Competition is stiff for the distinction of being the world’s most malevolent regime. Serious contenders must continually demonstrate their relevance.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Un keeps the family business in the conversation by periodically firing missiles into the sea and testing nuclear weapons underground, as well as taking the occasional pot shot across the Demilitarized Zone. In Iran, official preferences lean more toward kidnap-for-ransom, torture, mayhem and murder – preferably aimed at foreigners, but that condition is optional.
Earlier this summer, I observed that it has been a miserable year for Tehran’s mullahs and the paramilitary muscle that keeps them in power. The American takedown of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani deprived them of their mastermind-in-chief. The subsequent inadvertent downing of a civilian airliner carrying mainly their own nationals from their own principal airport made them look more inept than evil. Add a poorly controlled pandemic and an economic hit from both sides by plunging oil prices and American sanctions, and you can understand why Iran’s leaders are as eager as anyone on the planet to see 2020 in the history books.
But still, if you want people to respect your bad side, you do what you gotta do. In Iran’s case, this means abruptly executing a former national wrestling champion who you nabbed for participating in an anti-government demonstration in 2018, then convicted of murder on the basis of confessions you beat out of him and his imprisoned brothers.
That is exactly what Iranian authorities in Shiraz did last weekend, according to the BBC. They hanged 27-year-old Navid Afkari without even letting his family see him to say goodbye. World-class evil means never having to say “yes” to even the smallest semblance of decency.
It also means standing up to appeals for clemency. Those appeals came from all over the world, including sources as disparate as President Donald Trump (not that anyone in Tehran is taking his calls) and the head of the International Olympic Committee.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages, Reza Pahlavi – son of the late Shah who was displaced by the Islamic Revolution in 1978 – observed that the execution was designed to send a message to the Iranian people. That message: Nobody is famous or beloved enough to be immune from the regime’s arbitrary parody of justice. I don’t doubt this is true. Still, it would have been a lot less satisfying to Afkari’s executioners if the world had overlooked his killing the way it misses so much else that happens behind closed doors in the land once known as Persia.
But killing one of your own citizens only buys you so much time at the top of the world’s most-hated list. True dedication means always looking for the next opportunity. Shortly after news broke of Afkari’s killing, Politico reported that American intelligence has been monitoring Iranian plotting against the life of the U.S. ambassador in South Africa. Lana Marks is a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. Marks is also a successful business owner and South African native who speaks Afrikaans and Xhosa, according to the news outlet. But the connection to Trump and his club is, presumably, the point that would make the ambassador an interesting target for the Iranians, as she has no other known links to their country.
Regardless of when the next Iranian strike comes, or whether it is ultimately directed at Marks or someone else, we can rest assured that the Iranians plan to retaliate somewhere for our killing of Soleimani in Baghdad, where Iranian-backed militias were threatening our embassy. Right now, they will keep lurking and plotting. They are doubtless looking for an opening to strike where they can gain attention without pushing some of our more feckless allies to abandon hope that one more round of appeasement will bring miraculous change.
It won’t. Genuine evil doesn’t change. It seldom even takes a break.