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Grappling with Pandemic, Sabotage, Iran Turns to Executions to Quell Unrest
A demonstrator wears a hangman's noose as he protests against executions in Iran at a gathering to demand regime change in Iran on July 17, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Grappling with Pandemic, Sabotage, Iran Turns to Executions to Quell Unrest

Regime hopes for some much-needed stability

In the midst of growing public unrest over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, the Iranian government declared Monday that it had executed Mahmoud Mousavi-Majd, who was convicted of spying for Israeli and American intelligence agencies. It was Iran’s second execution of an alleged spy in a week. One day earlier, the authorities in Tehran announced that the execution of three men arrested a year ago while protesting in the capital would be suspended following mass demonstrations.

The Media Line spoke with analysts and former Israeli defense officials about the current state of mind of the Iranian leadership, the possible reasons behind the growing number of death sentences, and the chances of a change in Iranian national and international policy.

“We have no way to assess whether [the allegations of spying] are true,” admits Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general who headed the research department in the Israeli military’s Intelligence Directorate and served as director-general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry. “But obviously, the [Iranians] have to show they’re in control. So they say they caught a spy who was involved in the [Soleimani] killing.”

Mousavi-Majd was accused of supplying crucial information regarding the whereabouts of deceased Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. He was arrested two years ago after allegedly collecting classified material about the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, who was killed in January by a US drone strike in Baghdad. Iranian authorities reiterated that while the alleged spy did pass information to Mossad and CIA agents, his actions did not directly lead to Soleimani’s death.

Kuperwasser believes that a recent rash of explosions and fires that have plagued Iran’s nuclear and infrastructure facilities is what drove the leadership to respond with a big gesture. “It speaks to their inability to deal with outside threats,” he explains. “It began with Israel’s [Mossad] obtaining the Iranian nuclear archive papers [in January of 2018]. It seems like they can’t secure intelligence breaches. So, they have to somehow show they are in command of the situation.”

It seems like they can’t secure intelligence breaches. So, they have to somehow show they are in command of the situation

“The explosions over the past month have surely accelerated that. There’s a feeling of helplessness. It’s an ongoing saga, along with [Israel’s] campaign in Syria. They’re having a hard time defending themselves.”

Mousavi-Majd’s death comes on the heels of last week’s decision by Iran’s high court to suspend the executions of three men who were arrested while protesting a hike in petrol prices in November of last year. Mass demonstrations erupted across the country ahead of the planned executions, and the hashtag #DontExecute caught on like wildfire on social media, used millions of times online by ordinary Iranians as well as celebrities and influential public figures.

Prof. Meir Litvak, head of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies, explains the relative indifference with which the two spies’ executions were received, as opposed to the plans to execute government protesters. “The Iranians are patriots, even those who don’t like their rulers. They don’t appreciate foreign attacks,” he says.

“Even if [the explosions and leaks in nuclear facilities] aren’t directly attributed to Israel or the US, even if it’s blamed on faulty maintenance, then that’s the economic sanctions’ fault. Either way, it still offends their national pride. There isn’t much sympathy for people accused of spying on Israel’s behalf.” Even so, Litvak admits that the Iranian people take government accusations of spying with a grain of salt. “There is some [suspicion] toward such claims.”

Like Kuperwasser, Litvak believes the recent attacks on its soil prove the Iranian regime is “badly penetrated” and that President Hassan Rouhani and his allies feel “pressured and threatened”. He explains, “If someone can place a bomb in the Natanz [uranium-enrichment] site, that means they had great intelligence and that the Iranian counterintelligence is riddled with holes. For a dictatorship, that’s a huge red light. So they search for someone to pin the blame on.”

But it isn’t just outside threats that worry Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. According to Litvak, “The regime is deeply troubled by the protests themselves. Commanders in the Revolutionary Guards constantly give interviews about how prepared they are to face ‘enemies from within,’ how their equipment is state of the art, how well-trained they are to face uprisings. They’re telling the public, don’t test us.”

If someone can place a bomb in the Natanz [uranium-enrichment] site, that means they had great intelligence and that the Iranian counterintelligence is riddled with holes. For a dictatorship, that’s a huge red light. So they search for someone to pin the blame on

While Kuperwasser recognizes that public unrest is growing, he advises against painting the public with just one brush. “There are all sorts of opinions in the street. Some support the regime; some oppose it vehemently. Some are reformists who demand certain changes but not the total overthrow of the regime. Generally what they all have in common is, they’re suffering financially. And the regime isn’t signaling in any way it plans to change its ways, regarding the economic hardships, the coronavirus, becoming more effective and less corrupt. So yes, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction.”

While the protests over unemployment and the economy have grown in recent weeks, both experts don’t see any imminent threat to the Ayatollahs’ regime from within. As proof, Litvak points to Iran’s election to keep allocating huge sums towards its foreign policy in Syria and Lebanon. “There seems to be no significant slowdown in the Iranian build up in Syria, otherwise why would Israel attack there repeatedly?”

It is widely believed that the Israeli Air Force executes the near-weekly airstrikes in Syria and southern Lebanon against Iranian bases and troops, though Jerusalem almost never verifies these claims.

“The [Iranian] regime hasn’t given up its aspirations for a military presence in Syria, despite all its inner and outer struggles,” Litvak concludes. “They just won’t give up on controlling places like Iraq for instance. It’s their front yard. It’s critical to them.”

The [Iranian] regime hasn’t given up its aspirations for a military presence in Syria, despite all its inner and outer struggles. They just won’t give up on controlling places like Iraq for instance. It’s their front yard. It’s critical to them

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