclear deal could "to some degree" tie the hands of the hard-liners in charge of key institutions.
"The real winners could be the Iranian people; the pressure they've been facing in the past 10 years could ease."
A journalist in Tehran who did not want to be named said a nuclear deal could be "the key" for Rohani to open other doors. A key was Rohani's campaign symbol.
At the same time, Rahmani warned that hard-liners could try to strike back by pushing for more repressive measures, including more executions.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari