Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 66,600,000
GNI/Capita: $1,680
Life Expectancy: 69
Religious Groups: Shi'a Muslim (89 percent), Sunni Muslim (9 percent), other (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Persian (51 percent), Azeri (24 percent), Gilaki and Mazandarani (8 percent), Kurd (7 percent), Arab (3 percent), other (7 percent)
Capital: Tehran


Efforts by reformist politicians who control the presidency and parliament to further expand social and political freedoms remained stymied in 2003 as a result of opposition from appointive bodies controlled by hardline clerics. The authorities significantly increased restrictions on press freedom and began systematic censoring of Internet content during the year. Thousands of participants in antigovernment protests were detained by security forces, and scores of political activists and journalists were indicted for peaceful activities.

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 his disciples provided for a president and parliament elected through universal adult suffrage, but unelected institutions controlled by hardline 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 and 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. In 1997, former culture minister Mohammed Khatami was allowed by the ruling clerics to run for president; he won 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. 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 hardline clerics that continues to this day. More than 100 reformist newspapers have been shut down by the conservative-controlled judiciary during the last three years, and hundreds of liberal journalists, students, and political activists have been jailed. Reform legislation approved by parliament has been repeatedly vetoed by hardliners.

Although Khatami was reelected in 2001 with 78 percent of the vote, he has been unwilling to use this popular mandate to advance the reform process or even to preserve the expansion of civil liberties achieved during his first three years in office. He has refused to call a national referendum to approve legislation that would advance the reform process and continually implores citizens to refrain from demonstrating in public. The most powerful weapon at the president's disposal is the threat of resignation; few observers believe that the "rump" clerical regime that would remain after his departure would be able to maintain control of the country. Although Khatami has repeatedly hinted that he will step down if hardline clerics continue to veto reformist legislation, his failure to act on these threats has made them ineffectual.

Khatami's reluctance to challenge ruling theocrats has led many Iranians to abandon hopes that the political system can be changed from within. The results of a government-conducted poll, published by the Iranian daily Yas-I No in June 2003, indicated the depths of this disillusionment: 45 percent of the population would support political change brought about by foreign intervention. Record low turnout for municipal elections in February 2003 showed that the ability of reformist politicians to mobilize the public has deteriorated markedly. In major urban centers, hardline candidates captured most city council seats.

Gridlock between government moderates and hardliners has also obstructed much-needed economic reforms. Although Iran possesses the world's third-largest oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves, the government has been unable to generate enough economic growth to reduce the country's soaring unemployment rate. Economic reforms have recently been made in some areas, such as trade liberalization, the establishment of private banks, the approval of a foreign direct investment law, and the amendment of tax laws, but there has been no major restructuring of the economy. According to the IMF, Iran has the highest rate of brain drain in the world, with 160,000 people emigrating to greener pastures last year alone. Among those who remain behind, drug use, clinical depression, and suicide rates among youth are at an all-time high.

In June, Iran witnessed the largest wave of antigovernment demonstrations in four years. The unrest began with a rally by a few hundred students at Tehran University, but appeals by dissident Iranian satellite stations in Los Angeles led thousands of ordinary Iranians to join the protests, which spread to other major Iranian cities. Whereas public demonstrations once exclusively targeted Khamenei and other hardline clerics, calls for Khatami's resignation were prevalent. An estimated 4,000 demonstrators were arrested by the authorities, about half of whom were detained for more than a week, and hundreds were wounded by hardline vigilantes. Khatami's tepid response to the mass arrests led prominent student leaders to publicly withdraw their support for the president. Within the broader reform movement, Khatami and other government "moderates" are increasingly accused not just of being ineffective, but of willingly serving as a democratic facade for an oppressive regime.

Meanwhile, Iran faced new foreign policy challenges in 2003. Although Iranian officials welcomed the American-led ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in April, reformers and hardliners alike remained suspicious of U.S. promises to establish a representative political system in Baghdad. In June, senior American officials publicly called for a change of government in Tehran. In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report showing that Iran had been conducting clandestine nuclear research for decades. Although Iran agreed to halt illicit research and allow more intrusive inspections, the IAEA report bolstered U.S. claims that the Islamic Republic has an active nuclear weapons program.

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); 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 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (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, 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 six clergymen appointed by the Supreme Leader and six laymen selected by the head of the judiciary chief (the latter are nominally subject to parliamentary approval). Of the 814 candidates who declared their intention to run in the 2001 presidential election, only 10 were approved.

The Council of Guardians also has the power to reject legislation approved by the parliament (disputes between the two are arbitrated by the Expediency Council, another nonelected conservative-dominated body, currently headed by former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani). For example, during the year, the Council of Guardians rejected bills that would have eased the ban on satellite dishes, ended its power to screen candidates for elected office, required Iran to adopt UN conventions on eliminating torture and on ending discrimination against women, and allowed jury trials in an open court for journalists.

Freedom of expression is limited. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting and succeeded in jamming broadcasts by dissident satellite stations following the June demonstrations (reportedly after receiving assistance from Cuba). 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." Since 1997, more than 100 publications have been shut down by the judiciary and scores of journalists have been arrested – often held incommunicado for extended periods of time and convicted in closed-door trials. Circulation of pro-reform newspapers has fallen from a peak of more than three million to just over one million.

Scores of journalists were summoned for interrogation during the year, and dozens were detained, with the number of journalists behind bars reaching a high of 22 in July. The authorities greatly increased ad hoc press restrictions and gag orders banning media coverage of specific topics and events. When 135 members of parliament wrote an open letter in May calling on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to apologize to the public for ignoring their wishes, not a single newspaper dared to publish it (though it circulated widely on the Web).

While journalists had been allowed in the past to report on demonstrations with few problems, on June 12 the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) issued a decree prohibiting journalists from entering the university campus in Tehran to cover student demonstrations. Vigilantes beat several journalists who defied the order and confiscated their film and equipment. In the weeks after the June riots, eight journalists were arrested for allegedly inciting students to revolt. The SNSC also issued a decree prohibiting journalists from speaking with foreign Farsi-language news services, and a number of those alleged to have done so were prohibited from leaving the country during the year. A ban on publishing articles about Iranian-American relations has remained in effect since May 2002.

The rapid growth of Internet access in Iran – there are now an estimated three million users – and the tendency of newspapers closed by the judiciary to continue publishing online led the government to begin systematically censoring Internet content for the first time in 2003. In May, Internet service providers (ISPs) were instructed by the Ministry of Telecommunications to block access to a list of "immoral sites and political sites that insult the country's political and religious leaders." At least 12 ISPs were shut down during the year for failing to install filters against banned sites. At least three journalists were arrested in connection with material they published on the Internet.

Religious freedom is limited in Iran, which is 89 percent Shi'a Muslim and 10 percent Sunni Muslim. 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, 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 February, Iran released the last 5 of 10 Jews convicted in a closed-door trial of spying for Israel in 2000. In December, the Expediency Council approved legislation equalizing the amount of "blood money" owed to families of Muslim and non-Muslim murder victims. 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.

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.

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.

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. According to Amnesty International, the authorities arrested up to 4,000 people during the June demonstrations, about half of whom were detained for more than a week, and charged at least 65 people with criminal offenses. Hundreds of students and political activists were arrested in July and August, including three leaders of the Office to Foster Unity (OFU) and four leaders of the Melli Mazhabi (National Religious Alliance).

In recent years, hardline vigilante organizations, most notably the Basij and Ansar-i Hezbollah, have played a major role in dispersing public demonstrations. Shortly after the outbreak of the June protests, Khamenei warned that "the Iranian nation" may "decide to take action against the rioters," a striking indication that such vigilante groups are sanctioned by the conservative establishment. During the year, at least seven reformist members of parliament were beaten or blocked from giving public speeches in cities outside of the capital.

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 2003, the Ministry of the Interior prohibited the Worker's House from holding a demonstration on International Labor Day (May 1), citing regional tensions.

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. The penal code is based on Sharia and provides for flogging, stoning, amputation, and death for a range of social and political offenses.

Iranian security forces subjected thousands of citizens to arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention in 2003. Suspected dissidents are often held in unofficial, illegal detention centers, and allegations of torture are commonplace. Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian Iranian photo journalist, was arrested in June while taking photographs outside Tehran's high-security Evin prison and was beaten to death in custody.

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. At least two members of Komala, a Kurdish political organization affiliated with the Communist Party of Iran, were executed in 2003.

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 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. In November 2003, the Expediency Council approved a law giving divorced mothers the right to have custody of boys aged seven and under. The previous law automatically granted divorced fathers custody of male children over the age of two.

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