Iran | Freedom House

Countries at the Crossroads



Countries at the Crossroads 2005

2005 Scores

Accountability and Public Voice
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Civil Liberties
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Rule of Law
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Anti-Corruption and Transparency
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led an Islamic revolution that promised freedom and justice to its millions of supporters. Freedom meant deliverance from autocracy, and the masses who followed the revolutionary clerics believed the solution lay in Islamic government, a new form of rule they eagerly anticipated but only vaguely understood. Millions hoped that Iran's long legacy of corruption and arbitrary application of law would be relegated to the past. They saw the revered clerics of Iran's dominant Shiite sect as the interpreters and implementers of the rule of law, applying Islamic law in place of the flawed laws of men.

Freedom and justice have turned out to be elusive. The new constitution of 1979 in effect guaranteed that its principal authors, a select group of high-ranking clergy, would be able to perpetuate a grip on power that could be broken only with their consent. They have proved intolerant of those who seek to broaden political participation, attempting to cap dissent with tough restrictions on freedom of expression. They have not hesitated to use their monopoly on juridical authority to keep critics and rivals under control. Political dissidents and journalists have no protection from arbitrary arrest or interrogations under torture. Corruption and bribery are pervasive, bred by the exclusive access to power open to supporters of the ruling clerics.

Democracy has an uncertain status in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As the regime is a theocracy, its legitimacy derives from God, or at least the interpretations of God's will by senior clerics of the official Shiite Islam state religion. But Khomeini encouraged mass participation, and so the Islamic Republic depends on the popular will as an additional source of legitimacy. The uneasy coexistence of a democratic tendency within a theocratic framework has resulted in an amalgam of elected and non-elected institutions, both dominated by senior clerics.

The underlying justification for clerical domination is Ayatollah Khomeini's innovative theory of velayat-e faqih, meaning rule by a supreme religious jurist, which holds that highly qualified experts on Islamic law are the most suitable rulers. It is the principle that empowers the current head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his position as supreme leader. The loyalty that candidates for elective office must express to the principle of velayat-e faqih helps keep political development within the confines of clerical domination.

The 12-member Guardians Council, half of whom are appointed directly by Supreme Leader Khamenei and the other half by the judiciary chief (appointed by Khamenei) with the approval of the Majlis (Iran's parliament) has been the most blatant instrument for maintaining the ruling clerics' grip on power. Charged with determining that all laws comport with Islamic law and Iran's constitution, it was able to block most legislation passed by the 2000 - 2004 reformist-dominated Majlis, including legislation proposed by President Khatami.

The reform movement of political activists led by President Mohammad Khatami, elected by landslides in 1997 and 2001, aimed to establish a rule of law that would replace the arbitrary application of Islamic law and restore people's faith in the possibilities of Islamic government. But the movement has faltered, unable to resist the backlash of the conservative holders of the reins of power. Most of the reform legislation introduced by Khatami and his allies in the Majlis was vetoed by the conservative jurists and lawyers of the Guardians Council as incompatible with Islamic law. Since the election of conservative candidates to a majority of seats in the Majlis in 2004, fears have risen that the regime will become even more exclusive and repressive. It is widely anticipated that a conservative president will be elected to replace Khatami in June 2005.

Accountability and Public Voice: 

The separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government is stipulated in the constitution, but the supreme leader, chosen by the body of senior clerics known as the Assembly of Experts, ranks above all three and is responsible to none of them. In theory, he resolves disputes among the three powers and thereby guarantees their separation. He has no constitutional accountability, however, and that carries the danger of potential despotism. The constitution states that the Assembly of Experts could dismiss him for incompetence, but that is unlikely given that candidates for election to the Assembly must be approved by the Guardians Council, whose members are chosen directly and indirectly by the leader.

The supreme leader's office - itself a large bureaucracy with its own intelligence and foreign affairs functions - the Guardians Council, and the Expediency Council regularly set the agenda for the executive and parliamentary branches. These non-elective bodies, which in recent years have increasingly usurped powers from the three government branches, constitute a serious impediment to accountable government.

Popular participation in the regularly scheduled elections of the president, parliament, and local councils presents a semblance of democracy, albeit one often at odds with the nondemocratic authority of the supreme leader and the judicial and non-elected organs that support him. Elections enable the clerical regime to claim legitimacy based on the will of the people, despite the reality of the limitations of their choices. Suffrage is universal and equal. Balloting is secret, and is monitored by electoral authorities from the interior ministry. Reports of voter fraud are remarkably few for a country of 67 million people.

Political campaigning opportunities are ostensibly equal for all vetted candidates, at least regarding such activities as putting up posters and holding public speeches (although reformist candidates have complained to the contrary). Equal opportunity in airing views is lacking, however, as the state-run radio and television are controlled by the office of the supreme leader and air the views primarily of the candidates of the favored, conservative side of the political spectrum. Those reformist newspapers that have not yet been closed down are able to promote pro-reform viewpoints, although they reach a much more limited audience than radio and television. There is a one-week limit on campaigning. This minimizes campaign expenses and may obviate the need for campaign finance laws, although the powerful clerical and bazaar merchant interest groups have no difficulty in choosing and backing their own favored candidates.

Political parties in Iran are rudimentary.[2] The country's constitution provides for the formation of parties, and a 1981 law stipulates what constitutes a political party and how it can function. However, some of the more influential political groups, such as the conservative Militant Clergy Society, are not registered as parties. Most groups that do call themselves parties are little more than narrowly based political or economic interest groups or associations lacking nationwide organization or membership. The dominant, conservative side of Iran's political spectrum remains distrustful of broad-based political parties that would open up the political system beyond conservative clerical control. They wish to keep political participation open only to those most loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei and the principle of velayat-e faqih. One conservative columnist, for example, asserted that many reformists deserved to be disqualified from running for Majlis seats in 2004 because of their "indifference and disobedience" to velayat-e faqih "in favor of the principles of Western democracy."[3] The Freedom Movement of Iran, a liberal Muslim party that supports the Islamic Republic, is banned from elections because it rejects the necessity of clerical rule. No strictly secular party is granted permission to function.

Iran's Islamic regime is far from monolithic, and competition between the two broad factions of conservatives and reformists has allowed for some degree of political dynamism. Conservatives, who sometimes refer to themselves as the fundamentalist, or principled, faction, include most of the ruling clergy and older bazaar merchants. They have some appeal to traditional Iranians, including many in the provinces, who oppose the rapid cultural changes wrought by modernity and seek a return of what they understand to be the values of Islam and the revolution. Reformists, who include more progressive clergy, less religious technocrats, and socialistic Muslim activists, seek reforms in the political system that would facilitate democracy, greater freedom of expression, an easing of repressive Islamic social strictures, and less confrontational foreign relations. Both reformists and conservatives comprise numerous, loosely allied political groupings that run the gamut of political and economic opinion. The two major factions have enjoyed a limited degree of rotation of power, resulting from sometimes fiercely contested elections. However, interference by non-elective institutions has kept the factional rivalry from effectively presenting significant policy options.

The conservatives have regained the dominance they had before the enormously popular reformist Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997 and 2001 and reformists won control of the Majlis in 2000. Taking advantage of popular disappointment with the reformists for their failure to effect significant change, and benefiting from the favoritism of the Guardians Council, the conservatives won many local council elections in 2003, most Majlis seats in 2004, and are expected to take the presidency in 2005. The February 2004 Majlis elections culminated a conservative counterattack against the reformists, who they feared threatened Islamic and revolutionary values and, more important, the grip on power of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the conservative clerics. The interference of the Guardians Council finally guaranteed a conservative majority in the new parliament. The Guardians vet political candidates for presidential and parliamentary office, a practice that has regularly constricted Iranians' political choices. For the Majlis elections of February 2004 the Guardians rejected 44 percent of prospective candidates, nearly all of them affiliated with the reformist faction, including some 80 sitting legislators and the two reformist deputy speakers.[4] Numerous constituencies had no reformist candidates to compete against the favored conservatives. For some, no reason was given for their disqualification, but for many others, according to a reformist newspaper, "the reason [given] for their disqualification is that they do not believe in Islam and velayat-e faqih."[5]

The Guardians Council was able to expand its abilities to supervise elections and vet candidates considerably when the conservative-controlled Expediency Council in 2003 authorized a greatly expanded budget for the Guardians to establish supervisory offices in the provinces. The conservative-controlled Expediency Council is a non-elected institution empowered to resolve impasses between the Guardians and the Majlis. The interior ministry protested that the supervisory offices were illegal, but to no avail.[6] President Khatami in 2002 introduced a bill that aimed to reduce or eliminate the Guardians Council's role in vetting candidates, but over the course of the next year the bill was rejected several times by the Guardians Council.

The executive branch is generally responsive to parliamentary inquiries, and ministers can be impeached and ousted, the most recent case having been in the summer of 2004 when the minister for roads and transport was impeached. Despite a doctrine of parliamentary immunity, the overwhelmingly reformist deputies have been summoned to court for offenses that include speeches made in the Majlis; in March 2004 at least 11 parliamentary deputies, all reformists, were summoned, prompting a public but ineffective protest by President Khatami to judiciary chief Ayatollah Shahrudi.[7]

The perpetuation of the Shiite clerical hierarchy's domination is proof that the state system of Iran is incapable of guaranteeing that people's political choices are free from domination by the specific interests of power groups. In 2003-2004, following the increased empowerment of the Guardians Council and the return to power of conservatives in the Majlis, the clerics' grip on power tightened, while the reformists' hopes for opening the system have diminished greatly. Clerical domination extends even into the civil service, where graduates of the seminaries are given preference for jobs.[8]

Civic engagement improved in 2003 - 2004. More than 8,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are now operating in Iran, primarily working on social, environmental, and cultural issues. [9] Faced with a repressive political system in which reformists were stymied, many Iranians, particularly women and young people, have turned to NGOs as the only arena for social activism. President Khatami, an advocate for institutions of civil society, has encouraged the growth of the NGO sector, but some NGO activists complain that the laws on founding NGOs are often restrictive, and, more important, the government is unresponsive to the protests or suggestions of NGOs. They say that they are usually unable to engage in constructive dialogue with legislators or executive branch officials.

Nonetheless, the NGO movement "to a great extent, has found its way," according to Shiva Dolatabadi, cofounder, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, of the Society for Protecting the Rights of Children. According to Dolatabadi, the rise in the number of NGOs indicates that the initial problems with registration and organizations' charters that had made it difficult to enter the sphere of NGO activity have lessened.[10]

Iran's limitations on freedom of expression have worsened in recent years. The 1997 election victory of President Khatami had produced a vibrant press scene with numerous reformist dailies, but since 1999 more than 100 papers and magazines have been shut down, and numerous journalists, overwhelmingly reformist, have been arrested and jailed.

While some reformist newspapers in 2003-2004 still coexisted with the hard-line, pro-Khamenei ones - allowing for debate between the two major factions to continue in the press - the state imposes strict rules of press censorship. No media can criticize the supreme leader, the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or the idea of an Islamic Republic. The Islamic guidance ministry and the intelligence ministry closely monitor all written material, and each week the Supreme National Security Council, controlled by hardliners, sends all newspapers a list of banned subjects, such as student demonstrations or Iran's nuclear programs.[10] The office of the supreme leader, through an institution known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), constitutionally controls all Iranian radio and television. Because Iran's constitution stipulates that "the mass-communication media, radio and television, must serve the diffusion of Islamic culture in pursuit of the evolutionary course of the Islamic Revolution,"[11] the broadcast media only present official points of view on domestic and foreign affairs. Vague libel laws are enforced if conservative clerics or politicians are "insulted," and even vaguer charges of insulting Islamic sanctities are used, principally by Tehran's press court, to suspend or permanently shut down reformist papers. Reporters Without Borders calls Iran "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East," citing the arrests of 43 journalists in 2003.[12]

Iranian radio and television are biased in favor of the conservative faction. This was evident when they barely covered Mohammad Khatami's campaign for the presidency in 1997, compared to the coverage they gave to the establishment candidate at the time. In October 2003 and January 2004 the supervisory board that monitors state broadcasting criticized the IRIB's partiality, particularly in its coverage of parliament, saying that it was lobbying for the conservative faction.[13] These complaints resulted in no meaningful changes, and criticism of the IRIB intensified in the run-up to the February 2004 parliamentary elections. Even President Khatami was not exempt from the IRIB's censorship, as a Tehran daily noted that remarks he made on January 31 that efforts by the government to reach a compromise with the Guardians Council were at a dead end were "left entirely unreported by the state radio and television."[14]

An undetermined but significant number of Iranians turn to satellite television broadcast from abroad, although the regime has banned satellite dishes since 1994. Foreign radio broadcasts are important sources for news and information. Iran has increasingly directed its censorship activities toward Internet Web sites, which for more than 3 million users have become an important medium for news and discussion on political and social affairs otherwise censored in the press. Nearly 10,000 sites, deemed un-Islamic or threatening to the state, reportedly are blocked from inside the country, and several cyber-dissidents have been harassed and imprisoned.[15] Censorship has reportedly increased since the victory of hard-liners in the February 2004 parliamentary elections, and much of it has been aimed at pro-reform sites such as the popular The Iranian authorities are also trying to shut down weblogs, which have become phenomenally popular in recent years as an outlet for Iranians to express their political convictions. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Iranians regularly contribute to blogs. Many of the blogs are hosted outside Iran, making it difficult for the authorities to trace participants.

In August 2004 the conservative majority bloc in the Majlis made revisions to the government's five-year development plan so that authority for the Internet would go to the state broadcasting organization, which is under the control of the office of the supreme leader, rather than to government ministries.[16] It appears that Iran is considering the creation of a national Intranet - an Internet service just for Iran - that would be separate from the World Wide Web. If successfully implemented, it would deprive Iranians of one more outlet for free expression and keep their Internet activities under the watchful eye of the authorities.[17]

The state imposes strict censorship on cultural expression in literature and film, which must accord with Islamic standards set by the ministry of Islamic guidance and the judiciary. Censorship standards have become stricter following the conservative victories in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Iran's internationally renowned film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf complained of a new censorship strategy emerging in 2004 when the government stopped him from making a film about what he called the suffering of the Iranian people.[18] In May, Marmoulak (The Lizard), a film satirizing Iran's clergy that had made it past the censors and become a box office sensation, was withdrawn from public showing after conservative clerics, led by Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Jannati, complained.[19]

Civil Liberties: 

Article 38 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran forbids "all forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information" and states that "any testimony, confession, or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value and credence."[20] However, torture and forced confessions remain a problem. In 2004, after considerable media attention, legal means to address it were initiated. On April 27, 2004, judiciary chief Ayatollah Shahrudi issued a directive to the country's judicial, law enforcement, and intelligence departments proscribing the use of torture to obtain confessions. The circular appeared to be an admission of the existence of such practices, but it was nevertheless an encouraging step to correct the problem. Shahrudi initially denied that his directive was occasioned by actual abuses, but he subsequently admitted that there had been offenses at interrogation centers, which he attributed to insufficient supervision due to the judiciary's great workload.[21]

The Majlis on May 4 took Shahrudi's circular a step further by passing a bill banning torture. It specified unlawful physical and psychological pressures, banned arbitrary arrests, and gave some guidelines on searching houses.[22] The reformist press welcomed the bill, saying it would help protect citizens.[23] The bill became law after its approval the following day by the Guardians Council, a surprising development considering the Guardians' routine vetoes of reform legislation.

But whether the state has the necessary means to implement the law's guidelines is questionable, as jailed dissidents have continued to report being tortured. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the bill an empty gesture.[24] On June 4, 2004, HRW issued a comprehensive account of the treatment of political detainees in Tehran's Evin Prison and in secret prisons around the capital, documenting systematic abuses against political detainees, including arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture to extract confessions, prolonged solitary confinement, and physical and psychological abuse.[25] Critics are concerned that Iran's Islamic penal code - which is based on Islamic law and has numerous articles that allow for stoning, honor killing, and physical punishment - still stake primacy over the new law.

There is little protection against long-term detention without trial. One of the best-publicized cases of such abuse is that of three religious nationalist dissidents, Reza Alijani, Taqi Rahmani, and Hoda Saber, who in July 2004 entered their second year of "temporary detention" without trial for alleged involvement in disturbances in Tehran the year before.[26]

Peaceful activists, journalists, and intellectuals continue to be arrested in Iran. One of the most notorious cases is that of ailing 75-year-old Siamak Pourzand, a well-known journalist and husband of exiled human-rights activist Mehrangiz Kar. Arrested for alleged anti-state activities in November 2001, he remains imprisoned despite suffering a heart attack in March 2004. Reportedly, Tehran's public prosecutor has told him he will not be released.[27]

In the summer and fall of 2004, some deputies of the new conservative majority proposed introducing a bill that would transfer counterintelligence investigative functions from the ministry of intelligence and security, which is accountable to the Majlis, to the judiciary, which is not. Reformists fear that would mean that accountability would be lost in the investigation of dissidents and oppositionists. Nevertheless, they admit that units of the judiciary that operate parallel to the appropriate units of the intelligence ministry have already been investigating and arresting dissidents.

The authorities often deny the existence of any political prisoners. Judiciary chief Shahrudi on May 1, 2004, explained that Iran has no political prisoners because it has no law defining political crimes (the Majlis has been unable to pass a bill to define political crimes because of unresolved disputes with the Guardians Council).[28] However, on April 27, 2004, President Khatami told an assembly of university students that Iran does have prisoners jailed because of their opinion. He put the number at 26, although regime opponents believe the number to be higher.[29]

Citizens have little recourse to redress for such abuses, although there have been some signs of improvement. In April 2004, in reaction to the domestic and international concern over Iran's imprisoned newspaper journalists and political activists, Sa'id Mortazavi, the Tehran public prosecutor who gained international notoriety for his judgments against newspapers and journalists when he headed Tehran's press court, visited renowned political prisoners Abbas Abdi, Akbar Ganji, Reza Alijani, Taqi Rahmani, and Akbar Mohammadi and ordered they be given home leave for a week.[30] Mortazavi's order can be dismissed as a public relations gesture. However, a more encouraging development took place on June 1, 2004, when the judiciary revoked the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari, a university professor and member of a reformist political organization, who was convicted of blasphemy in November 2002 for a speech that conservatives viewed as a direct challenge to clerical rule.[31]

Iran's Islamic legal system assures a basic inequality between men and women. Article 20 of the constitution asserts that men and women enjoy equal protection under the law, but only in accordance with Islamic criteria.[32] Legal discrimination against women occurs in such matters as strictly imposed dress codes: the requirement for headscarves and long sleeves or the all-enveloping chador contrasts with relatively few restrictions, such as a ban on wearing shorts, for men. Crackdowns by morality police against women who flout the codes increased following the February 2004 parliamentary victories of hard-liners, who warned they would not tolerate "social corruption."[33] In court proceedings, a woman's testimony is valued at only half of a man's. Women do not enjoy equality with men in divorce, blood money, or inheritance rights. The reformist-dominated Majlis of 2000 - 2004 introduced several bills to improve women's rights, but the Guardians Council rejected them. On the plus side, women enjoy equal voting rights, have several representatives in parliament, and are active in several political organizations. There are at least 45 women's NGOs.[34]

President Khatami on March 7, 2004, called for an end to negative views about the role of women in society, pointing to discrimination against them in policy making, economics, and family affairs. Unfortunately, the following day baton-wielding personnel of Iran's Basij militia attacked women commemorating International Women's Day in Tehran.[35]

Iranian law defines a person as disabled based on the degree to which the person's prospects for employment and self-sufficiency are limited, and the protections Iran offers reflect this definition. Since 1955, Iran has provided vocational training for disabled citizens and has mandated equal pay and equal treatment for disabled workers.[36] The Iran-Iraq War, which greatly increased the number of disabled citizens, brought additional attention to issues of access and participation in public life, and in major cities, many public buildings have been made wheelchair accessible. Iran stated in its 1996 report to the United Nations that it provides free medical care, housing assistance, transportation, and other aid to people with disabilities,[37] but these services appear largely to be limited to urban areas. There is no law protecting the individual civil rights of disabled people more generally, but they appear not to be any more restricted than those of non-disabled citizens

Religious freedom is limited in Iran, where Shiite Islam is the state religion and 89 percent of the population is Shiite. Even the large, 10 percent Sunni minority experiences some discrimination. Sunni parliamentarians in April 2004 wrote to Supreme Leader Khamenei to complain about the low number of Sunnis in the executive and judicial branches and in academia, anti-Sunni bias in the state-run mass media, and the authorities' rejection of a Sunni request to build a mosque in Tehran.[38]

The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities and allows them to worship. A set number of parliamentary seats is reserved for them, but they are barred from senior government positions. Equality for these minorities took a significant step forward on December 27, 2003, when the Expediency Council approved a parliamentary bill, previously rejected by the Guardians Council, that would make blood money - paid by a perpetrator for killing or wounding someone - equal for Muslims and non-Muslims; previously, the amount for killing a non-Muslim male had been half that for a Muslim male. Blood money for non-Muslim women remains half that of men.[39]

The state can still make life difficult for non-Muslim minorities. On September 9, 2004, 80 members of the Assembly of God church, in Karaj for an annual meeting, were arrested in a sudden police raid. All but 10 pastors were released later that day, and 9 of those were released on September 12, with warnings to have no further contact with church members. The last one, Hamid Pourmand, a Muslim convert, has remained incarcerated incommunicado.[40] Muslim converts to Christianity or other religions can face the death penalty.

The Baha'i faith is not constitutionally recognized as a religion. The estimated 300,000 members of the religion, which originated in Iran in the 19th century, have endured persecution since the foundation of the Islamic Republic. They cannot practice their religion openly, open their own religious schools, or have access to higher education. Their cemeteries and holy places have been desecrated. The release of two Baha'is from prison on February 17, 2004, after they had served 15 years for "association with Baha'i institutions," was a rare positive development.[41]

Iran's ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurds and Baluchis - most of whom are also Sunnis - experience discrimination. Kurdish legislators in November 2003 wrote to President Khatami to complain that the central government has neglected the Kurdish provinces except for an increase in security crackdowns. They petitioned Khatami to attend to the region's economic underdevelopment and high youth unemployment, remedy the lack of adequate university facilities, and reduce the harsh security measures.[42]

Freedom of association is guaranteed in the constitution (Article 26). The state does allow organizations to mobilize and advocate for peaceful purposes, providing they have prior permission from the interior ministry. However, vigilante groups, plain-clothes intelligence officers, and the Basij militias harshly attack demonstrations - even ones with prior approval - if they stray into what could be interpreted as antigovernment messages. Trade unions are little more than pro-regime professional organizations with little ability to organize strikes.

Rule of Law: 

When President Khatami was swept into power in 1997 he promised to establish the rule of law, putting an end to the seemingly arbitrary application of law by the ruling clerics. But though constitutionally empowered (Article 113) to implement the constitution, the president lacks power to stop violations of it.

The judiciary is independent but only in the sense that the executive and legislative branches cannot influence it. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appoints the head of the judiciary, which is thus an integral part of the power structure that supports the supreme leader. During the sixth, reformist-dominated parliament of 2000-2004, the judiciary regularly summoned deputies for statements made in parliament, ending their longstanding immunity. It appears unlikely that the seventh parliament, dominated by allies of the judiciary and supreme leader, will be subject to such interference.

The judiciary, very much a part of the conservative clerical establishment, is neither impartial nor nondiscriminatory in the administration of justice. It applies Islamic law as interpreted by senior Shiite clerics, and judges are constitutionally (Article 163) appointed in accordance with religious criteria. As such, the judiciary chief and the judiciary as a whole have regularly applied their own version of the rule of law against reformist politicians, activists, and journalists in recent years. Members of the ruling conservative political hierarchy are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for abuse of power.

Key prosecutors are under the control of the conservatives. This applies perhaps most of all to Tehran's public prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, who was appointed in 2003 in apparent reward for his many decisions against newspapers and journalists as head judge of Tehran's press court. Now he is in charge of prosecuting nearly all political cases, including those of journalists and student protesters.

The Article 90 Commission, a parliamentary body stipulated by Article 90 of the constitution to investigate complaints by citizens against any of the three branches of government, is ignored by the judiciary. Public Prosecutor Mortazavi has told the Article 90 Commission it has no right to interfere in judicial matters.[43]

Citizens have the right to counsel, to be provided by the state if the defendant cannot afford one. However, political dissidents are regularly discouraged from retaining counsel. Many are told that any decision to retain counsel will reflect unfavorably on their cases. HRW reports that many former prisoners who did obtain counsel were never allowed to meet privately with their attorneys nor were their attorneys given access to their files. Several well-known attorneys who acted as defense counsel in cases relating to journalists or editors have themselves been arrested and detained.[44] The constitution (Article 165) specifies that trials must be public and that press offenses are to be tried in the presence of a jury (Article 168); however, HRW reports that in most of the cases it investigated, prisoners faced a judge and the complainant (usually a government official) without a jury or the public present.

The military and security forces are accountable to civilian authorities. The supreme leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and directly controls the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Augmented by the Basij militias, the guards have a domestic security role in protecting the regime against civil unrest, but since Khatami's election in 1997 the guard leadership has stood squarely on the side of the conservative faction. Guard commanders expressed a clear preference for the conservatives in the February 2004 parliamentary elections. While Iran's election law stipulates that armed forces personnel must leave the military at least two months before registering as candidates, a guard general asserted on October 3, 2003 that having guard personnel in parliament would be good for Iran.[45] Reflecting concerns about military political activity, in November 2003 the Majlis - then dominated by reformists - approved a bill banning military personnel from membership in political organizations and from engaging in election activity.[46] The winning slate of conservative candidates, advertised as approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei, included several former guard personnel.[47]

The executive branch controls other security forces, including the investigative officers of the ministry of intelligence and security and the police and law enforcement forces under the interior ministry. The investigative units of the judiciary and counter-intelligence units of the Revolutionary Guards are subservient to the conservative factions, while such vigilante groups as the Ansar-e Hezbollah do the bidding of certain hard-line clerics. The vigilantes' interference in the political process, in attacking student demonstrators and others seeking peaceful political change, has been particularly evident since Khatami became president.

Property rights normally are inviolable in Islam. With the exception of properties expropriated during the revolution from supporters of the previous regime, the registering and administration of ownership deeds is carefully attended to by legions of seminary-trained experts.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 

Excessive bureaucratic regulations and a poorly paid bureaucracy produce an environment in Iran prone to corruption. The bloated bureaucracy gives preferential hiring treatment to graduates of theological seminaries, veterans of the Iran - Iraq war, and Basij militiamen rather than to candidates based on their skills and merits. Nearly every procedure can be speeded up with a little extra payment, which bureaucrats see as a necessary source of income rather than an immoral bribe.[48]

State ownership of major sections of the economy, including the petroleum sector, banking, heavy industries, and various companies seized from fleeing industrialists in the wake of the 1979 revolution, means management positions are awarded only to loyal supporters of the regime. The regime's on-again, off-again attempts to privatize state-owned industries provide abundant opportunities for crony capitalism. That has made family members of some of the revolutionary leaders, notably Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Hashemi-Rafsanjani, phenomenally wealthy: One son holds a key position in the oil ministry, another heads the Tehran Metro project, a cousin dominates Iran's pistachio export business, and other family members control automobile assembly plants, oil engineering companies, and a private airline.[49]

Many of the assets that the 1979 revolution expropriated from Iran's wealthiest families were given to Islamic charitable foundations, known as bonyads, controlled by clerics. These foundations account for 10 percent to 20 percent of Iran's gross domestic product and own factories, hotels, farms, mines, and vast tracts of land. They have changed from the social welfare organizations they were in the early years of the revolution to become huge commercial conglomerates. The bonyads fall under the jurisdiction of the supreme leader and, as vehicles for rewards, are an integral part of the support structure that keeps the ruling clerics loyal to him and firmly in power. They have little more than rudimentary financial disclosure procedures and are closed to public and media scrutiny. There is no effective outside auditing body.

The regime does not enforce anticorruption laws when it comes to its loyal supporters or their relatives. A recent example is the case of Norway's Statoil, which allegedly paid a bribe to Mehdi Hashemi-Rafsanjani, son of the Expediency Council chairman. While Statoil was issued a stiff penalty notice in Norway in June 2004 for bribing Mehdi Hashemi and others who were influential in Statoil's commercial activity in Iran,[50] Mehdi Hashemi was left untouched in Iran.

On August 25, 2004, President Khatami announced that the judicial and executive branches, particularly the ministry of intelligence and security, are taking steps to deal with economic corruption, which he said would cause discomfort for those with vested interests.[51] Supreme Leader Khamenei declared the Iranian year 1383 - March 20, 2004, to March 20, 2005 - the "year of accountability" for the government, in which combating corruption was to be a major goal. But after six months, a conservative newspaper reported that no important step had been taken in this area. The paper noted that the ministries had failed to form mandated "accountability staffs," both the executive and judicial branches had scaled back or eliminated weekly press conferences, and the Majlis had taken no new steps toward accountability. One Assembly of Experts member, the paper noted, concluded that "unfortunately until today none of our organizations has carried out accountability that is worthy of the exalted leader's order."[52]

Admitting to problems is a good start, but Iran has a long way to go before allegations of corruption by high government officials can be aired in the news media and investigated and prosecuted without prejudice. Governmental operations and services, the budget-making process and accounting of expenditures, the awarding of government contracts and similar issues all remain opaque. None of the government branches regularly shares information on these matters with the press.

  • Iran should end the role of the Guardians Council in vetting candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections and by no longer requiring allegiance to the principle of velayat-e faqih.
  • The interior ministry and other relevant institutions should lift restrictions on the formation of political parties. The government should facilitate the democratic process by allowing the people to organize according to their own criteria and to appeal freely to the public.
  • The increasingly autocratic institution of the supreme leader should be abolished or removed from the political realm. A constitutional amendment commission, intervention by the Assembly of Experts, or a popular referendum should be implemented to ensure that the leader is non-partisan, above Iran's factional disputes rather than consistently siding with the conservatives' faction.
  • Iran should permit unfettered freedom of expression by releasing journalists, Web site operators, and other individuals imprisoned for peacefully expressing their opinions; ending direct regime control of the broadcast media; allowing political debate and free expression of criticism through an end to vague laws that make insulting public officials and Islamic sanctities criminal offenses; and ceasing the review and prior censorship of books and films.
  • Iran should enforce its own constitutional guarantees regarding the fair and impartial administration of justice. The Guardians Council should support, rather than impede, the president in fulfilling his duty to implement the constitution.
  • Judicial reform should be implemented by making the judiciary accountable to the parliament and making the judiciary responsive to citizens' complaints registered with the parliament's Article 90 Commission.
  • Iran should provide for fair trials by ensuring that detainees are informed of the charges against them, giving all detainees access to counsel, and ensuring that all trials be conducted in public.
  • Vigilante groups such as Ansar-e Hezbollah that are used to attack dissident citizens should no longer be tolerated, and their activities should be investigated by an independent commission.
  • Iran should vigorously ensure that the Revolutionary Guards refrain from involvement in the political process.
  • Iran should uphold its constitutional prohibition against torture and ill treatment and vigorously enforce the 2004 law banning torture, arbitrary arrests, and forced confessions.
  • Iran should end long-term detention without trial and prolonged solitary confinement, and it should inform families about the location and status of their relatives.
  • Iran should enact and enforce legislation that would grant equal rights to women in such matters as divorce, blood money, inheritance rights, and value of legal testimony.
  • Iran should grant constitutional recognition to the Baha'i faith and allow its members rights equal to those of other Iranians and should end religious discrimination that prevents equal opportunities in employment and political participation for Sunnis and non-Muslim minorities.
  • Iran should allow its press and broadcasting media to investigate all forms of corruption and to investigate the transactions of high officials and their families without fear of retaliation.
  • Iran should investigate and prosecute violations of existing anticorruption laws without concern for the violators' family status or government position.
  • The bonyads, accounting for a large but unreported share of the Iranian economy, should be subjected to internationally accepted financial disclosure procedures.
  • Iran should increase the transparency of its official institutions, particularly the judiciary, which should be open to parliamentary investigations of bribery and economic corruption.
  • Iran should address the endemic corruption of the government bureaucracy by basing government hiring on merit, streamlining procedures in order to eliminate red tape and many of the redundant civil servants, and improving bureaucrats' pay scales in order to reduce the levels of petty bribery.

[1] The author wishes to thank Dr. Rasool Nafisi for his generous assistance in this project.

[2] Stephen C. Fairbanks, "Theocracy versus Democracy: Iran Considers Political Parties," Middle East Journal 52, No. 1 (Winter 1998)

[3] "Iran Report" (Prague and Washington, DC: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [RFE/RL], 12 January 2004),

[4] "The Wide Wave of Disqualifications, the Trigger of a Crisis," Towse'eh, 12 January 2004, p. 1

[5] Abbas William Samii, "Dissent in Iranian Elections: Reasons and Implications," Middle East Journal 58, 3 (Summer 2004).

[6] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 22 March 2004),

[7] Christopher de Bellaigue, "Who Rules Iran?" The New York Review of Books, 27 June 2002.

[8] Golnaz Esfandiari, "Iran: Growing NGO Community Offers Political Activism Where Government Does Not" (RFE/RL, 16 February 2004),

[9] Ibid.

[10] "Iran - Annual Report 2004" (Paris: Reporters Without Borders [RSF], 3 May 2004),

[11] Iranian Constitution, Preamble, translated in A. Tschentscher, ed., "International Constitutional Law" (last modified 1995),

[12] "Iran - Annual Report 2004" (RSF).

[13] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 17 November 2003),

[14] "People Know the Facts," Iran News, 01 February 2004.

[15] "Internet Under Surveillance, 2004: Iran" (RSF, 22 June 2004),

[16] "Taghyirat-e Barnameh-ye Chaharom dar Majles Moshajareh Afarid" ("Changes in the Fourth Plan Generates Controversy in the Majlis"), Iran, 18 August 2004.

[17] "Iran's Bloggers in Censorship Protest," BBC News, 22 September 2004,

[18] "Director Accuses Iran of Film Ban," BBC News, 6 May 2004,

[19] "Row Builds over Iran Cleric Film," BBC News, 11 May 2004,; "Iran Anti-Cleric Film Withdrawn," BBC News, 15 May 2004,

[20] Iranian Constitution, Art. 38, translated in A. Tschentscher, ed., "International Constitutional Law" (last modified 1995),

[21] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 17 May 2004),

[22] "Namayandegan-e Majles Tarh-e Do Fawriyatiye Ehteram beh Azadiha-ye Mashru' va Hefz-e Hoquq-e Shahrvandi-ra Tasvib Kardand" ("Majles Deputies Approved Double-Urgency Bill on Respecting Lawful Freedoms and Citizens' Rights"), Sharq, 5 May 2004, 3.

[23] "Judicial Justice and Respecting Human Rights," Towse'eh, 5 May 2004, 1.

[24] "Iran: Torture Used to Suppress Dissent" (New York: Human Rights Watch [HRW], 7 June 2004),

[25] "Like the Dead in Their Coffins: Torture, Detention, and the Crushing of Dissent in Iran" (HRW, 7 June 2004),

[26] "Dossier Up in the Air; Reza Alijani, Hoda Saber, and Taqi Rahmani are Still Under Temporary Detention," Vaqaye-ye Ettefaghieh," 11 July 2004, 3.

[27] Golnaz Esfandiari, "Iran: Rights Group 'Revolted' at Treatment of Ailing Journalist" (RFE/RL, 20 April 2004),

[28] "Preparing the New Penal Adjudication Law," Hemayat, 1 May 2004.

[29] "Khatami: Freedom Means Security of Thought and Setting It Forth for Discussion," Aftab-e Yazd, 28 April 2004, 1, 2.

[30] Editorial: "Note," Hambastegi, 3 May 2004.

[31] Golnaz Esfandiari, "Judiciary Revokes Death Sentence for Blasphemy on Academic" (RFE/RL, 1 June 2004),

[32] Iranian Constitution, Preamble and Art. 20, translated in A. Tschentscher, ed., "International Constitutional Law" (last modified 1995),

[33] "Iran Police in Fashion Crackdown," BBC News, 12 July 2004,

[34] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 19 January 2004),

[35] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 15 March 2004),

[36] "2003 International Disability Rights Monitor Compendium Report," Iran (Chicago: Center for International Rehabilitation, 2003),

[37] "Government Action on Disability Policy: A Global Survey, " Iran (Stockholm, Sweden: Institute on Independent Living: 1997)

[38] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 6 September 2004),

[39] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 5 January 2004),

[40] "One Iranian Pastor Still in Custody," The Christian Post, 15 September 2004,

[41] "Longest Serving Baha'i Prisoners Released in Iran" (Washington, D.C.: Baha'is of the United States, Office of Public Information, 17 February 2004),

[42] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL 5 January 2004),

[43] "Like the Dead in Their Coffins ..." (HRW, 7 June 2004),

[44] Ibid.,

[45] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 20 October 2003),

[46] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 10 November 2003),

[47] James Vick, "Low Turnout Tells Tale of Iranian Vote," the Washington Post, 23 February 2004, A14.

[48] "Iranian Postcards: Wrapped in Red Tape," BBC News, 13 February 2004,

[49] Paul Klebnikov, "Millionaire Mullahs," Forbes, 21 July 2003,

[50] "Penalty Notices in the Statoil Case" (Oslo: The Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime, 29 June 2004),; see also, "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 10 November 2003),

[51] "Iran Report" (RFE/RL, 31 August 2004),

[52] "Numerous Questions: Who Is Accountable?," Resalat, 25 September 2004