Special Iranian anti-corruption courts established this summer have in recent weeks handed down harsh sentences, including the death penalty, to business executives accused of taking advantage of worsening economic conditions caused by U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The tribunals, established by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in August, are part of a high-profile government crackdown on corruption amid growing public anger over high unemployment and other economic ills.
The Trump administration in November reimposed a near-total embargo on Iran’s economy, sanctioning areas including oil sales and bank transactions, to pressure Tehran to give up its ballistic missile program and abandon its support for armed proxy groups in the Middle East.
The economic woes have given rise to mounting calls inside Iran for corrupt business executives and officials to be tried and punished.
Authorities this month hanged two prominent currency traders for hoarding gold coins as the rial plunged to record lows against the dollar this summer, causing gold prices to surge. At least three others have also recently been sentenced to death for similar crimes — and scores more arrested — according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, which has tracked the prosecutions.
“Some people who’ve been enraged feel relieved,” said a Tehran-based legal scholar named Mohsen, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used for fear of retribution from authorities.
He added that the public also wants to see high-level government officials put on trial for economic crimes and that many Iranians have little faith that senior officials will be prosecuted.
“The judiciary is one of the most loathed institutions of the Islamic Republic,” he said.
The new courts were set up by special decree after judicial officials asked Khamenei to grant them more flexibility to go after “enemies” they said had sabotaged Iran’s economy and currency in recent months.
Khamenei approved the use of revolutionary courts — which try security and other crimes against the Islamic Republic — for two years to take “swift and just” legal action against “those who are guilty of corrupt economic practices,” he said, according to Iranian state television.
“The special economic courts appear to have two goals: to deter illegal economic activity and to show the public that the government is taking the economic crisis seriously,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm in New York.
However, Rome and other analysts say, corruption is too widespread for the trials to carry any weight. Even as Iran’s rulers seek to assuage public anger, the government must enact real changes that would buoy the economy despite U.S. restrictions, he said.
“For the government, it’s easier to prosecute a handful of allegedly corrupt business executives than to, say, conduct major reforms in the banking system,” he said. “Corruption is simply too rampant and its participants too politically well connected.”
Human rights groups say the trials, which often lack due process, violate international law. The revolutionary courts, they say, are known for rapid trials, quick rulings and issuing sentences based on confessions extracted under torture. According to the Oslo-based nonprofit group Iran Human Rights, revolutionary courts are “responsible for the majority of death sentences carried out over the past 38 years.”
Iran has one of the highest execution rates in the world, according to Amnesty International, and has previously tried and executed business executives and former government officials accused of corruption.
In 2016, a court sentenced billionaire Babak Zanjani to death for allegedly embezzling state oil revenue during an earlier period of U.S. sanctions. More recently, in August, authorities arrested former Central Bank deputy Ahmad Araghchi for unspecified financial crimes. Araghchi, who oversaw foreign exchange affairs at the bank, is the nephew of Iran’s current Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.
In Iran’s besieged business community, some executives warn that the convictions will make wary investors even more reluctant to do business deals with Iranian companies. Many investors have been steering clear of Iran because of U.S. sanctions, which generally prohibit trade with the country with the exception of food, medicine and medical supplies. Most major European firms withdrew staff and assets as renewed restrictions loomed earlier this year.
“Such forceful reactions [by the government] will only harm the economy more,” said Babak, the finance director of a consumer goods company in Iran. He also spoke on the condition that his full name not be used so he could speak freely about Iran’s economy and the special tribunals.
“Investors are very sensitive to a lack of security,” he said, “and this will make them feel even less secure.”
Another entrepreneur, Nima, who runs an import business, said that if corrupt business executives were being tried “fairly and in accordance with the law, it would bring transparency, reduce violations and improve the economic situation.”
However, if the courts are “political and nontransparent,” he said, “it will lead to capital flight from the country.”
Nima also declined to give his full name so as not to draw scrutiny from the government.
In a final interview before his execution in November, prominent gold trader Vahid Mazloumin spoke candidly of the brisk business he did in the exchange market over the years.
“One night, I became the ‘Sultan of Coins,’ ” Mazloumin, wearing a prison jumpsuit, said in an interview with Iran’s Mehr News Agency. “And now I’m here.”
In a segment aired on Iranian state television, Mazloumin smiled wryly as he smoked a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
“You must enjoy the pleasurable things in life,” he said.