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The Iranian government continued to be divided between reformers on the one hand, who control the presidency, parliament, and most other elected offices, and conservative hard-liners on the other hand, who dominate the judiciary, security services, and broadcast media. Efforts by reformers to bring about political, social, and economic reforms have ground to a halt, while a drive by conservatives to roll back the expansion of public freedoms has encountered stiff public resistance.
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, who presided over the establishment of the modern world's first Islamic republic. The constitution drafted by his disciples amalgamated Western concepts of popular sovereignty and representation with Khomeini's interpretation of the Shi'a concept of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult), which holds that government decisions must be authorized by religious scholars. A president and parliament elected through universal adult suffrage coexisted with the 12-member Council of Guardians, consisting of senior clerics, empowered to approve all presidential and parliamentary candidates and certify that all laws passed by parliament are in accord with Sharia (Islamic law).
Khomeini was named supreme leader-for-life and invested with control over the security and intelligence services, armed forces, and judiciary. After Khomeini's death in June 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.
By 1997, dismal economic conditions and a demographic trend toward a younger population had created widespread dissatisfaction. Mohammed Khatami, a former culture minister advocating greater freedoms, extensive political and economic reforms, and improved foreign relations, was elected president with 69 percent of the vote. Reformers made considerable strides over the next few years in expanding freedoms. Dozens of reformist newspapers representing diverse views were allowed to publish, and the authorities relaxed the enforcement of strict Islamic dress codes for women and restrictions on social interaction. Although rogue security operatives acting on behalf of high-ranking clerics murdered several liberal intellectuals, the political tide appeared to be on the side of reformers. Reformists won 80 percent of the seats in the country's first nationwide municipal elections in 1999 and took the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats the following year.
The 2000 parliamentary elections evidenced a backlash by conservatives that continues to this day. Dozens of reformist newspapers have been shut down, and hundreds of liberal journalists and students, as well as political activists, have been jailed, mostly on charges of defamation and spreading false information about the government. The December 2001 conviction of Hossein Loqmanian on charges of insulting the judiciary marked the first time since the 1979 revolution that a member of parliament was imprisoned. Although Khatami was reelected in June 2001 with 78 percent of the vote, this popular mandate for change has not reduced the virtually absolute power of conservatives. Numerous pieces of legislation intended to introduce further reforms have passed parliament only to be vetoed by the Council of Guardians.
If the reform drive in Iran were merely a struggle for power within the ruling elite, Khatami's lack of real power and failure to institutionalize early gains in the liberalization process would indicate bleak prospects for sweeping change in Iran. However, the elites' struggle is largely an institutional response to broad-based demands of society at large. The level of popular hostility to clerical rule in Iran has reached the point where, according to numerous independent press reports, mullahs take off their distinctive robes and headwear when travelling through many areas of the Iranian capital.
Despite Khatami's recurrent pleas to abstain from civil disobedience, popular demonstrations in major cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz have grown in size and intensity. Iran is one of the only countries in the Muslim world where the people are gravitating overwhelmingly away from radical Islamism: sociologists say that less than half of Iranian youth fast or even attend prayers during Ramadan. As a result, a resignation by Khatami could potentially bring the entire system down. Few observers believe that the "rump" clerical regime that remains after his departure would be able to maintain control of the country by force alone.
There appears to be a growing recognition within some sections of the clerical establishment that reform, rather than threatening the Islamic Republic, is the only way to save it. In July 2002, the Imam of Isfahan, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, resigned from his post and condemned the "crookedness, negligence and weakness" of hardliners who continue to obstruct change. The defection of Taheri--a contemporary of Khomeini and the highest religious authority in a city regarded as the epicenter of the 1979 revolution--suggests that time may be on Khatami's side.
In September 2002, Khatami introduced two bills that would curb the power of the Council of Guardians to vet electoral candidates and increase presidential oversight of the judiciary. Khatami's aides have said that he will either resign or call a national referendum on the fate of the Islamic Republic if the two bills, both of which were approved by parliament, are rejected by the Council of Guardians. Many believe that Khamenei will not dare take this risk.
However, hard-line elements within the clerical and security establishment appear to have misjudged the depth of popular resentment against the regime and seem intent on provoking tensions, if not outright hostilities, with the United States, in hopes that this will unify ranks within the regime and ensure public quiescence. The involvement of Iranian security agencies in shipping weapons to the Palestinians, harboring al-Qaeda leaders, and covertly funding obstructionist Afghan warlords during the year may have been motivated less by quixotic militancy than by a desire to create conditions ripe for a coup.
Iranians cannot change their government democratically. The most powerful governing institutions in Iran, such as the Council of Guardians and the judiciary, are neither elected nor subservient to elected bodies. Moreover, the council vets all national and municipal electoral candidates for strict allegiance to the ruling theocracy and adherence to Islamic principles. Of the 814 candidates who declared their intention to run in the 2001 presidential election, only 10 were approved. The supreme leader is chosen for life by the Assembly of Experts, a clerics-only body whose members are elected to eightyear terms by popular vote from a government-screened list of candidates.
Iranian security forces continued to subject citizens to arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention in 2002. Suspected dissidents are often held in unofficial, illegal detention centers, such as Prison 59, a facility in Tehran administered by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards. Hard-line vigilante groups have committed extrajudicial killings in the past with the tacit consent of the security agencies, but Khatami's government was unable to thoroughly investigate and punish those responsible.
During the trial of intelligence officials accused of ordering the 1998 killings of several dissidents, a former intelligence minister was implicated by one of the defendants but never investigated. Recent legislation designed to limit the power of the security agencies was vetoed by the Council of Guardians. In June 2002, the council rejected a bill, passed by parliament, that aimed to limit the use of torture and the admissibility of forced confessions in criminal trials.
The judiciary is not independent. The supreme leader directly appoints the head of the judiciary, who in turn appoints the Supreme Court and other senior judges. Bribery is common. 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. The penal code is based on Sharia and provides for flogging, stoning, amputation, or death for a range of social and political offenses.
Freedom of expression is limited. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting and has recently begun jamming RFE/RL Persian service broadcasts and selectively enforcing a ban on satellite dishes. Following the reformist sweep of legislative elections in 2000, the outgoing parliament passed amendments to the 1995 Press Law granting extensive procedural and jurisdictional power to the Press Court in prosecuting journalists, editors and publishers for such vaguely-worded offenses as "insulting Islam" or "damaging the foundations of the Islamic Republic." Bills introduced by the current parliament to reverse the amendments and introduce other judicial reforms were rejected by the Guardian Council. Since 2000, over 85 publications have been shut down by the judiciary and dozens of journalists have been arrested, often held incommunicado for extended periods of time and convicted in closed-door trials.
In April 2002, the editor of the regional weekly Chams-e-Tabriz, Ali-Hamed Iman, was sentenced to eight months in prison and 74 lashes, while Ahmed Zeid-Abadi, a journalist for the reformist weekly Hamchahri, was sentenced to 23 months in prison and a 5-year ban on all public activity. In May, a journalist for the weekly Payam-e- Qom, Hojat Heydari, was given a four-month suspended sentence and banned from working as a journalist for six months. Siamak Pourzand, a 71-year-old journalist for Hayat-e-No, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "undermining state security" and "having contacts with monarchists and counter-revolutionaries." Mohsen Mirdamadi, a member of parliament and editor of the daily Nawrooz who is close to Khatami, was given a six-month prison sentence and banned from holding a "senior position" at any publication for four years. In October, the authorities arrested Yussefi Eshkevari, a theologian and journalist for the monthly Jamee-e-No, and enforced a seven-year sentence he had previously received from the religious court for various infractions, such as saying that females are not required by Islam to wear the veil. In early November, reformist scholar Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death for blasphemy. After thousands of university students demonstrated in his support Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the judiciary to review the sentence.
In 2002, several decrees were issued which explicitly banned media coverage of specific topics. In May, the judiciary announced a ban on publishing articles about Iranian-American relations. In July, a decree banned press coverage of Ayatollah Taheri's resignation. A day later, the reformist daily Azad was closed for defying the ban. In September, the managing editor of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) was summoned for questioning after the IRNA published the results of a public opinion poll showing that 74 percent of Iranians support talks with the United States. The head of the National Institute of Public Opinion was arrested in early October and held incommunicado for over a month for publishing the poll, while the heads of two private research institutes that had conducted the poll were arrested in November.
The government does not censor or monitor the Internet. Periodic closures of cybercafes have been intended mainly to protect the state telecommunications company against competition from inexpensive Internet telephone services. Several newspapers that were banned in 2002, such as Bonyan and Norous, have continued publishing on the Web.
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. Violent disruptions of demonstration are usually carried out by Ansar-e Hezbollah, a vigilante group linked to hardline government figures.
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 July 2002, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran outlawed the 44-year-old Iran Freedom Movement and handed down prison sentences of up to 10 years to 33 of its leading members, including such notable political figures as Hashem Sabaghian, the interior minister in Iran's first postrevolutionary cabinet, and former Tehran mayor Mohammed Tavasoli. There are no independent trade unions. The government-controlled Workers' House is the only legal federation, and workers may not strike. Unauthorized labor demonstrations are often forcibly dispersed by police.
Although women enjoy the same political rights as men and currently hold several seats in parliament, a few cabinet positions, 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 laws governing divorce, child custody disputes, or inheritance. 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. Several pieces of legislation intended to give women equal rights, such as a bill on divorce law that parliament approved in August 2002, have been rejected by the Council of Guardians.
Religious freedom is limited in Iran, which is 89 percent Shi'a Muslim and 10 percent Sunni Muslim. The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities and generally allows them to worship without interference, but 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. In October 2002, Iran granted early release to 3 of the 13 Jews who were convicted in a closed-door trial of spying for Israel in 2000.
Some 300,000 Bahai's, Iran's largest non-Muslim minority, enjoy virtually no rights under the law. They face official discrimination, a complete denial of property rights, a ban on university admission, employment restrictions, and prohibitions on practicing and teaching their faith. Their marriages are not recognized by the government, which leaves women open to charges of prostitution and their children regarded as illegitimate and thus without inheritance rights. Hundreds of Bahai's have been executed since 1979. Recently, prominent Sunni activists have spoken out about discrimination, pointing to the absence of a Sunni mosque in the Iranian capital.
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. Most Kurds are Sunnis and therefore face discrimination on that basis. Advocates protesting for greater cultural autonomy for Azeris have been arrested in recent years.