Many in Iran's political hierarchy are hoping that a nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers will pave the way for the Islamic republic's full return to the international community, ending years of political isolation and economic sanctions.
But at least on one big issue Iran remains an outlier. After China, Iran is the world's biggest practitioner of capital punishment, executing hundreds of prisoners annually through an opaque legal system that human rights groups say also puts scores of political prisoners behind bars.
Most rights groups agree that Iran is on pace to hang more than 1,000 people this year, many of them from construction cranes in public squares. When coupled with the heavily criticized nature of the nation's judiciary, the executions present fodder for critics of the Obama administration's drive to strike a deal with Tehran and transform Iran into a more "normal" nation.
Some argue that the Iranian government's history of abusing human rights is so ingrained that it will take years, and perhaps longer, for serious progress on issues such as freedom of speech and political liberty, regardless of how the nuclear talks ultimately play out.
"My sense is that human rights violations in Iran, for the most part, are deep-seated structural issues that cannot be dealt with in the context of negotiations and won't be changed by economic pressure," said Rod Sanjabi, executive director of the Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
"These are issues of identity for this regime and can only be countered by civil society within the country," Mr. Sanjabi said in an interview.
Although the government may execute only a small number of political prisoners annually, some 900 are languishing behind bars in the nation.
The debate weighs heavily on the question of how a potential lifting of sanctions might affect Iran's domestic and international behavior. Critics of the prospective nuclear deal say the Obama administration has missed a huge opportunity to link serious sanctions relief to progress on human rights.
But Mr. Sanjabi argues that such an outside link would be irrelevant because Iran's middle class — widely seen as the source of any serious hope for a sustainable, pro-human-rights civil society — has been effectively crushed by a decade of U.S. and EU-backed economic sanctions.
Conditions are so harsh, he said, that the "best-educated youth of Iran are flocking to leave the country, with as many as 180,000 having left last year alone. The Islamic republic's leaders are OK with that because they know these are the people who could conceivably cause problems for them on the human rights front."
The lifting of sanctions might improve the lots of ordinary Iranians and, as a result, create an opening for civil society to challenge the nation's leaders from within. For now, though, prominent human rights groups continue to document the Iranian government's harsh crackdown on anyone seen to be challenging the regime.
"For the past several years, Iranian authorities have been engaged in the brutal repression of Iranian civil society," according to a survey by Amnesty International. "Hundreds of people are in detention; many of those serving prison terms have been convicted in unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts on vague charges."
The issues of unfair trials and judicial abuse in Iran have garnered headlines since the beginning of closed-door court proceedings against Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post's jailed bureau chief in Tehran. Mr. Rezaian, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who has proclaimed his innocence, was arrested in July and held for nearly a year before it was revealed that he would be charged with espionage. His trial began and then stopped in May with no clear indication of when it will resume.
The Post has accused Iranian authorities of engaging in "shameful acts of injustice" by continuing to detain the journalist, depriving him of needed medical treatment in prison and proceeding with a trial that will be closed to the world.
President Obama has publicly spoken out on Mr. Rezaian's behalf, asserting in April that "we will not rest" until he is freed. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said U.S. officials raise Mr. Rezaian's case — and those of three other Americans thought to be jailed or missing in Iran — in every meeting with Iranian officials.
Critics, however, say the administration is taking great care not to mix the cases with the delicate diplomacy surrounding the nuclear negotiations, which are racing toward a June 30 deadline for a deal.
Some have gone so far as to accuse the White House of having delayed the release of the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to deprive nuclear deal critics of an opportunity to highlight Iran's record on judicial rights and capital punishment.
"The Obama administration does not wish to make public an honest report on human rights abuses in Iran before the nuclear deal is done," Elliott Abrams, a National Security Council adviser in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in blog posted last week by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The State Department, after a more than three-month delay, released the report Thursday — just days before the negotiating deadline.
Although the report makes no mention of Mr. Rezaian by name and references his case only in passing, it bluntly critiques Iran's overall human rights record.
Citing evidence gathered by the United Nations and various independent human rights groups, the report highlights a host of "problems" in the Islamic republic's record, such as "disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including judicially sanctioned amputation and flogging; politically motivated violence and repression; harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities, with instances of deaths in custody; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention [and] denial of fair public trial, sometimes resulting in executions without due process."
Beaten for confessions
Cases involving political prisoners are among the least transparent within Iran's legal system.
"Typically in these cases, the arrests are made by the intelligence ministry," said Mr. Sanjabi. "There's a wide body of evidence from former prisoners and lawyers in Iran that the ministry has complete control over the outcome of the cases, and that it is determined before the trial begins.
"The standard of evidence is quite poor and there's an over-reliance on confession," he said. "Incidentally, that's why you have a lot of lengthy pretrial detentions where the agents tasked with the case beat a confession out of whoever is being charged."
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and other rights groups say the vast majority of exceptions — as many as 70 percent — are for people convicted of drug-related charges. There are pointed examples of people being hanged purely for ethnic and political reasons, but there is little evidence of drug charges being fabricated as cover to execute opposition activists.
In conversations with The Washington Times, U.S. intelligence officials have speculated that the government may simply be engaged in a crackdown to discourage drug use. The catch is that Iran's narcotics law makes no distinction between possession and heavy trafficking, which has paved the way for authorities to execute hundreds of people on minor charges.
The reality is made all the more disturbing, human rights groups say, by the fact that minorities — specifically Kurds — make up a disproportionate number of those who are hanged.
What's worse, the total number of executions is rising. Although the Iranian government officially announces less than half of the executions, Amnesty International counted 289 officially announced executions last year and perhaps 450 or more prisoners put to death that were not announced, making Iran second only to China — a country with nearly 20 times Iran's population — in the world in the number of executions in 2014.
The United States, often criticized for its own capital punishment practices, carried out 43 executions in 2012, 39 in 2013 and 35 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The rise in executions in recent years has challenged a popular narrative that President Hassan Rouhani, who took office in August 2013, is a moderate fighting for reform in the Islamic republic.
"Ironically, the number of executions under the so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani has dramatically increased to nearly 1,800, including dozens of dissidents," said Soona Samsami, representative in the United States for an exiled Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
"The political climate of repression and censorship in Iran, coupled with lack of due process in the judiciary, make it palpably clear that the regime continues to use the death penalty not as a deterrent to ordinary crimes, but as a means of inflicting terror in a young and increasing restless and enraged population," Ms. Samsami said. "If the recent executions are any evidence of what a 'post-nuclear deal' Iran looks like as far as human rights are concerned, then it is safe to assume that, as morally unconscionable as it is, human rights in Iran will continue to be sacrificed at the altar of negotiations with Tehran."
But American officials and human rights advocates caution that the real reason for the surge may reflect a power struggle within Iran's notoriously veiled political system.
Mr. Rouhani was popularly elected and may have earned a political mandate from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to thaw relations with the West and see the nuclear negotiations through to a final deal. But the president is also seen to have limited control over the nation's judiciary, where decisions are made by other players — including Islamist hard-liners with mandates of their own from the supreme leader.
A leading theory is that officials within the judiciary are green-lighting more executions in an attempt to smear Mr. Rouhani's image as a moderate.
The spike in hangings may result from a desire by hard-liners to hammer home to Iranians that the 75-year-old ayatollah's grip on society remains tight — even if Mr. Rouhani is speaking the rhetoric of reform on the world stage.
"It is a very sensitive time for the political system in Iran," said Mr. Sanjabi, "because who knows how long Khamenei is going to be alive?"