United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: No Improvement in Human Rights

Iran’s human rights situation did not significantly improve in 2015, according to a new report by Freedom House. The brokering of the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers in July 2015 raised hopes that President Hassan Rouhani would gain enough leverage to enact domestic reforms that he had promised. But the monitoring group noted that hardliners “in control of key state institutions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary, appeared determined to prevent any attempts at reform.”
For both civil liberties and political rights, Iran received a score of 6 out of 7, with 7 being the worst. Iran has received the same scores each year since 1998, when Freedom House first assessed the situation there. For 2015, Iran received an aggregate score of 17 out of 100, with 100 being the most free, based on 25 indicators. The monitoring group classified Iran as “not free” along with most other countries in the region. The following are excerpts from the report on Iran.

With elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts scheduled for February 2016, hard-liners launched a new crackdown in 2015. At least four journalists were arrested, while several intellectuals, artists, and human rights activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American, was sentenced to an unspecified prison term following a closed-door trial on widely criticized espionage charges. There was also a surge in executions during the year, with estimates indicating that the number easily exceeded the reported total for 2014.

Political Rights: 7 / 40
A. Electoral Process: 3 / 12
The supreme leader, who has no fixed term, is the highest authority in the country. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints the head of the judiciary, the heads of state broadcast media, and the Expediency Council—a body tasked with mediating disputes between the Guardian Council and the parliament. He also appoints six of the members of the Guardian Council; the other six are jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary and confirmed by the parliament, all for six-year terms. The supreme leader is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, which also monitors his work. However, in practice his decisions appear to go unchallenged by the assembly, whose proceedings are kept confidential. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, succeeded Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
Elections in Iran are not free and fair, according to international standards. The Guardian Council, controlled by conservatives, vets all candidates for the parliament, president, and the Assembly of Experts—a body of 86 clerics who are elected to eight-year terms by popular vote. The council has in the past rejected candidates who are not considered insiders or deemed fully loyal to the clerical establishment, as well as women seeking to run in the presidential election. As a result, Iranian voters are given a limited choice of candidates.
As the country prepared for the 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in 2015, officials renewed a debate over the role of the Guardian Council. Rouhani suggested in August that the council’s proper function is to supervise rather than administer elections. His comments appeared to reflect concern that the body would bar moderate and reformist candidates from running. Hard-line officials hit back, including the IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jaafari, who warned against weakening the “pillars of the revolution.”
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 2 / 16
Only political parties and factions loyal to the establishment and to the state ideology are permitted to operate. Reformist parties and politicians have come under increased state repression, especially since 2009.
In 2015, two new reformist parties—Nedaye Iranian (Voice of Iranians) and Ettehad Mellat Iran (Iranian National Unity)—were established ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections. Hard-liners were critical of the decision to allow the two parties to operate, noting that some of their members belonged to the banned Participation Front (Mosharekat). The head of Ettehad Mellat and at least one other member of the party were summoned to court in 2015 in what was seen as a warning to the reformists.
CFunctioning of Government: 2 / 12
The elected president’s powers are limited by the supreme leader and other unelected authorities. The powers of the elected parliament are similarly restricted by the supreme leader and the unelected Guardian Council, which must approve all bills before they can become law. The council often rejects bills it deems un-Islamic. Nevertheless, the parliament has been a platform for heated political debate and criticism of the government, and legislators have frequently challenged presidents and their policies.
Corruption remains endemic at all levels of the bureaucracy, despite regular calls by authorities to tackle the problem. Powerful actors involved in the economy, including the IRGC and bonyads (endowed foundations), are above scrutiny. In its 2014 Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International ranked Iran 136 out of 175 countries and territories.
Civil Liberties: 10 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 2 / 16
Freedom of expression and access to information remain severely limited both online and offline. However, some journalists and citizens say the situation improved slightly after Rouhani took office. The state broadcasting company is tightly controlled by hard-liners and influenced by the security apparatus. News and analysis are heavily censored, while critics and opposition members are rarely, if ever, given a platform on state-controlled television, which remains a major source of information for many Iranians. State television has a record of airing confessions extracted from political prisoners under duress, and it routinely carries reports aimed at discrediting dissidents and opposition activists.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 1 / 12
The constitution states that public demonstrations may be held if they are not “detrimental to the fundamental principle of Islam.” In practice, only state-sanctioned demonstrations are typically permitted, while other gatherings have in recent years been forcibly dispersed by security personnel, who detain participants. In what appeared to be a softening of the government’s stance, police did not disrupt protests by animal rights activists in Shiraz in April 2015, or a months-long protest by prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh against a decision to ban her from practicing law. Sotoudeh said she and her supporters received threats but were allowed to continue their picketing outside the Iranian Bar Association in Tehran. 
Nongovernmental organizations that work on nonpolitical issues such as poverty and the environment are allowed to operate relatively freely. Reports suggest that their number has increased in the past two years. Other groups, especially those that have highlighted human rights violations, have been suppressed. …
Iran does not permit the creation of labor unions; only state-sponsored labor councils are allowed. Labor rights groups have come under pressure in recent years, and more than a dozen activists have been sentenced to prison. …
F. Rule of Law: 3 / 16
The judicial system is used as a tool to silence critics and opposition members. The head of the judiciary is appointed by the supreme leader for a five-year term. Under the current head, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, human rights advocates and political activists have been subjected to unfair trials, and the security apparatus’s influence over judges has reportedly grown.
Iran, after China, carries out the largest number of executions in the world each year, and the annual total has increased under Larijani. Convicts can be executed for offenses other than murder, such as drug trafficking, and for crimes they committed when they were less than 18 years old. According to the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, at least 694 individuals were reportedly executed in the first seven months of 2015, compared with 753 for all of 2014. Others put the total for 2015 at nearly 1,000. As in previous years, Iran refused to allow a visit to the country by the UN special rapporteur.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 4 / 16
Freedom of movement is restricted, particularly for women and perceived opponents of the regime. Women are banned from certain public places, such as sports stadiums, and can obtain a passport to travel abroad only with the permission of their fathers or husbands. Many journalists and activists have been prevented from leaving the country.
Iranians have the legal right to own property and establish private businesses. However, powerful institutions like the IRGC play a dominant role in the economy, and bribery is said to be widespread in the business environment, including for registration and obtaining business licenses.
The government interferes in most aspects of citizens’ private lives. Home parties are often raided and citizens detained or fined for drinking alcohol or mingling with members of the opposite sex. Women are regularly harassed and detained by the police for not fully observing the obligatory Islamic dress code. …
Scoring Key: X / Y 
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score

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Tags: Reports

Report: Corruption Perceptions in Iran

Iran ranked 130 out of 168 countries and territories in terms of corruption perceptions, according to Transparency International’s 2015 report. On a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Iran received a score of 27, the same score it received in last year’s report. Five other countries also received a score of 27: Cameroon, Nepal, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Ukraine. The Corruption Perceptions Index, which only applies to public-sector corruption, is a composite index that combines data from surveys and assessments carried out by other organizations.
Middle East Countries and Territories
2015 Score
2014 Score
2013 Score
2012 Score
United Arab Emirates
Saudi Arabia

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Tags: Reports

Report: Human Rights Abuses in Iran

In 2015, Iran executed significantly more people than in previous years, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. Authorities executed at least 830 prisoners from January to November 2015 compared with some 600 from January to October 2014. “Repressive elements within the security and intelligence forces, as well as the judiciary, retained wide powers and continued to be the main perpetrators of rights abuses,” according to the monitoring group. Iran’s revolutionary courts also imposed particularly harsh sentences on journalists, bloggers and social media activists. The following are excerpts from the chapter on Iran.
Death Penalty and Torture
Authorities executed at least 830 prisoners by hanging as of November 1, 2015, with almost 700 executed in the first six months of the year. Officials also carried out amputations of limbs for crimes such as theft.
Under Iranian law, many crimes are punishable by death, including some that do not involve violence, such as “insulting the Prophet,” apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, and drug-related offenses. Convicted drug offenders sentenced after flawed trials in revolutionary courts formed the majority of prisoners executed in 2015.
Freedom of Expression and Information
Security authorities continued to clamp down on free speech and dissent, and revolutionary courts handed down harsh sentences against social media users, including death sentences in some cases. As of December, according to Reporters Without Borders, Iran held at least 50 journalists, bloggers, and social media activists in detention.
Freedom of Assembly and Association
Scores of people held for their affiliation with banned opposition parties, labor unions, and student groups were in prison. The judiciary targeted independent and unregistered trade unions, and security and intelligence forces continued to round up labor activists and leaders.
Political Prisoners and Human Rights Defenders
The authorities continued to imprison dozens of activists and human rights defenders, such as lawyers Mohammad Seifzadeh and Abdolfattah Soltani, on account of their peaceful or professional activities. Judiciary officials continued their efforts to further erode the independence of the Iranian Bar Association and restricted the right of criminal defendants to access a lawyer of their own choosing during the investigation phase of national security cases.  
Women’s Rights
In 2015, authorities sought to introduce or implement discriminatory laws, including restricting the employment of women in certain sectors and limiting access to family planning as part of official measures to boost Iran’s population. On April 22, the Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 religious jurists, approved a controversial bill that empowers voluntary Basij paramilitary forces to “promote virtue and prevent vice,” including enforcement of the strict Islamic dress code, or hijab, for women. If passed, the bill would empower individuals to act outside of any official capacity and without any parameters for holding them legally accountable.
Treatment of Minorities
The government denies freedom of religion to Baha’is, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, and discriminates against them. At least 74 Baha’is were held in Iran’s prisons as of November 20, 2015. Security and intelligence forces also continued to target Christian converts from Islam, Persian-speaking Protestant and evangelical congregations, and members of the home church movement. Some faced charges such as “acting against the national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
Authorities restrict political participation and public sector employment of non-Shia Muslim minorities, including Sunnis, who account for about 10 percent of the population. They also prevent Sunnis from constructing their own mosques in Tehran and conducting separate Eid prayers.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Same-sex conduct between men in Iran is punishable by flogging or the death penalty. Same-sex conduct between women is punishable by flogging. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are subjected to official harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, prosecution, and ill-treatment or torture. Although Iran permits and subsidizes sex reassignment surgery for transgender people, no law prohibits discrimination against them.
Afghan refugees and migrant workers, estimated at between 2.5 and 3 million in number, continued to face serious abuses. Authorities reportedly allowed Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling reaffirming the need for universal education.
However, Afghans continue to face barriers to receiving other forms of social services; are at higher risk for arbitrarily being stopped, questioned, and/or detained by authorities; and have little recourse when abused by government or private actors.
Key International Actors
On July 14, the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members, along with Germany and Iran, announced that they had reached a comprehensive agreement to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. The deal paves the way for gradually removing financial and economic sanctions against Iran. On July 28, during EU Foreign Affairs Chief Mogherini’s visit to Tehran, Iran’s foreign minister said Iran and the European Union had agreed to hold talks “over different issues, including … human rights.”
The government continued to block access to Iran by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and other UN rights experts. 

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Tags: Reports

Rouhani Challenges Candidate Vetting

In the buildup to the parliamentary election, Iran’s top leaders appear to have differing views as to who should be allowed to run. In a January 21 speech to election officials, Rouhani challenged the Guardian Council’s disqualification of the majority of candidates who registered for the February 26 election. He seemed to compare reformists to Iran’s recognized religious minorities —Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians —who are granted proportional representation in parliament. “They are 10,000, 20,000,” he said. “Yet there is a faction in this country with seven or 10 million,” he added, which was widely seen as a reference to reformists. 
Some 12,000 candidates have registered to compete for parliament’s 290 seats. But the Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting candidates’ qualifications, has rejected some 60 percent of the would-be candidates. And Iranian media outlets have reported that the Guardian Council has disqualified the majority of Rouhani’s supporters and reformists. Reformist leader Hossein Marashi told Shargh Daily that only 30 of more than 3,000 reformist candidates who registered were approved to run.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in January that only candidates who totally support Iran’s system of government should be allowed to run, which was widely interpreted as a statement backing conservative factions. Yet he said that he wants all Iranians to vote, even those who don’t accept Iran’s system. On January 4, Khamenei warned that Iranians who oppose the system, “agents of penetration,” could eat away at it from the inside like termites if they manage to enter parliament or other elected bodies. The following are excerpted remarks by Rouhani and Khamenei on the vetting of parliamentary candidates.


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei



“Even in America, which claims it is the land of freedom and some people naively accept that, during the Cold War those with slightest socialist leaning would have been marginalized.”
—Jan. 20, 2016, in a meeting with election officials
Another issue is the issue of penetration. We brought up the issue of penetration during and after JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. This is a very astonishing and important issue. Those who have access to information about different matters know very well what a snare they have laid or want to lay in order to penetrate the stronghold of the Iranian nation’s willpower, thoughts and decisions with all kinds of measures, policies and plots. This is an ongoing situation. The people should pay careful attention to this matter when it comes to elections. If the agents of penetration somehow manage to enter the Islamic Consultative Majlis, the Assembly of Experts or the other foundations of the Islamic Republic, they will weaken the bases of the system and will eat them from the inside like termites. 
—Jan. 4, 2016, in a meeting with prayer leaders 
President Hassan Rouhani
“The primary reports I've received [about disqualifications] did not make me happy at all.”
“I will use all my power to protect the rights of candidates."
—Jan. 18, 2016, in a news conference
“During these elections, we have to show and prove impartiality, non-interference, the essence of constitution, security, competition, Supreme Leader’s guidelines and full implementation of his orders as to hold the elections with full participation of all.”
“As the Majles (parliament) is a house for people, not for a certain faction, the government also supports no specific faction, party or candidate, therefore as the world situation changed, we should let the best candidates enter the Majles.”
“If there is one faction and the other is not there, they don't need the February 26 elections, they go to the parliament.”
“They [religious minorities including Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians] are 10,000, 20,000… Yet there is a faction in this country with seven or 10 million.”
“We hope all factions will be able to send their representatives to the parliament.”
“No official without the vote of the people would be legitimate. Executors and observers should pay attention that the law is respected.”
“As the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution indicated and ordered all to act according to the essence of the constitution, not the essence of a specific political taste, so I urgently asked the Interior and Intelligence Ministers to diligently cooperate and consult with the electoral supervisory Guardian Council in this regard.”
—Jan. 21, 2016, in an address to election officials


Photo credits: Khamenei.ir, President.ir 


US Implements Changes to Visa Waiver Law

On January 21, the U.S. State Department began implementing changes to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of 38 countries, including many E.U. states, do not need visas to travel to the United States. But the new measure bars citizens of those countries who are also dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan from participating in the program. Those who have travelled to those four countries since 2011 also cannot participate, according to some interpretations. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, noted that the Obama administration can waive the visa requirements, among other things, so as not to “interfere with the legitimate business interest of Iran.  
The change was first proposed by Congress to make it more difficult for terrorists who hold E.U. or other citizenships to enter the United States. House Resolution 158 passed 407 to 19 on December 8. Iranian officials condemned the bill even before President Obama signed it into law as part of a $1.1 trillion spending bill on December 18. More than 100 Iranian lawmakers sent a letter to President Rouhani condemning the move and demanding government action. “This visa-waiver thing is absurd,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The New Yorker. “Has anybody in the West been targeted by any Iranian national, anybody of Iranian origin, or anyone travelling to Iran?”
On December 19, Kerry reportedly wrote a letter to Zarif assuring him that Washington will meet its commitments under the nuclear deal despite the changes to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Some U.S. lawmakers, however, have opposed Kerry’s outreach to Zarif. “[I]t was not and has never been Congress’s intent to allow the Administration to grant a blanket waiver to travelers to and from Iran in order to facilitate the implementation of the Iran deal,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The State Department press release and text of Kerry’s letter to Zarif are below, followed by reactions from Iranian officials' and U.S. lawmakers. 
State Department Press Release
Jan. 21, 2015
The United States today began implementing changes under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (the Act).  U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day and is committed to facilitating legitimate travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection.  Under the Act, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):
  • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).
  • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.
These individuals will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates.  For those who need a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to process applications on an expedited basis.
Beginning January 21, 2016, travelers who currently have valid Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTAs) and who have previously indicated holding dual nationality with one of the four countries listed above on their ESTA applications will have their current ESTAs revoked.
Under the new law, the Secretary of Homeland Security may waive these restrictions if he determines that such a waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.  Such waivers will be granted only on a case-by-case basis.  As a general matter, categories of travelers who may be eligible for a waiver include:
  • Individuals who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, and sub-national governments on official duty;
  • Individuals who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria on behalf of a humanitarian NGO on official duty;
  • Individuals who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria as a journalist for reporting purposes;
  • Individuals who traveled to Iran for legitimate business-related purposes following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (July 14, 2015); and
  • Individuals who have traveled to Iraq for legitimate business-related purposes.
Again, whether ESTA applicants will receive a waiver will be determined on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the terms of the law.  In addition, we will continue to explore whether and how the waivers can be used for dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan.
Any traveler who receives notification that they are no longer eligible to travel under the VWP are still eligible to travel to the United States with a valid nonimmigrant visa issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate.  Such travelers will be required to appear for an interview and obtain a visa in their passports at a U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling to the United States.
The new law does not ban travel to the United States, or admission into the United States, and the great majority of VWP travelers will not be affected by the legislation.
An updated ESTA application with additional questions is scheduled to be released in late February 2016 to address exceptions for diplomatic- and military-related travel provided for in the Act.

Secretary of State John Kerry
Dear Mr. Minister:
Thanks for a constructive meeting yesterday. I wanted to get back to you in response to your inquiry about amendments to our Visa Waiver Program. First, I want to confirm to you that we remain fully committed to the sanctions lifting provided for under the JCPOA. We will adhere to the full measure of our commitments, per the agreement. Our team is working hard to be prepared and as soon as we reach implementation day we will lift appropriate sanctions.
I am also confident that the recent changes in visa requirements passed in Congress, which the Administration has the authority to waive, will not in any way prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments, and that we will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran. To this end, we have a number of potential tools available to us, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation. I am happy to discuss this further and provide any additional clarification.


Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
“This visa-waiver thing is absurd. Has anybody in the West been targeted by any Iranian national, anybody of Iranian origin, or anyone travelling to Iran? Whereas many people have been targeted by the nationals of your allies, people visiting your allies, and people transiting the territory of, again, your allies. So you’re looking at the wrong address…”
—Dec. 17, 2015, in an interview with The New Yorker
“Unfortunately, there are mixed signals coming from Washington, mostly negative signals, including the visa waiver program restrictions. Now we await for the decision by the administration on how it wants to bring itself into compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA.”
“I have had discussions with Secretary Kerry and others on this for the past several days since it’s become known that this was the intention. And I wait for them to take action.”
—Dec. 19, 2015, in an interview with Al Monitor
“If the Congress law is implemented as it is, it would definitely be a breach [of the nuclear deal].”
—Dec. 23, 2015, at a press conference
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani
“Although it is not an important issue, it is aimed at harassment and is against the paragraphs 28 and 29 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”
“If the Americans pursue the plan, they will destroy an achievement with their own hands since it is against the JCPOA and it will trouble them.”
—Dec. 17, 2015, in a speech in Qom
Deputy Foreign Minister Syed Abbas Araghchi
“The U.S. Congress's approval has different legal aspects which are being studied and if it is against the contents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), we will take action against it.”
“We are in consultation with the Group 5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France plus Germany) and specially the EU (Foreign Policy) Coordinator (Federica Mogherini) to show the necessary reaction in this regard.”

—Dec. 13, 2015, to reporters in Tehran 

“The law Obama signed contradicts JCPOA. Definitely, this law adversely affects economic, cultural, scientific and tourism relations.”

—Dec. 20, 2015, according to state television

“Although it is not an important issue, it is aimed at harassment and is against the paragraphs 28 and 29 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
—Dec. 27, 2015, in a parliament session
Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi
“It is true that they [Americans] have set restrictions on citizens of other countries but they have committed such a violation indirectly.”
—Dec. 20, 2015, according to Press TV

U.S. lawmakers 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)
“When Congress passed legislation to reform the visa waiver program, we intended to keep the American people safe from terrorism and from foreign travelers who potentially pose a threat to our homeland. This legislation, which the President signed into law, allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive the new strict requirements for specific people if and only if it would benefit law enforcement or the national security interests of the United States. Contrary to what the Secretary of State seems to be saying to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, it was not and has never been Congress’s intent to allow the Administration to grant a blanket waiver to travelers to and from Iran in order to facilitate the implementation of the Iran deal.


“The visa waiver reform law is not ambiguous, and, by Presidential signature, it is the law of the land. Instead of undermining Congressional intent regarding the visa waiver program, the White House should instead focus on Iran’s repeated violations of the U.N. Security Council’s bans on missile tests. Iran’s unwillingness to follow these international agreements should be a red flag that the Iran nuclear deal isn’t worth the paper it is written on.”

—Dec. 21, 2015, in a statement


Photo credit: Javad Zarif by Robin Wright 


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