Freedom in the World 2005

Trend Arrow: 

Iran received a downward trend arrow due to the hard-line clerical establishment's obstruction of the electoral process and increased restrictions on freedom of expression.


The regression of political and civil liberties in Iran accelerated in 2004 as the hard-line clerical establishment seized control of parliament from reformers through sham elections and launched heavy-handed campaigns to combat "social corruption" and to silence dissent. Although widespread public apathy and record oil receipts enabled Iran's theocratic regime to impose its authority without sparking significant political unrest, its power play was squarely out of step with popular opinion and some Iranians remained cautiously optimistic that this attempt to turn back the clock on reform would not stand in the long run. Tensions between Iran and the West increased substantially after Tehran reneged on an October 2003 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to suspend key components of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

In 1979, Iran witnessed a tumultuous revolution that ousted a hereditary monarchy marked by widespread corruption and brought into power the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The constitution drafted by Kohmeini's disciples provided for a president and parliament elected through universal adult suffrage, but non-elected institutions controlled by hard-line clerics were empowered to approve electoral candidates and certify that the decisions of elected officials are in accord with Sharia (Islamic law). Khomeini was named Supreme Leader and invested with control over the security and intelligence services, armed forces, and judiciary. After his death in 1989, the role of Supreme Leader passed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a middle-ranking cleric who lacked the religious credentials and popularity of his predecessor. The constitution was changed to consolidate his power and give him final authority on all matters of foreign and domestic policy.

Beneath its veneer of religious probity, the Islamic Republic gave rise to a new elite that accumulated wealth through opaque and unaccountable means. By the mid-1990s, dismal economic conditions and a demographic trend toward a younger population had created widespread hostility to clerical rule. A coalition of reformers began to emerge within the ruling elite, advocating a gradual process of political reform, economic liberalization, and normalization with the outside world that was designed to legitimize, not radically alter, the current political system.

Representing this coalition, former culture minister Mohammed Khatami was elected president in 1997 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Khatami's administration made considerable strides over the next few years in expanding public freedoms. More than 200 independent newspapers and magazines representing a diverse array of viewpoints were established during his first year in office, and the authorities relaxed the enforcement of strict Islamic restrictions on social interaction between unmarried men and women. Reformists won 80 percent of the seats in the country's first nationwide municipal elections in 1999 and took the vast majority of seats in parliamentary elections the following year, gaining the power, for the first time, to legislate major changes in the political system.

The 2000 parliamentary elections prompted a backlash by hard-line clerics that continues to this day. Over the next four years, the conservative-controlled judiciary closed more than 100 reformist newspapers and jailed hundreds of liberal journalists and activists, while security forces cracked down ruthlessly on student protests against these measures. Critical pieces of reform legislation were overwhelmingly approved by parliament, only to be vetoed by the Council of Guardians, an appointed clerical body. Gridlock between government moderates and hard-liners also obstructed much-needed economic reforms.

Khatami was reelected in 2001 with 78 percent of the vote, but this popular mandate did not lead him to challenge the country's ruling theocrats. He ignored recurrent pleas by reformist members of parliament to call a national referendum to approve vetoed reform legislation, while repeatedly imploring citizens to refrain from demonstrating in public. Khatami's failure to carry out further reforms (or even to preserve the progress made during his first three years in office) led many Iranians to abandon hopes that the political system can be changed from within. Within the broader reform movement, Khatami and other government "moderates" came under accusations of not just being ineffective, but of willingly serving as a democratic facade for an oppressive regime. Record low turnout for the February 2003 municipal elections resulted in a landslide victory by hard-liners and showed that the ability of reformist politicians to mobilize the public had deteriorated markedly.

The February 2004 parliamentary elections marked a watershed in the country's political regression. Prior to the elections, the Council of Guardians rejected the candidacies of over 2,000 reformist politicians, including scores of incumbent deputies, while the government-backed Ansar-i Hezbollah and Basij vigilante groups "repeatedly attacked political gatherings" of the opposition, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights practices. Consequently, hard-liners won the overwhelming majority of seats in an election marked by a record-low turnout.

Emboldened by this electoral triumph, the clerical establishment quickly moved to further restrict public freedom. Several major reformist newspapers were closed, while dozens of journalists and civil society activists were arrested during the year as the authorities attacked the country's last refuge of free expression - the Internet. In October, the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, announced that "anyone who disseminates information aimed at disturbing the public mind through computer systems" would be jailed.

The government also launched a crackdown on "social corruption," sending thousands of morality police and vigilantes into the streets to enforce Islamic dress codes and laws prohibiting public mingling of unmarried men and women. During one two-day period in October, at least 150 Iranian youths were arrested for infractions such as dancing and eating in public during the Ramadan fast. In the summer, the government banned the widespread and popular smoking of water pipes in public places (a measure intended to discourage social gatherings of young people) and arrested dozens of alcohol smugglers. Earlier in the year, in March, Islamist vigilantes had stormed four factories in eastern Tehran in March and seized 40,000 illegally manufactured satellite dishes.

The hard-liners' electoral triumph was also followed by an increasingly salient role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Within weeks of the election, IRGC checkpoints began sprouting up in on main roads in the capital, ostensibly to combat the drug trade. In May, IRGC units forced the newly built Imam Khomeini International Airport to shut down on its opening day, claiming that involvement of a Turkish company in the airport constituted a threat to national security. In June, the IRGC arrested eight British servicemen who had strayed from southern Iraq into Iranian waters and paraded them blindfolded on national television before releasing them three days later.

In September, the hard-liner - dominated parliament approved legislation enabling it to veto government contracts with international companies, paralyzing the Khatami administration's efforts to attract international investment (at least three foreign companies canceled investment agreements shortly after the bill was passed). When shares in state companies valued at $570 million were offered for sale on the Tehran stock exchange in October, less than 10 percent were sold and the only buyers were finance companies affiliated with state banks.

Tensions between Iran and the West escalated during the year after Tehran announced that it was resuming uranium-enrichment activities it had agreed to halt in 2003, further raising suspicions that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Although Iran agreed again to temporarily freeze its enrichment programs in November 2004, efforts by Britain, France, and Germany to convince Iran to permanently halt its uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing programs and allow intrusive IAEA inspections, in return for trade agreements and other incentives, remained inconclusive at year's end.

Since the Council of Guardians is not expected to permit any credible opposition candidates to stand for election when Khatami leaves office in 2005, conservatives are likely to monopolize political power in Tehran for several years to come. While record oil receipts in 2004 (nearly double those projected) temporarily blunted the socioeconomic impact of declining investor confidence and tensions with the West, the government will eventually face mounting social unrest if it does not further liberalize the economy and shore up relations with Europe.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Iranians cannot change their government democratically. The most powerful figure in the Iranian government is the Supreme Leader (Vali-e-Faghih), currently Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei; he is chosen for life by the Assembly of Experts, a clerics-only body whose members are elected to eight-year terms by popular vote from a government-screened list of candidates. The Supreme Leader is commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints the leaders of the judiciary, the heads of state broadcast media, the commander of the IRGC, the Expediency Council, and half the members of the Council of Guardians. Although the president and parliament are responsible for designating cabinet ministers, the Supreme Leader exercises de facto control over appointments to the ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Intelligence.

All candidates for election to the presidency and 290-seat unicameral parliament are vetted for strict allegiance to the ruling theocracy and adherence to Islamic principles by the 12-person Council of Guardians, a body of 6 clergymen appointed by the Supreme Leader and 6 laymen selected by the head of the judiciary chief (the latter are nominally subject to parliamentary approval). The Council of Guardians also has the power to reject legislation approved by parliament (disputes between the two are arbitrated by the Expediency Council, another non-elected conservative-dominated body, currently headed by former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani).

Corruption is pervasive. The hard-line clerical establishment has grown immensely wealthy through its control of tax-exempt foundations (bonyads) that monopolize many sectors of the economy, such as cement and sugar production. Iran was ranked 87 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is limited. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting and, since 2003, has reportedly had some success in jamming broadcasts by dissident overseas satellite stations. The Press Court has extensive procedural and jurisdictional power in prosecuting journalists, editors, and publishers for such vaguely worded offenses as "insulting Islam" and "damaging the foundations of the Islamic Republic." In recent years, the authorities have issued ad hoc gag orders banning media coverage of specific topics and events. Since 1997, more than 100 publications have been shut down by the judiciary and hundreds of journalists and civil society activists have been arrested, held incommunicado for extended periods of time, and convicted in closed-door trials.

As in years past, many reformist newspapers were suspended or closed by the authorities in 2004. In February, the weekly Hadith-e Kerman and the dailies Sharq and Yas-e Nau were closed down. In May, the Azeri-language daily Nedai Azarabadegan was suspended for two months and the weekly Gorgan e Emrouz was banned. The newspapers Jumhuriyat and Vaqa-yi Itifaqi-yi were closed in July. By year's end, the few reformist newspapers that remained open had been intimidated into practicing self-censorship.

Most liberal journalists are forced to publish their work on the Internet. However, the government systematically censors Internet content. Since 2003, the government has forced Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to a list of "immoral sites and political sites that insult the country's political and religious leaders." The authorities stepped up Internet censorship in 2004, blocking access to hundreds of additional Web sites. In September, the authorities launched a massive crackdown on free expression, arresting at least 25 journalists, civil society activists, and computer technicians involved in Internet publishing, on charges ranging from defamation to "acts against national security." According to Human Rights Watch, many were coerced by interrogators to sign written confessions saying they had taken part in an "evil project" directed by "foreigners and counter-revolutionaries."

Religious freedom is limited in Iran, which is largely Shia Muslim with a small Sunni Muslim minority. Shia clerics who dissent from the ruling establishment are frequently harassed. In May, an aide to Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was arrested for publishing a book that described the ayatollah's experiences under house arrest. Sunnis enjoy equal rights under the law, but there are some indications of discrimination, such as the absence of a Sunni mosque in the Iranian capital and the paucity of Sunnis in senior government offices. The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities and generally allows them to worship without interference so long as they do not proselytize. However, they are barred from election to representative bodies (though a set number of parliamentary seats are reserved for them), cannot hold senior government or military positions, and face restrictions in employment, education, and property ownership. Some 300,000 Baha'is, Iran's largest non-Muslim minority, enjoy virtually no rights under the law and are banned from practicing their faith. Hundreds of Baha'is have been executed since 1979. Iranian security forces raided two major evangelical Christian religious gatherings in May and September 2004, arresting scores of people, most of whom had been released by year's end.

Academic freedom in Iran is limited. Scholars are frequently detained for expressing political views, and students involved in organizing protests often face suspension or expulsion by university disciplinary committees. In November, members of the Basij militia reportedly assaulted and briefly detained the head of Elm-o-Sanaat University after the school hosted a lecture by a prominent dissident.

The constitution permits the establishment of political parties, professional syndicates, and other civic organizations, provided they do not violate the principles of "freedom, sovereignty and national unity" or question the Islamic basis of the republic. In 2002, the 44-year-old Iran Freedom Movement was banned on such grounds and 33 of its leading members imprisoned. In 2004, at least four prominent human rights activists were prevented by the authorities from traveling abroad.

The 1979 constitution prohibits public demonstrations that "violate the principles of Islam," a vague provision used to justify the heavy-handed dispersal of assemblies and marches. Hard-line vigilante organizations unofficially sanctioned by the conservative establishment, most notably the Basij and Ansar-i Hezbollah, play a major role in dispersing public demonstrations. In sharp contrast to recent years, hardly any public demonstrations took place in 2004 following the hard-liners' electoral victory in February. Because of the public's deepening political apathy and fear of reprisals by vigilantes, even the fifth anniversary of the regime's harsh July 1999 crackdown on students passed quietly.

Iranian law does not allow independent labor unions to exist, though workers' councils are represented in the government-sanctioned Workers' House, the country's only legal labor federation. While strikes and work stoppages are not uncommon, the authorities often ban or disperse demonstrations that criticize national economic policies. In January, security forces in the village of Khatunabad in southeastern Kerman province attacked striking copper factory workers, killing at least four people and injuring many others. In May, at least 40 workers were arrested by security forces during a Labor Day march in the city of Saqez.

The judiciary is not independent. The Supreme Leader directly appoints the head of the judiciary, who in turn appoints senior judges. Civil courts provide some procedural safeguards, though judges often serve simultaneously as prosecutors during trials. Political and other sensitive cases are tried before Revolutionary Courts, where detainees are denied access to legal counsel and due process is ignored. Clerics who criticize the conservative establishment can be arrested and tried before the Special Court for the Clergy. The penal code is based on Sharia and provides for flogging, stoning, amputation, and death for a range of social and political offenses. In February, Mohsen Mofidi died in a Tehran hospital shortly after receiving 80 lashes on charges including possession of a medicine containing alcohol, possession of a satellite dish, and aiding his sisters' "corruption." In July, an Iranian court acquitted a government intelligence agent on charges of beating Canadian-Iranian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi to death in July 2003 after she was detained while taking photos of Evin prison. The court refused to call six senior judicial officials present during Kazemi's interrogation to the witness stand.

Iranian security forces subjected hundreds of citizens to arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention in 2004. Suspected dissidents are often held in unofficial, illegal detention centers, and allegations of torture are commonplace. Although legislation banning the use of torture in interrogations was approved by parliament and the Council of Guardians in May, allegations of torture persisted throughout the year. In August, according to local human rights groups, a prisoner who had been left hanging by his wrists had to have his hands amputated.

There are few laws that discriminate against ethnic minorities, who are permitted to establish community centers and certain cultural, social, sports, and charitable associations. However, Kurdish demands for more autonomy and a greater voice in the appointment of a regional governor have not been met, and some Kurdish opposition groups are brutally suppressed. The opposition Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) alleged that two of its members were executed in December 2003. In June 2004, security forces reportedly arrested 80 ethnic Azeris for allegedly "spreading secessionist propaganda."

Although women enjoy the same political rights as men and currently hold several seats in parliament and even one of Iran's vice presidencies, they face discrimination in legal and social matters. A woman cannot obtain a passport without the permission of a male relative or her husband, and women do not enjoy equal rights under Sharia (Islamic law) statutes governing divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A woman's testimony in court is given only half the weight of a man's. Women must conform to strict dress codes and are segregated from men in most public places. In August, a 16-year-old girl was executed after being sentenced to death for "acts incompatible with chastity."

2005 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)