Four years ago, President Mohammad Khatami crested to power on a wave of popular support as Iranians went to the polls in their millions to support his platform for reform. The scale of his victory dealt a serious blow to the conservative religious forces that dominated Iranian public and political life since the revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah. To most commentators at the time, it appeared that a sea change had taken place. A younger generation, it seemed, grown to adulthood since the revolution and tired of enduring the strictures of the state, had spoken out for change. Iran, it appeared, was entering a new era, and at last about to end its self-imposed isolation and open up again its communication and cooperation with the wider world.
Today, four years on, as President Khatami seeks reelection for a second term on June 6, the optimism that greeted that previous victory looks increasingly hollow. The past year, in particular, has brought a much harsher reality. The prospect of reform is now much more in the balance. As recently as February 2000, supporters of President Khatami won a further, convincing victory in elections to the Majles, or parliament, seemingly consolidating the process of reform. Since then, however, religious conservatives and opponents of reform have utilized their entrenched control over certain key institutions to mount a growing and effective counter surge against the reformists.
Their ability to do so stems directly from powers contained in Iran's post-revolution constitution. This strikes an uneasy balance between institutions of popular sovereignty and those charged with ensuring that governance accords with the precepts of divine law. This arrangement effectively pits the popularly-elected bodies, notably the presidency and the Majles, against the unelected religion-based institutions, comprising the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians, and the judiciary. The Supreme Leader is particularly powerful. He is chosen by a popularly-elected group of senior religious scholars and pious laymen known as the Assembly of Experts, and he appoints the Head of the Judiciary, who in turn appoints all chief judges. The Supreme Leader, advised by the Head of the Judiciary, also appoints the Council of Guardians, composed of twelve senior clerics whose responsibility it is to ensure that all laws passed by the Majles are compatible, in their view, with Islam.
Compounding their control over these important institutions, it is clear that the conservative religious forces opposed to President Khatami's reform agenda also maintain strong links with and influence over Iran's extensive internal security apparatus, notably the powerful Ministry of Intelligence.
Perhaps stung by Khatami's supporters' victory in the February 2000 election and threatened by an increasingly inquisitive and combative press, the conservatives have mounted an increasingly effective counteroffensive against the proponents of reform. In particular, they have used their dominance within the judiciary and the Council of Guardians to rein in and smother what had emerged as the engine of reform, the new, independent newspapers and journals. In little more than a year, the courts, under the control of the conservatives, have closed down more than thirty independent newspapers and journals, and sentenced at least twenty leading journalists, editors and publishers to prison terms.
The independent press was a particularly important target as it had emerged as the major mobilizing force for the reform movement during the first years after President Khatami's election. Writers and thinkers initiated debates about a broad range of subjects previously considered taboo in the Islamic Republic, including the role of the Supreme Leader and the place of the clergy in government and politics. Independent newspapers and journals carried exposés of corruption and the involvement of senior religious and government officials in illegal political violence as well as discussion about the role of women in society. The Majles also sought to amend the law to allow greater press freedom, only for this to be blocked by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, and the Council of Guardians, on the grounds that such a change would be "un-Islamic."
But the fallout from the factional struggle has extended far beyond the press. Allies of President Khatami have been forced out of their positions in government, and some have been tried and imprisoned. Khatami's efforts to normalize relations with Europe and the West have also been undermined by high-profile prosecutions of members of religious minorities and of Iranians who participated in an international conference in Berlin. Most recently, the conservatives have turned their attention to intellectuals and political activists who advocate reform, at least twenty of whom have now been detained without trial or jailed after unfair legal proceedings.
State agencies controlled by forces opposed to Khatami have also been involved in instigating and carrying out political violence, including killings of dissident intellectuals and activists since late 1998. According to an official inquiry, set up with President Khatami's support, Ministry of Intelligence agents were implicated in these politically motivated crimes. As a result, the president was able to obtain the removal of the intelligence minister, Gorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, and his replacement by a more sympathetic appointee, but questions remain about the role of senior officials in ordering or sanctioning political murders. Three high-ranking security agents accused of carrying out these killings together with ten other lower level officials were tried behind closed doors and convicted in January 2001, leaving many questions unanswered. Dori-Najafabadi, despite being made to stand down as intelligence minister, remains a senior official within the judiciary. High officials alleged to have been involved in killing of dissidents both at home and abroad have been untouched by the inquiries to date.
Other policies of the Khatami presidency, such as easing restrictions on social interaction between the sexes and a more relaxed social climate, have also been rolled back in recent months by strict enforcement of a dress code and regulations concerning private social gatherings. The sense of greater personal freedom among young people and women as well as the professional middle class has been eroded by the activities of vigilante groups linked to hard-line conservative clerics.
By these various means, religious conservatives have progressively chipped away at President Khatami's powerbase and exposed his inability to push forward his popular mandate for reform or, indeed, to face down his main opponents. In the face of conservative hostility, Khatami appears to have calculated that if he were to give his full and overt support to the reformists it could provoke his removal from office and so destroy any hope of gradual reform from within the system. Throughout, he has trodden a careful line, seeking to identify himself as the defender of constitutionally legitimate institutions and to speak out in favor of the rule of law. As most victims of arbitrary and illegal acts are his supporters, however, his public criticisms of departures from legal procedure are widely interpreted by both his supporters and adversaries as coded support for imprisoned reformists.
With his first term in office about to end, the reform proposals that were at the center of Khatami's previous election campaign remain largely unrealized, and many of his principal supporters in the reform movement have been effectively neutralized. Khatami's own, and the reformists', main claims to influence continue to flow from the widespread popular support that they have repeatedly been able to demonstrate at the polls. But by silencing the independent press, playing on fears of foreign interference, and jailing reform leaders, the conservatives have struck at the heart of the reform movement.
As the critical June 6 election approaches, both sides in this ongoing factional struggle now face dilemmas. For the conservatives, the question is whether, despite his continued advocacy of reform, President Khatami represents less of a threat in office, where his stature helps to channel discontent in a manner that preserves the Islamic Republic, than out of it. For the reformists, many of whom assert that Khatami's removal would bring catastrophic civil unrest, the calculation is the reverse: whether the minimal space they have been able to secure under Khatami is worth the stability this affords to the conservatives, who continue to exercise effective power.
It is against this background of continuing factional struggle among Iran's political and religious leaders, and it adverse implications for human rights, that the June 6 election is being played out. The outcome of the election will be crucial in determining both the future political direction of Iran and the extent to which existing human rights problems are addressed, and it will also have important implications for human rights in the wider Islamic world. Within Iran, the reformists have increasingly based their arguments on human rights principles, demanding greater freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and the primacy of democratic accountability over clerical authority in essentially secular political matters. As recent events have demonstrated, currently there are no durable safeguards for human rights in Iran, the courts are subject to political manipulation and offer no protection under the law, and shadowy paramilitary and vigilante groups are able to kill and maim with impunity under the protection of leading state and clerical officials.
In this report, Human Rights Watch traces the impact on human rights of the conservative counterattack of the past year, and identifies major steps that should be taken by the Iranian authorities, and by those who may have influence upon them, to address human rights violations and bring government policies into conformity with its obligations under international law.