While the 1979 Iranian revolution was fueled by mass participation and a yearning for freedom, it resulted in the establishment of an authoritarian theocracy that is unaccountable to the people. However, civil society enjoyed a period of growth during the early years of the reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997–2005), and by the late 1990s, Iranians from every walk of life began to exercise the reform era’s budding freedom of association. The hitherto prohibited notion of an open society was overtly embraced, and Khatami ushered in government funding and other measures to support volunteer activity, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civic groups.
However, Khatami’s policies and the groundswell of support they received were threatened from their inception. Backed by the Supreme Leader, hard-liners blocked liberalization efforts and unleashed vigilante organizations such as the Basij and Ansar-i Hezbollah to violently suppress civic gatherings and demonstrations, particularly those of the rising student movement. By 2000 the regime had closed over 100 reformist publications and begun a campaign of surveillance and intimidation aimed at activists, human rights defenders, and NGO workers. The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president consolidated the hard-liner backlash against government reform and a strong civil society.
Freedom of Association
Today, freedom of association in Iran is under routine and heavy assault, with the regime particularly wary of potential collaboration between Iranian civil society activists and their international counterparts. Nevertheless, civic groups are arguably more active and independent now than at any time since the revolution. The internet and other mass media have provided new means of collaboration and information sharing, paving the way for a more developed civic struggle involving a diverse range of Iranian groups. Civic organizations have become more self-reliant and resilient due to heightened government pressure on civil society and the media, new infringements on everyday social liberties, worsening economic conditions, and a general lack of faith in Ahmadinejad’s administration. While reformist organizations have lost their allies in government ministries, they are better able to muster grassroots support and international backing for their struggles. Successful grassroots campaigns that have gained international solidarity include the Campaign for One Million Signatures in support of women’s legal equality and those by labor groups such as the Vahed bus drivers’ union.
Registration and legal requirements for NGOs are restrictive, inconsistently enforced, and poorly coordinated among government ministries. In 2003, the Ministry of the Interior and a group of leading NGOs drafted a law designed to ameliorate government regulation and support civic organizations, but the parliament rejected the legislation. Instead, a cabinet decree was issued in 2005 to increase government surveillance of NGO activity. While the decree does streamline registration, it also subjects NGOs—the majority of which are community-based social service organizations—to more government monitoring and prohibits participation in political activity.
Ahmadinejad describes NGOs as a “Western” phenomenon and a risk to national security. He has attempted to supplant their efforts using government-controlled Islamic councils and has withdrawn government funding that was provided under Khatami. NGOs have little recourse to the courts if authorities violate their rights. Severe infringements on freedom of expression prevent civic groups from openly criticizing state policies and holding government officials accountable. For example, watchdog efforts regarding conditions in prisons or the systematic persecution of the Baha’i religious minority are rare and draw heavy penalties. After Ahmadinejad’s election, two of the most prominent NGOs in Iran were shut down: the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, and the Organization for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, led by Emad Baghi. Baghi remains imprisoned on charges of working against national security.
Recent international events have exacerbated the regime’s fear of civic activity. In particular, the government is suspicious of U.S. government funds dedicated to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Iran, and officials are unnerved by the interest that young Iranians have shown in the success of nonviolent civil rights movements in countries like Ukraine and Serbia. The Iranian government has used state media to respond with a sophisticated propaganda effort against the theories, history, and personalities associated with nonviolent social movements, and it has warned citizens against working with foreign NGOs, universities, and think tanks. Government authorities explained the imprisonment of prominent Iranian Americans in 2007 as an effort to prevent another “Velvet Revolution.”
Free trade unions do not exist in Iran, despite the country’s membership in the International Labor Organization (ILO) and ratification of ILO Convention 87, which calls for freedom of association and the right to organize. The right to collective bargaining is denied, and workers are not protected by the right to mediation and arbitration. Authorities rarely enforce child-labor laws, and children are forced to work in unsafe conditions. Unions that do exist are closely monitored by the state, including Workers’ House, the official state union. Ahmadinejad’s administration has increased surveillance of unions and has become involved in their elections. In August 2006, for example, the Ministry of Labor banned polls for the Trade Union of Journalists, though the group had conducted such elections six times previously.
Strikes and work stoppages—most notably by transport workers, teachers, and factory employees—are common but illegal and typically suppressed. Demonstrations by Workers’ House are also controlled, and the group was prohibited from holding a gathering to mark International Labor Day in 2003. The Teachers’ Union has organized strikes and rallies protesting low wages for years, and a series of rallies in 2007 resulted in the arrest of the union’s secretary general and numerous teachers throughout the country. Mansur Osanlu, head of the Vahed bus drivers’ union, spent most of 2006 and 2007 in prison for organizing a bus drivers’ strike in December 2005 that resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of bus drivers, union organizers, and their families.
Freedom of Assembly
Article 27 of the constitution grants the right to peaceful assembly but limits this right to “public gatherings and marches…that are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.” Permits for holding demonstrations are routinely denied to activists, and women’s rights advocates claim particular discrimination, reporting an especially cumbersome and erratically enforced process. Open discussions at universities as well as gatherings at concerts and other cultural events are frequently attacked by the Basij or Ansar-i Hezbollah. Protesters, especially students and ethnic minorities demanding human rights, risk public beatings and humiliation as well as routine surveillance, intimidation, prolonged interrogation sessions, torture, and imprisonment, including solitary confinement in cramped, unsafe conditions. Activists accused of organizing protests are often forced to give televised confessions about supposed collusion with foreign enemies.