The decision by Iranian judicial authorities to start executing political dissidents shows the courts are closer to the regime than ever and neither has any intention of compromising with protesters.
Two political prisoners have been executed and the courts have imposed nine further death sentences; the country is waiting to find out whether there will be more.
On January 28, two political suspects, Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad Alizamani, were hanged in the wake of protests that took place following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections. It was later revealed that the two had been arrested weeks before the elections. One day after their execution, in his Tehran Friday prayers sermon, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati of the Guardian Council secretariat thanked the judiciary for the death sentences, saying, "Wherever we have been weak, we have suffered. If you show weakness, a worse future awaits you."
Pressure by hardline groups to confront the opposition started long ago. A few days after the violent confrontation between the regime and protesters last December, 36 conservative members of parliament presented a bill in which the judiciary was asked to reduce the time between sentencing and execution of dissidents.
Later, seven of the deputies withdrew signatures, quoting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as having demanded that suspects be treated according to current laws. At the same time, though, pro-government newspapers and clerics call on the authorities to confront the opposition.
Sadegh Larijani's appointment by Khamenei as head of the Iranian judiciary last August shows the regime's determination to crack down harder on dissidents. Larijani is one of the youngest and least experienced clerics ever to hold this sensitive post. In his letter of appointment, Khamenei showed a special interest in Larijani, calling him "excellency" and "the honorable and wise scholar, may his successes be continued". There was no such effusive warmth in the letter of appointment to the former head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, ten years ago.
Unlike Shahroudi, who had relative independence in his role, Larijani is a follower of Khamenei. Larijani's appointment came at a time when widespread arrests of dissidents had taken place after a crackdown by Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia on orders from Saeed Mortazavi, the then Tehran prosecutor.
To continue the crackdown with death sentences or long prison terms, someone was needed who would act in better coordination with the supreme leader and forces near to him. A moderate ayatollah such as Shahroudi was unable to fill that need.
Shahroudi had been involved in cases such as the Iranian bloggers in 2004 who were held for months and forced to write false confessions, taking over from elements within the judiciary who had been in charge of the cases.
In several instances of people sentenced to death by stoning, he intervened directly and stopped the executions. It was also during Shahroudi's term that death sentences against several political prisoners, such as dissident Kurdish journalist Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand, were commuted by Iran's supreme court. Only a head of the judiciary in tune with all the security forces could ensure the crackdown on the opposition was complete.
From the very beginning, Larijani appointed older, experienced, and conservative figures with a security background to the highest positions in the judiciary. This showed that Iran's leadership was keen to confront the dissidents, dozens of whom had been imprisoned after the elections.
Ebrahim Raisi, the deputy head of the judiciary, who was not very active during Shahroudi's term, assumed an important role after Larijani's appointment.
The late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri wrote in his memoirs that Raisi played a pivotal role in ad hoc and widespread executions of political dissidents in the summer of 1988.
He is also the son-in-law of Ahmad Alam-ol-Hoda, one of the most extreme clerics close to Khamenei. Alam-ol-Hoda suggested that those arrested during protests last December should be executed like those during the summer of 1988.
Last week in a speech, Raisi said nine more protesters were to be executed soon, adding, "Those who use the terms 'Islamic mercy' and 'clemency' should know that our confrontation with rioters will continue to the end and we will remove the roots of sedition."
Larijani also appointed former Ahmadinejad cabinet minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie as prosecutor general. Ejeie had an important role in newspaper closures and crackdowns on journalists during the so-called "reformist years", and some Iranian journalists have claimed that he was involved in the serial murders of dissident intellectuals during the 1990s.
In a speech in January, Ejeie said, "Whoever stands up and riots against the 'righteous guardian' (Khamenei) will be known as an insurgent and his sentence according to Sharia is execution."
Raisi and Ejeie both studied at the Haghani seminary, a school famous for training extremist religious elements. Its graduates have taken important positions in Iran's security and intelligence organisations. Ali Razini, another Larijani deputy, is also a graduate of this school.
After raids by plainclothes and Basij militia forces on Tehran University dormitories last June, which brought protests even from moderates and conservatives, and after it was revealed that three protesters had been murdered in the illegal Kahrizak detention centre, Larijani ordered a three-person judicial committee to find the culprits.
Raisi and Ejeie were two of the committee's members. Its composition disappointed those who hoped it would reveal the truth behind these tragic events. The committee never found anyone to blame. According to official records, at least 38 people lost their lives on the streets and at least three people died in Kahrizak during the post-election events.
In a recent interview, Mousavi, the main opposition figure since the June elections, complained about the penetration of intelligence forces in the Iranian judiciary, saying, "We need to know whether it is the judges who are issuing orders and decisions or police and intelligence forces?"
The appointment in January of a top Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, as adviser to the head of the judiciary is a prime example of such penetration. It was the Revolutionary Guards who took control of the post-election crisis management and they are responsible for the arrest and interrogation of prominent political prisoners, and extracting confessions from prisoners. A subsidiary of the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia, also played an important role in the crackdown on street protesters in the weeks after the elections.
Zolghadr was deputy commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, the interior ministry's deputy for security and deputy commander of the armed forces. He is one of the Revolutionary Guards commanders who signed a threatening letter to then president Mohamad Khatami in 1999. He is a radical supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and said after he came to power in 2002, "Mr Ahmadinejad's election as president was the result of a multi-layered plan by his supporters."
After the recent presidential elections in Iran, not only were Iranian reformists and regime critics excluded from the executive branch, they were faced with a judiciary that marches in lockstep with the military and intelligence forces. Recent executions implement the judiciary's policy as expounded by Ejeie recently, "Whoever riots against the Islamic regime will receive the Sharia sentence of execution."
The judiciary, which in practice is also directly responsible for controlling the press and the internet and confronting political and civil society activists, has cast a veil of fear and intimidation over society in order to deal with the post election political crisis. A journalist in Tehran said, "Writing in newspapers and blogs can bring a prison or even death sentence."
Under such circumstances, more executions of regime opponents are likely. It remains to be seen to what extent the iron-fist crackdown by the judicial authorities will continue. Will Iranian leaders be willing to transform the regime into a fully-fledged violent dictatorship or not?
This article originally appeared in [Mianeh Reports], produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net