North Africa, West Asia

Many birds, one stone: why did Iran execute 25 Sunni Kurds in August 2016?

In the chaos and instability the region is experiencing, now more than ever, religious and racial minorities find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Haidar Khezri
21 February 2017
Aurore Belot SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The Kurdish Diaspora demonstrate to ask the release of the Kurdish political prisoners in Iran. May 2016. Aurore Belot SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 3 August 2016 Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, started preliminary negotiations regarding the issue of human rights in Iran.

Only a few hours later, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the head of the human rights council in Iran, announced, “the hell with it if the west is dissatisfied with us regarding human rights.”

Only one day before the negotiation, Iran executed 25 Sunni Kurds on charges of war against God, Islam and the state, spreading corruption, and being members of the Tawhid and Jihad group.

Just after the start of the negotiations, on 9 August, Iran executed six more Kurds, including the political prisoner Mohamed Abdullahi on charges of war against Islam and the state through membership in the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan.

Human Rights Watch and twenty-two international human rights organizations condemned the execution, stating unfair trials and confessions extracted under torture.

According to Kurdistan 24, since the beginning of August at least 48 Kurdish prisoners were executed. Iran is one of the world’s top executioners with nearly 1,000 people executed in 2015 alone.

These executions, as well as their crucial timing, have several global, regional, and local implications that are seldom talked about.


Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan (2001) and the Iraq War (2003), the US has claimed that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), specifically its Quds Force, have given aid to al-Qaeda. Consequently, the US has designated the Quds Force a supporter of terrorism since 2007.

Just three weeks prior to the execution of 25 Kurds, the US Department of Treasury specifically designated Faisal al-Khalidi, Yisra Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Ghumayn as al-Qaeda global terrorists. These three individuals live in Iran.

The execution of 25 individuals, linked to al-Qaeda, according to the Iranian Intelligence, is a way for Iran to represent itself as victim instead of a supporter of terrorism. This issue is more interesting when we view it alongside the fact that the operations of arresting, interrogating, putting on trial etc., were all conducted by Iran’s RGC’s intelligence, which had taken control of the operation in Kurdish and Sunni areas, particularly after the Iranian Green Movement in 2009.


Since Iran’s interference in the Syrian war, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy as well as the foreign policy of most GCC States has shifted from interaction with Iran to collision. 

Adel al-Jubair, who was the target of a failed assassination attempt by Iran’s RGC (according to the US Government), was appointed as the Saudi foreign minister in April 2015.

In September 2015, the Mina stampede caused the death of at least 2,177 people, among them more than 550 Iranians, including Ghazanfar Roknabadi the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon from 2010 to 2014.

This event intensified the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran since the 1987 Mecca incident to the point that Iran finally declared that it would not send its pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. 

The final straw came when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including the prominent Shia cleric and Iran’s advocate Nimr al-Nimr, on 2 January 2016. Iran previously had warned Saudi Arabia that the execution of Nimr al-Nimr would cost Saudi Arabia dearly. “The Saudi government will pay a heavy price for adopting such policies,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Ansari.

The execution of Nimr al-Nimr ignited fury in Iran, and protesters stormed and torched the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. The day after, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry announced that it would cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Only four days later, Iran’s foreign ministry made the claim that Saudi warplanes had “deliberately” targeted its embassy in Yemen in the city of Sanaa.

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, previously head of Saudi intelligence for over two decades, recently attended the 9 July rally backed by the Iranian opposition group People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

The attendance and the speech he gave angered many Iranian officials, particularly the IRGC. Mohsen Rezaei, IRGC commander during the Iran-Iraq War and current secretary of the Expediency Council, accused Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries of supporting recent attacks by Kurdish groups against Iran’s security forces. The attacks were the first major clashes since the 1996 ceasefire between Iran’s RGC and members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. 

As such, the execution of 25 Sunni-Kurds not only included the revenge of executing Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, it also included a message to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, as well as their allies (the US, Israel and GCC states). 

By combining the Kurds with Islamic extremist groups, Iran wanted to limit a successful coalition between the US and Kurds in their wars against ISIL and Islamic extremism. This by default curtails efforts toward the Kurdish dream of an independent state, which has never been so close to becoming reality.


The local repercussions of these executions are powerful, as they contain several messages to the reformists and the general public.

Hasan Rouhani, by declaring the Iranian nuclear issue and civil rights for all citizens the highest priority, won the eleventh Iranian presidential election.

Rouhani received the highest rate of votes from the Sunni-Baloch province of Sistan and Baluchestan (73.3%) and the Sunni-Kurdish province of Kurdistan (70.85%). Fair trials were promised for all prisoners, including the Sunni Kurds, Sunni Baluchis, Baha’i, and Iranian Green Movement’s prisoners. 

Rouhani founded a new government body under the title “Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs” and selected the former intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, as its senior adviser. In one of his earliest interviews, Yunesi admitted that “many cases” of human rights violations, especially against ethnic and religious minorities, were taking place in Iran’s courts and prisons. He blamed these abuses on extremists within the government, who according to him are in “Iranian broadcasting, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the judiciary and security organs, and parliament.” 

In one of his interviews, Yunesi confessed that the Rouhani government wanted to but couldn’t appoint individuals of ethnic or religious minorities to any governor or ministry position, saying that the government also had no power over the house arrest of the Green Movement’s leaders. 

In his last interview on August 27, Yunesi stated, “the Iranian Sunnis can help with eliminating tension with neighboring countries. We consider the Iranian Sunnis an opportunity for [achieving] more security. They can help the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia in obtaining their [demands],” confirming that the Sunni minority in the eye of the Iranian government are nothing but pawns. 

Due to his focus on foreign policy and the nuclear deal, Rouhani’s administration has done little to change the situation of human rights in Iran. Based on surveys and statements from human rights organizations, human rights during the presidency of Rouhani became much worse when compared to the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“The human rights situation in the country remains dire….Iranians are worse off than during the era of Mr. Rouhani’s polarizing and relatively conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the former UN’s special rapporteur. 

After the Iranian nuclear deal, it seems that human rights will occupy the primary place in Rouhani’s policy and plan for his second campaign for office. Rouhani has called on Kurdish and Sunni voters (who represent 30% of the Iranian population) for the next election. 

On the other hand, as the hardliners in Iran did and still do all they can to prevent the Iranian nuclear deal, they will use their entire force to prevent a human rights deal. It’s not without significance that these executions - as a message from the hardliners to the reformists - happened only one day before Mohammad Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini started preliminary negotiations.

In the chaos and instability that the region is experiencing particularly after the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring, the religious and racial minorities now more than ever are situated between a rock and a hard place, with barbaric and extremist groups like ISIL on the one hand, and totalitarian governments on the other. Each of these two sides has accused and punished various minorities for supporting the other.

The rise of right-wing populism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with anti-immigration policies, does not leave much choice for these minorities. In such a situation, human rights conventions seem to be one of only few available options. However it appears, at least in the Iranian case, that it will not be an easy task.

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