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Iran's Minorities Pay The Price For UN's Anti-Drugs Campaign

By Daniel Brett

The Iranian government has stepped up its killings of ethnic and religious minorities with Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis, Sunnis and Christians among its main targets.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) continuing support for Iran's anti-narcotics campaign has legitimised the use of the death penalty.

Drug trafficking charges are often used as a ruse to execute members of "troublesome" minorities. Meanwhile, the failure of the UNODC to condemn Iran's extensive use of the death penalty for drug convictions has encouraged the regime to step up deadly repression of minorities and contributed to the culture of state terror.

Rouhani the "moderate" butcher of Iran

Under President Rouhani, the rate of executions is far higher than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2015, executions rose above 1,000, one of the worst years since the 1988 prison massacres when the regime murdered thousands in a purge on the opposition. In terms of executions per capita, Iran is by far the leading enforcer of the death penalty, exceeding China and the US.

Executions, whether for alleged drug offences or political crimes, fall heavily on the country's non-Persian, non-Shia minorities. These population groups are regarded by a predominantly Persian elite of the Shia theocracy as its chief internal threats.

Mass executions are not intended as a punishment for the victims, they are a message to society. They are a calculated statement by a regime that is feeling vulnerable as the forces of change spill over national borders.

Recently, Kurds have been the main victims of the deadly execution campaign. Last month's mass prison execution of Kurds was a response to growing Kurdish militancy. Encouraged by Kurdish gains in Syria and Iraq and facing rising persecution and marginalisation, Iranian Kurds are in open rebellion. In June, Iranian Kurdish peshmerga and Iranian troops fought for several days in some border towns leading to the deaths of eight combatants on each side.

Western appeasement encouraging deadly repression

Iran's increasing use of the death penalty is a consequence of Western foreign policy towards Iran following the Vienna Agreement on Iran's nuclear weapons programme. In spite of rising internal repression, Iran's international rehabilitation has seen Western powers recast President Rouhani as a "moderate".

Europe and the US are putting aside human rights concerns in order to partner with Tehran in security, trade and international law enforcement. They see a stable, compliant dictatorship in Tehran as preferable to a more plural, democratic Iran. Executions serve the objective of bolstering the regime.

While the UN and Western governments issue rote protests against Iran's execution campaigns, their policies have directly contributed to a climate of state terror and systematic execution campaigns against  non-Persian, non-Shia minorities. Ineffective statements that are not backed by action, coupled with appeasement and direct aid to the security services, have encouraged the regime to increase repression against minorities.

Drugs: an excuse for persecution

The majority of those hanged by the Iranian state are prosecuted for drug offences with minority populations grossly over-represented in the execution statistics.

This is particularly the case in the restive Sunni dominated ethnic Balochi areas where drug trafficking is the only means of economic survival amid discrimination and violent persecution. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the male inhabitants of entire ethnic Balochi villages were wiped out under the pretext of the war on drugs. 

In reality, the chief financial beneficiaries of the Afghan drug trade have been the Iranian government's elite Qods Force with its commander now under US sanctions for trafficking heroin for the Taliban. The value of drugs smuggling operations in Iran was valued by the Iranian government at US$3bn in 2014, compared to US$7bn for oil smuggling. The number of drug addicts in Iran is estimated at 2.7 million with impoverished minorities, particularly Balochis and Ahwazi Arabs, often dependent on drugs imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Europe funds killings

Iran’s executions are a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Iran and every EU member state is a party. The ICCPR states that capital punishment should be reserved for only "the most serious crimes" and cannot be granted without a fair trial. Yet, drug trafficking trials last mere minutes and the accused do not get to see their legal representatives.

Even the UNODC admits that its cooperation with countries which use capital punishment "can be perceived as legitimising government actions." Although it advocates "a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support" in such circumstances, it continues to support Iran's anti-narcotics campaign. The UN’s special rapporteur on Iran Ahmad Shaheed has warned that the regime is using UN support to justify its aggressive use of capital punishment.

While the European Union has a policy of opposing the death penalty,  European governments such as France and Germany contribute to Iranian law enforcement against trafficking through UNODC assistance. This has led to accusations by human rights groups such as Reprieve that Western donors to UNODC programmes in Iran are complicit in execution campaigns. 

In spite of these concerns, further European funding is likely for a recentlyagreed US$20mn UNODC programme in Iran, which could see the doubling of EU money spent on drug raids in Iran. Continued aid to Iran's deadly counter-narcotics programme has bolstered execution as a method of social control.

Kurdish backlash

A backlash among the non-Persian, non-Shia minorities is inevitable. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which had effectively ended its military operations against Tehran in 1996 following a seven year insurgency, has resumed its armed struggle.

Last month, the KDPI's leader Mustafa Hejri told a panel at the Middle EastResearch Institute (MERI): "As KDPI, what should we do? Should we sit and let the Islamic Republic increase its repressions day after day or should we continue a serious struggle as our people, the youth especially, have asked us to do. Our purpose behind resuming the armed struggle is for our fighters to be inside the cities, boost people’s morale, learn the terrain and encourage them to get involved in this struggle."


Soon, the Iranian Kurds will discover whether the West, which did so much to support Syrian Kurds in their struggle against Daesh, is a genuine ally.