Iran's regime appears to be on an execution spree. It murdered wrestler Navid Afkari in September and hung journalist Ruhollah Zam this month after kidnapping him from Iraq. Iran's regime is not afraid to kill people: It gunned down some 1,400 protesters last year.
What the regime is showing through the high-profile executions is that it can kill journalists and athletes, people who should be protected by modern human-rights laws, and it can do so publicly and openly.
Iran also illegally kidnapped a man named Habib Chaab from Istanbul. The regime is holding up these hangings to the world as a provocation to see how countries react.
Iran's regime does this for two reasons. First of all, it wants to show that amidst US pressure and European appeasement, it can do whatever it wants. This builds on years of attacking countries such as Saudi Arabia, mining ships in international waters, launching missiles at foreign states, funding illegal militias and trafficking weapons all over the Middle East. No other regime in the world does this. Iran's point is that international laws don't apply to it.
Second, Iran wants to deter any protests during the current lead-up to the Biden administration. Iran killed the wrestler because he had protested. It kidnapped and murdered the journalist to send a message to dissidents. The message is that it can kill any dissident, anywhere. It has hunted them down in Europe as well, and it has had almost no pushback from European countries.
Iran killed the journalist days before a major economic conference full of pro-Iran sycophants was supposed to take place. The regime timed this on purpose: It wants to see what the reaction will be. There has been some pushback, so now Iran knows that kidnapping journalists and hanging them may receive some critique.
Iran also kidnapped a British-Australian academic and then traded her for its own detainees abroad. The Islamic Republic is showing that it can kidnap academics, hang journalists and athletes, and ultimately, its extensive lobbying arm abroad will not turn on it.
Tehran has a bevy of support in the West, from across Europe to think tanks in Washington that tend to view Iran's outlaw regime as one of the most important countries in the world. This is strange because one would think that Western democracies would produce a lot of think tanks that tend to like journalists and athletes, the way concepts of international human rights would generally support such people.
But the modern Western states tend to view authoritarian regimes and the hangman's noose as more exotic. Iran has weaved this narrative well, portraying the hangmen as somehow the "extremists" and the foreign ministry in Tehran as the westernizing "moderates." That would be like the US claiming that executions in Texas by electric chair are done by "extremists," while Washington "moderates" have no link to them. Only in Iran does this narrative seem to work.
An example of how Iran's regime gets away with its current spree of kidnappings and killings can be seen in the reports on the kidnapping of Chaab in Turkey. Sky News called this an "audacious cross-border kidnap plan." The use of the term audacious makes it seem like 007 as opposed to an illegal invasion of Turkish sovereignty.
The same Western media that calls this audacious was critical of Saudi Arabia for the fate of former insider-turned-dissident Jamal Khashoggi. There don't seem to be any rules by which Iran is constrained.
Its use of these kidnappings is about showing its capabilities. Dissidents are not safe in Iraq or Turkey, and that is the message. There is no real reaction from Iraq or Turkey. That is Tehran's gamble – to see how far it can go. The reaction generally has been that it can go quite far.
The message to dissidents is that they should be in fear. Iran wants them quiet while the new US administration comes into office. No more embarrassing protests or crackdowns. Iran's people generally abhor the regime. However, they know that Western governments won't help them.
They have been asking for help for years, going back to the protests that erupted after elections in 2009. The protesters hoped the Obama administration would do something; instead, they got the cold shoulder and saw the regime get welcomed by a Washington eager for a "deal" and a change in US policy that would see the US seek to work with Iran.
Iran's calculation now is that dissidents won't operate from Iraq or Turkey, and they likely will live in fear throughout Europe. This is laying the groundwork for Tehran's next move, which will be more military escalation in the region and outreach to further bond itself with allies in Turkey and Russia, seeking to counterbalance the US and also work with China.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.