Freedom House (Author)
Iran received a downward trend arrow because of an intensified campaign by hardliners against opposition journalists and political figures.
Despite having won a decisive victory in February’s Majlis (parliamentary) elections, moderate allies of President Mohammad Khatami were unable to translate their political gains into policy to address national demands for reform and modernization. Instead, a hardline backlash following the first round of elections led to a reversal of minor openings achieved since Khatami’s election in 1997 and highlighted the absolute supremacy of the right-wing political establishment led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reformists clearly swept the majority of the 290-seat Majlis in the first round of direct voting on February 18, taking about 170 of 224 seats. In runoffs for the remaining 66 seats, reformists took 52. Conservatives won about 40 seats. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities, and others went to independent candidates. In Tehran, reformists took 26 of 30 seats. About 70 percent of reformist seats reportedly went to the moderate pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), while nearly 30 percent went to the technocratic-reformist Executives of Construction. However, exact results were difficult to determine because of the annulment of several results and delays in the necessary government endorsement of many others.
In January 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the hereditary monarch whose decades-long authoritarian regime was marked by widespread corruption, fled Iran amid mounting religious and political unrest. A month later, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to lead the formation of the world’s first Islamic republic. The 1979 constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 12-member Council of Guardians. The council approves all presidential and parliamentary candidates and certifies that all bills passed by the Majlis are in accord with Islamic law. Khomeini was named supreme religious leader for life and invested with control over the security and intelligence services, armed forces, and judiciary. He was also given the power to dismiss the president following a legislative request or supreme court ruling, as well as the final word in all areas of foreign and domestic policy.
Following Khomeini’s death in June 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assumed the role of supreme religious leader and chief of state. That August, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric, ran unopposed for the presidency and won with nearly 95 percent of the vote.
By 1997 presidential elections, soaring inflation and unemployment, a marked decrease in per capita income due to declining oil revenues, a demographic trend toward a younger population, and restrictions on personal freedom had created a popular desire for change. Of four candidates selected by the Council of Guardians to succeed Rafsanjani, parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the favorite of Khamenei and the majority conservatives in the Majlis, was expected to claim an easy victory. But Khatami, a former culture minister who was forced to resign in 1992 for being too liberal, ran on a platform of economic reform, rule of law, civil society, and improved foreign relations. He won the support of intellectuals, women, youth, and business groups seeking greater social freedom and an end to state interference in the economy. Ninety percent of the electorate turned out to vote, and 70 percent voted for Khatami.
Under the constraints of a highly restrictive political system, Khatami holds little real power. He is accountable to the Majlis and bound by the absolute authority of Khamenei. But his popularity has helped him advance a more moderate agenda. During his administration, Iran has seen a marked improvement in press freedom, with the emergence of numerous newspapers that have become immensely popular because of their diversity of views. Although political parties are still technically banned, informal groupings like the IIPF and the Executives of Construction have become increasingly active. Government accountability has improved slightly, as demonstrated by an official admission of intelligence ministry involvement in the 1998 murders of several dissidents. And there has been less severe enforcement of strict Islamic dress codes for women, laws banning satellite dishes, and restrictions on social interaction between men and women. Khatami won an important vote of confidence in February 1999, when reformist candidates won an estimated 80 percent of seats in Iran’s first nationwide municipal elections.
These improvements, however, have not been institutionalized, and conservatives have used the courts and the mosques to limit liberalization. Newspapers have been routinely shut down (and reopened under new titles) and journalists prosecuted. Pro-reform politicians and clerics have been jailed. Violence by pro-regime Islamist vigilantes has increased, as in the case of the brutal raid on a Tehran University dormitory in July 1999 following student protests over the closure of a newspaper. And the arrest of 13 Jews last year on charges of spying for the United States and Israel was seen by many as an attempt by hardliners to derail a nascent rapprochement between Iran and the West.
Hopes that the new parliament could achieve institutional changes such as an independent judiciary, government transparency, rule of law, and separation of powers were dimmed by a hardline backlash that began following the first round of Majlis elections in February. The Council of Guardians annulled several reformist victories and failed for months to ratify numerous others. The new Majlis opened on May 27 with 249 seats filled; the empty seats representing districts where results were voided or unconfirmed. In March, Saeed Hajjarian, a close aide of Khatami, was shot in an assassination attempt by suspected members of the security forces. A major crackdown on the independent press led to the closure of nearly every reformist newspaper and the detention of three leading journalists by the end of April. Culture minister Ataollah Mohajerani resigned in December under mounting pressure from conservatives, who blamed him for undermining moral standards. In August, Khamenei blocked an attempt by the Majlis to amend Iran’s harsh press law. The proposed amendments were widely seen as a test of reformists’ ability to deliver on their electoral promises. In an unprecedented display of frustration, Khatami addressed a special commission set up to monitor compliance with the constitution by saying “After three and a half years as president, I don’t have sufficient powers to implement the constitution, which is my biggest responsibility.”
Khatami’s government has succeeded in following a more pragmatic approach to international affairs. One of Iran’s most pressing problems is its economic disarray. The country suffers from at least 20 percent unemployment, heavy reliance on volatile oil prices, state interference, rampant corruption and inflation, and a U.S. trade embargo. Poor living conditions and bleak job prospects have led to social unrest and an outflow of immigrants. The need for foreign investment has led to ongoing efforts to improve relations with the West and neighboring Arab countries. Following February’s Majlis elections, U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright announced an easing of sanctions on Iranian consumer goods, and expressed regret over America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Official visits to England and Germany aimed to mend fences and promote understanding. Iranian and Turkish leaders agreed in August to cooperate on issues of terrorism and regional security. In March, Iran reached an agreement with Bahrain to ease travel between the two countries. Iranian officials also participated in rare high-level contacts with Egypt and Iraq.
Iranians cannot change their government democratically. Ayatollah Khamenei has the final word on all matters of state and controls broadcast media, the judiciary, and the military. Political parties are technically illegal, although some political groupings have won legal recognition since 1997. All presidential and legislative candidates must support the ruling theocracy and demonstrate allegiance to Islamic principles. About 10 percent of candidates for February’s Majlis elections were disqualified by the Council of Guardians for “lack of commitment” to the Islamic system. In the 1996 elections, this number was about 44 percent. No international observers were permitted to oversee polling or ballot counting, and there were reports of violence in several towns where reformist candidates were disqualified and incumbent conservatives won seats. Turnout was reportedly over 75 percent. At least three conservative MPs who gained seats because the Council overturned reformist appointments were later removed by the Majlis.
The state continues to maintain control through terror: arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, summary trial, and execution are commonplace. Security forces enter homes and offices, open mail, and monitor telephone conversations without court authorization. Hardline vigilante groups commit extrajudicial killings with the tacit consent of the government. A UN investigator for human rights in Iran called upon the government in March to investigate some 50 suspicious deaths of intellectuals and dissidents in recent years. Although the government has investigated murder and other misconduct by hardliners and security officials, information about their cases is not made available, and the officials are rarely punished. The murders of several opposition figures and intellectuals in late 1998 was blamed on “rogue elements” in the intelligence service. Eight suspects were released in May 2000 because of a lack of evidence, while the prime suspect allegedly committed suicide in prison last year. Another 17 people went on trial for the killings in late December. Five people were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for the March shooting of Saeed Hajjarian. The suspects admitted to being members of a right-wing vigilante group and to acting independently. However, witnesses identified the motorcycle on which the shooter fled as being of a type available only to the security forces.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges must meet strict political and religious qualifications. Bribery is common. Civil courts provide some procedural safeguards, though judges may serve simultaneously as prosecutors during trials. Revolutionary courts try political and religious cases, and are often assigned cases that normally fall under civil court jurisdiction. Charges are often vague, detainees are denied access to legal counsel, and due process rights are ignored. These courts are used frequently to prosecute critics of the Islamic system or the principle of Khamenei’s supreme authority. The Special Court for Clergy is widely used to prosecute reformist clerics like Hassan Yousefi-Eshkevari, who was charged in October with apostasy and sedition after publicly advocating the separation of state and religion. The penal code is based on Sharia (Islamic law) and provides for stoning, amputation, and the death penalty for a range of social and political misconduct.
In a case that has received much international attention, ten Jews and two Muslims were convicted of spying for the U.S. and Israel by a Revolutionary Court in July. Their sentences of prison terms ranging from 2 to 13 years were reduced in September by up to 6 years. Three other Jews and two Muslims were found not guilty, and the case remains open against four Muslims and one Jew who has fled Iran. Human rights groups denounced the unfairness of the trial, which was held in closed sessions with no jury, limited access to counsel, and a judge who also served as prosecutor. The ten convicted Jews lodged appeals with the prosecutor-general in October.
The reformist press played an active role in society after 1997 with political commentary, advocacy of a free and independent civil society, and investigative journalism. After the overwhelming victory of reform candidates in February’s elections, however, hardliners launched a campaign against the press, shutting down some 30 papers and arresting journalists, editors, and cartoonists. Among those was Mohammad-Reza Khatami, brother of the Iranian president, who was charged with libel and defamation by a special press court for articles appearing in Mosharekat, the newspaper he edits. In April, the outgoing Majlis passed amendments to the press law banning criticism of the constitution and foreign funding for publications, and extending responsibility for press violations to writers as well as editors and publishers. In July, editors were ordered by the government to refrain from publishing cartoons that might harm the dignity of important politicians.
Broadcast media are owned and controlled by the government, although a ban on satellite dishes is not strictly enforced. Many viewers look to foreign television for entertainment and news. Authorities jammed transmissions of the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe during February. In April, the supreme court ruled that the possession of videos or music that “corrupt public ethics” is permissible as long as the material is for personal use only. The government blocks Internet sites considered offensive, and service providers practice self-censorship. There are reportedly some 100,000 Internet users in Iran.
The constitution permits public assembly that does not “violate the principles of Islam.” Election rallies held by opposition groups were broken up, sometimes violently, by conservative militia with the consent of security forces. Eight people were killed when police fired on demonstrators protesting alleged ballot rigging in two southwestern towns in February, and demonstrations against the annulment of reformist election victories escalated into violent clashes. Right-wing militants prevented two leading opposition figures from addressing a student group in August, setting off days of clashes in the western city of Khorramabad in which a policeman was killed and several students injured. Reformists accused hardliners of provoking violence in order to create crises that would prove moderates’ inability to govern. Seventeen prominent reformists went on trial before a Revolutionary Court in November on charges of threatening Iran’s security. The charges stem from the defendants’ attending a seminar in Berlin on democratic reform in Iran.
Women face discrimination in legal and professional matters. They may be fined, imprisoned, or lashed for violating Islamic dress codes, though enforcement has slackened in recent years. Unlike women in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, Iranian women may vote, stand for public office, and drive. A woman must have permission from a male relative to obtain a passport. One hundred women graduated from police training in October 2000, becoming the first women allowed to serve as police officers since the Islamic Revolution. In July, a religious decree lifted a ban on women leading prayers. They may now lead congregations of female worshippers. Ten women were elected to the Majlis in February, and one became the first woman on the nine-member Majlis presiding board. A government official named Farah Khosravi declared her intention to stand in presidential elections in 2001.
Religious freedom is limited. The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities, and generally allows them to worship without interference. Iran is approximately 99 percent Muslim, with 89 percent Shiite and 10 percent Sunni. Religious minorities are barred from election to representative bodies (except for seats in the Majlis reserved for them) and from holding senior government or military positions, and they face restrictions in employment, education, and property ownership. Minorities may conduct religious education and establish community centers and certain cultural, social, sports, or charitable associations. Jewish families may not travel abroad together.
The Bahai faith is not recognized. Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, the more than 300,000 Bahais face official discrimination, a complete lack of property rights, arbitrary arrest, a ban on university admission, employment restrictions, and prohibitions on teaching their faith and practicing communally. Their marriages are not recognized by the government, leaving women open to charges of prostitution and children regarded as illegitimate and lacking inheritance rights. Hundreds of Bahais have been executed since 1979.
There are no independent trade unions. The government-controlled Worker’s House is the only legal federation. Collective bargaining is nonexistent.