Source: The Daily Telegraph, Friday 24 August 2007
By Con Coughlin
Stonings, hangings, floggings, purges. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might claim that United Nations sanctions can’t hurt his country, but that is not how it feels for Iran’s long-suffering population which now finds itself on the receiving end of one of the most brutal purges witnessed since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The most visible manifestation of the new oppression sweeping Iran has been the wave of public executions and floggings carried out in Teheran and provincial capitals over recent weeks in a blatant attempt by the regime to intimidate political opponents. The official government line is that the punishments are part of its "Plan to Enforce Moral Behaviour".
It’s the same kind of argument that was used immediately after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control to purge the country of its prosperous, secular middle class and secure his hold on power. Now Mr Ahmadinejad is adopting similar tactics in a desperate attempt to keep his embattled regime in power.
Although Iran has one of the world’s highest execution rates, until recently most of the sentences were carried out within the confines of prisons such as Teheran’s notorious Evin complex. But this month diplomats at the Japanese and Australian embassies in the capital were alarmed to find the bodies of two convicted criminals hanging from cranes stationed directly outside their office windows.
The location of the cranes, at a busy thoroughfare surrounded by office blocks, was chosen as much to remind the diplomatic community that Mr Ahmadinejad’s hardline regime was still very much in charge as to send a message to ordinary citizens.
For these public executions, together with the estimated 30 others that have taken place in other parts of the country, are nothing more than a brutal exercise in political, as opposed to religious, persecution. There have also been several public floggings carried out on men and women accused of flouting the strict morality laws. Many of the executions were shown live on Iranian television. The message the government wants to get across is clear: mess with us and this is what will happen to you.
However much the authorities insist the sentences relate only to their campaign to improve public morals, Western diplomats in Teheran believe many of the victims have been singled out for their participation in the anti-government fuel riots that erupted in late June.
Those disturbances, in which an estimated third of the country’s petrol stations were destroyed by protesters angry at the introduction of fuel rationing (Iran, remember, boasts the world’s second largest oil reserves), can be seen as a direct consequence of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
It was the first serious challenge the regime encountered since setting itself on a collision course with the West following Mr Ahmadinejad’s surprise election as president two years ago. So it is no coincidence that the past two months have seen a dramatic increase in the execution rate.
Far from being pressured into changing tack on Iran’s nuclear programme, Mr Ahmadinejad’s regime remains determined to pursue the holy grail of uranium enrichment. It is even prepared to take extreme measures to silence domestic opposition, while at the same time placing loyal supporters of the regime under intense pressure to ensure the country’s nuclear programme is not unduly affected by the UN sanctions.
In this respect, the deal agreed this week between Teheran and the United Nations-sponsored International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based organisation responsible for monitoring Iran’s "peaceful" nuclear programme, should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The official line from Teheran is that it is now prepared to readmit teams of UN nuclear experts to its top secret nuclear facilities and help clear up a number of issues relating to the development programme. This includes determining what small traces of weapons-grade uranium were doing at a facility that the Iranians insist is part of their nuclear power programme, which does not require uranium to be enriched to such a high level. But many diplomats suspect this is just another Iranian ploy to string out the UN while pressing ahead with its nuclear ambitions.
Certainly there appears to have been no let-up in Iran’s quest to acquire sophisticated uranium enrichment technology irrespective of the effects of sanctions. According to reports recently received by Western security sources, Iran has been concentrating its efforts on acquiring tens of thousands of highly specialised magnets that are an important component in the successful operation of the gas centrifuges that are used for uranium enrichment.
Until the imposition of the UN sanctions this year Teheran had been able to buy industrial magnets from European Union countries. Now they are having to buy them on the black market, and are making intensive efforts to acquire the equipment illegally from former Soviet republics and the Far East. It’s all crucial if the Iranians want to enrich uranium to a level that can be used for nuclear warheads.
The Iranians’ determination to get the magnets and other sophisticated industrial equipment has led Reza Tahmasebi, Iran’s minister of industries and mines who was given responsibility for acquiring the magnets, to tender his resignation. When it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme, Mr Ahmadinejad clearly wants results, not excuses.
Mr Tahmasebi is just one of several prominent officials who have found themselves out of a job because of their failure to help Mr Ahmadinejad escape the more punitive affects of the UN economic sanctions.
The governor of Iran’s Central Bank, Ibrahim Shibani, is reported to have been relieved of his duties for failing to supervise adequately the return of Iranian overseas assets before they could be frozen, and dozens of other senior officials have lost their jobs as the regime seeks to tighten its grip over the entire apparatus of government.
None of which is good news for those who still cling to the notion that the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme can still be resolved by peaceful means.