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April 16 was supposed to be the last day of Balal's life. Seven years after stabbing another teen dead in a street fight, Balal was to be publicly executed in front of his victim's family, in a small town in Iran's northern province of Mazandaran.

Instead, Balal was given a new lease on life when, in the very last minute, he was spared by his victim's mother. The dramatic scenes of Balal, his neck in a noose, being pardoned have received extensive coverage in the media and on social-networking sites.

Since then the scene has been reenacted dozens of times in a wave of forgiveness that belies the authorities' efforts to push the death penalty.

Last week alone, according to the reformist "Shargh" daily, nine individuals sentenced to death were pardoned by victims' families.

Observers say a concerted publicity campaign is at play, but money is also a factor.

Artists, television celebrities, and rights activists have been publicly calling on citizens to spare the lives of those sentenced to death and the media have been sympathetic in their coverage.

In Balal's case, for example, popular TV presenter Adel Ferdowsipour spoke to an audience of millions in favor of him being pardoned.

But Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, a well-known Iranian lawyer who has represented several convicted killers, says that what media call a wave of mercy is in fact a "business."

Under Islamic laws applied in Iran, the families of convicted murderers are able to buy their kin's freedom from victims' families. The official rate for blood money is 150 million toumans -- or about $50,000 -- but often the sum requested is higher.

In Balal's case, his victim's family reportedly received blood money of about 300 million toumans.

"Based on the information I have about some of the cases, I have to say that a large part of the reconciliations in Qisas" -- a reference to the Islamic law of retribution -- "cases are happening in exchange of enormous sums of money from the families of those convicted," Khoramshahi said earlier this month in an interview with fararu.com.

The Tehran-based lawyer added that media should encourage people not to request huge sums of money for showing mercy.

Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said in April that during the past Iranian year -- from March 2013 to March 2014 -- the lives of 358 condemned Iranians were spared under the Islamic law of retribution.

Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, spokesman of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization, says it is not clear how many pardons were prompted by the lure of financial compensation.

But Moghaddam thinks that some Iranians are finding "value" in showing mercy.

"I think as much as the establishment is trying to promote executions," he says, "a culture that goes against it -- a culture of mercy -- is being promoted."

Moghaddam says Iran's civil society and anti-death-penalty groups should be given credit for the trend.

One of the groups active against executions is the "Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty In Iran" campaign, founded by a number of prominent intellectuals and rights activists including former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.

Maleki tells RFE/RL there's a growing distaste for the death penalty in Iran and a tendency toward mercy.

He agrees that many families spare the lives of their relatives' killers for money. At the same time, he says he's come across a number of cases where the families pardoned convicted killers out of compassion.

"It will take time before it becomes ingrained in the society," he says in a telephone interview from Tehran. "People have to realize slowly that money cannot replace forgiveness and sacrifice."

Maleki notes that the trend comes as the Iranian establishment continues to hold public hangings.

"The establishment only knows violence and blood," he says.

One journalist in the Iranian capital says the establishment is already benefiting from the wave of forgiveness because "it shows a more human face of Iran."

But others fear that violence is so deeply rooted in Iranian society that it will take a long time before things change.

The country carried out 665 executions in 2013, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

And with Iranians under tremendous pressures that discourage communication and dialogue, the wave of mercy is not likely to last, according to prominent university professor and sociologist Mostafa Eghlima.

"It's not easy [for people] to forgive someone who has killed their children," he concludes.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would be the most likely force to help Iraq.

To help Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government battle militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Iran could potentially offer significant assistance through its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which reportedly has been active in Iraq during the past decade, analysts say.

What Can Iran Offer?

Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst with the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), believes Iranian military assistance to Iraq would likely focus on several areas: advising, training, planning and coordination; information and intelligence; and supplying military materiel. "I suspect whatever assistance Iran provides at this time will be limited to these areas and kept mostly behind the scenes," Ostovar says.

Light Footprint

Geneva-based researcher Farzan Sabet says Iran is likely to deny any military involvement in Iraq, even in the face of credible reports.

Sabet says Iran's preference for "a light footprint" has been confirmed on a number of occasions since its 1979 Islamic revolution.

"It has relied on small and discreet special operations and intelligence units which gather vital information and act as trainers and advisers to realize its goals," Sabet wrote in a June 30 piece analyzing Iran's potential military intervention in Iraq.

Quds Force

Reports suggest that Iran has already dispatched units of IRGC's elite Quds Force to help Maliki, amid denials by Iranian officials who say they are ready to send arms to Iraq if asked to do so.

Ostovar says the Quds Force detachment and other specialized IRGC units are likely to be relatively small -- in the hundreds.

He believes the role of the Quds Force in Iraq is likely to be similar to the role it has played in Syria, where through training and other measures it has helped Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad stay in power.

"Quds Force is probably helping at two main levels: the political level, helping garner support for Maliki among Shi'a militants and streamlining the response to [ISIL]; and the ground level, helping train, organize and coordinate irregular Shi’a forces."

Involving Shi'ite Militias

Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, believes that Iran will try to mobilize Shi'ite militia that have been dormant in recent years.

"It will surely try to regroup and rearm the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade (although many of its members have since joined the Iranian national security forces). It will probably also take the more controversial step of encouraging the Shi’a militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army to join the fight," Milani wrote in a June 22 analysis published at Foreignaffairs.com.

Milani added that Iran will turn to smaller Shi'ite insurgent groups to push them to join the fight against ISIL.

"Iran believes that the Sunni insurgency can only be defeated if Iraq's fractious Shi’a militias agree to cooperate," he wrote.

Ostovar says the Quds force is likely to coordinate the role of the Shi'a militant groups in the fight against ISIL and help train new recruits.

"Qods Force commanders have worked closely with Shi'a militant groups in the past and helped organize their involvement in Syria, so any effort in Iraq will likely be a continuing evolution of this relationship," Ostovar says.

'Iran Origin' Jets Arrive In Iraq
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WATCH: 'Iran Origin' Jets Arrive In Iraq

Military Materiel

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said on July 2 that imagery analysis of a video released by the Iraqi authorities suggests that Iran has supplied Iraq with Sukhoi jets. The report said it wasn't clear whether the jets will be maintained and piloted by Iranian forces.

Ostovar says it is important to note that these jets are part of IRGC's air fleet.

"I highly doubt that the IRGC would just give them away. I also would be surprised if IRGC pilots were not acting at the very least as advisers and trainers for these aircraft," he told RFE/RL in an email.

Direct Confrontation With ISIL

Analysts believe that for now Iranian forces are not likely to get directly involved in the fight against ISIL.

Ostovar says Iran's calculations could change if ISIL manages to penetrate important Shi'ite shrines, or if ISIL fighters reach the Iranian border.

"If the latter happens, Iranian forces will likely confront [ISIL] directly as a matter of border and national security,” he says.

Sabet also believes that penetration of the Iranian border by ISIL's forces, or threats to Shi'a holy sites or Baghdad, may force Iran to engage in overt operations, including "a pursue-and-destroy mission into Iraqi territory."

Military Cooperation With The U.S.?

Ostovar says direct military coordination or collaboration in Iraq between the United States and Iran is highly unlikely.

"It is possible that, in their respective advisory and training roles, the missions of the U.S. and Iran might come to overlap at some point. However, neither the U.S. nor Iran’s Quds Force want to work with each other, " he says.

U.S. officials have ruled out military cooperation with Iran.

Last month, the spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, said that Iran will never stand alongside the United States.

"America wants to achieve its political goals in Iraq through Iran, therefore Iran will never stand next to the U.S.," Hosseini was quoted as saying by Iranian media on June 24.

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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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