Government and Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

“The ultimate authority written into the constitution is not the will of the people, but god, who is
represented by the supreme religious leader.“ (Crash Course World History 226 – Iran’s Revolutions)
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a political heavyweight in the Middle East. It reaches from the Caspian
Sea to the Persian Gulf and neighbours seven states, among them the Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and
Pakistan. 80 million inhabitants spread over 1.600.000 square kilometres, making Iran one of the
twenty biggest countries in the world. Economic and cultural centre is Teheran, its capital and 20-
million-mega city.

Iran is an outsider. Unlike most of its neighbours the Iran is Persian and not Arab. The majority of
Iranians as well as the government follow Shia Islam and not Sunnism. Additionally, the Republic was
only indirectly affected by the Arabian Spring 2011 and witnessed its own revolutions and uprisings
in 1978 and 2009.

How does the government look like in an Islamic Republic? Which human rights do people have?
From 1925 until 1979 Reza Shah and his son Mohammad Reza Shah built up the Pahlavi dynasty.
While the so-called “White Revolution” was meant to bring prosperity and social development
Iranians suffered from the authoritarian style of ruling and the Shah’s secret police. In 1978
dissatisfied Iranians went on the streets to protest against economic deficiencies and the cultural
influence of the US. What started as street demonstrations against the Shah’s broken promises
became a voracious fight between followers of Ruhollah Chomeini, a Shia Muslim religious leader
and politician, and the henchmen of the Shah. In 1979 a new Islamic Republic of Iran was proclaimed
based on Chomeinis idea about what an Islamic government should look like.

Elected institutions like the president and the parliament face the Supreme Leader and the Guardian
Council. The president is head of the executive branch and responsible for the implementation of the
constitution. However, the president and parliament are confined by the clerics and conservatives in
Iran’s power structure. The Supreme Leader is head of the army, in charge of security, defence and
foreign policy. He appoints half of the members of the Guardian Council, Friday prayer leaders and
the head of radio and TV. The Guardian Council scrutinises all presidential candidates as well as all
aspirants for parliamentary elections. All bills of the parliament have to be approved by the Guardian
Council. Also Iran’s judiciary is not independent from politics. Its head is appointed by the Supreme
Leader and is based on the Islamic religious law, the Sharia.

This system makes progressive change against the will of the conservative clerics extremely difficult.
Even during the so-called “reform era” from 1997 until 2005 when Mohammad Chatami served two
terms as president decisive reforms failed to get through the Guardian Council. Chatami was
followed up by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His re-election in 2009 sparked the Iranian
Green Movement (also Persian Awakening or Persian Spring), which was the biggest unrest since the
Revolution of 1979. Protestors demanded the removal of Ahmadinejad from office fearing electoral
fraud and condemning human rights violations during his first period as president. Nevertheless,
Ahmadinejad continued being in office until 2013 when he was replaced by reformist Hassan Rohani.
Supported by a large part of the public as well as the second current Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini
Khamenei his chief negotiators managed the signing of a nuclear agreement between the Iran, the
five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5+1) and the

European Union (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA). It ends step by step the sanction
scheme imposed on the Iran by the international community and was therefore enthusiastically
celebrated by the Iranian people. The parliamentary election in February 2016 confirmed this trend
as reform candidates achieved the majority.

Regardless the reformist nature of Iran’s current parliament the judiciary continues to target
journalists, online media activist, human rights defenders as well as trade unionist on charges like
“acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state”. According to the World Report
2018 of the international organisation Human Rights Watch Iran has a considerably death penalty
rate with at least 500 executions in 2017. Among crimes punishable by death are acts such as
“insulting the prophet”, apostasy, homosexual relationships, adultery and certain non-violent drug
offenses. Iranians prisons are infamously known for their harsh conditions, often failing to provide
medical care to their captives. An Iranian woman needs her male guardian’s permission for marriage
as well for travels abroad. Women form only 16 per cent of the workforce in economy and their
unemployment rate is twice as high as men’s. Mistreatment of minorities is also common practice
involving the imprisonment of leaders and the restriction of political and cultural activities of groups
like the Baha’i’s and Sunni Muslims.

The fundamental contradiction between an Islamic and republican conception of statehood makes
the evolvement of a democratic state impossible. At the same time it would be misleading to
describe Iranian politics merely as a struggle between worldly politicians acquainted with democratic
ideas and backward looking Shia clerics. Notably current Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei and
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi among numerous other political and religious leaders take
the view that Islam is indeed compatible with democracy and pluralism. Nevertheless, the Iranian
political system provides a dead end to any fruitful discussion between clerics, human rights
defenders and those who are both, when it allows strictly conservatives in the Guardian Council to
overrule any attempt of change.

by Schirin H.

Sources:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w4Ku6l7OEI (11.04.2018)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8051750.stm#expediency (12.04.2018)
http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2018-04/amnesty- international-china- hinrichtungen-bericht-
verweigert (12.04.2018)  executions
https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country- chapters/iran (29.04.2018)
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle- east-14541327 (29.04.2018)
https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2003/ebadi-lecture- e.html (29.04.2018)