The Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian theocratic republic with a Shia Islamic political system based on velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). Shia clergy, most notably the rahbar (supreme leader), and political leaders vetted by the clergy dominate key power structures. The supreme leader is the head of state. The members of the Assembly of Experts are nominally directly elected in popular elections. The assembly selects and may dismiss the supreme leader. The candidates for the Assembly of Experts, however, are vetted by the Guardian Council (see below) and are therefore selected indirectly by the supreme leader himself. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the position since 1989. He has direct or indirect control over the legislative and executive branches of government through unelected councils under his authority. The supreme leader holds constitutional authority over the judiciary, government-run media, and other key institutions. While mechanisms for popular election exist for the president, who is head of government, and for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament or majles), the unelected Guardian Council vets candidates, routinely disqualifying them based on political or other considerations, and controls the election process. The supreme leader appoints half of the 12-member Guardian Council, while the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) appoints the other half. Parliamentary elections held in 2016 and presidential elections held in 2017 were not considered free and fair.
The supreme leader holds ultimate authority over all security agencies. Several agencies share responsibility for law enforcement and maintaining order, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and law enforcement forces under the Interior Ministry, which report to the president, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which reports directly to the supreme leader. The Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group with local organizations across the country, sometimes acted as an auxiliary law enforcement unit subordinate to IRGC ground forces. The IRGC and the national army, or “Artesh,” provided external defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
In response to widespread protests that began November 15 after a fuel price increase, the government blocked almost all international and local internet connections for most of a week, and security forces used lethal force to end the protests, killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600, according to international media reports. There was no indication government entities were pursuing independent or impartial investigations into protester deaths.
Significant human rights issues included executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of “most serious crimes” and without fair trials of individuals, including juvenile offenders; numerous reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, as well as systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; hundreds of political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with independence of the judiciary, particularly the revolutionary courts; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminalization of libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on political participation through arbitrary candidate vetting; widespread corruption at all levels of government; unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by government actors to support the Assad regime in Syria; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; harsh governmental restrictions on the rights of women and minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; criminalization of LGBTI status or conduct; and outlawing of independent trade unions.
Despite repeated calls from the international community, including the United Nations, the government effectively took no steps to investigate, prosecute, punish, or otherwise hold accountable officials who committed these abuses, many of which were perpetrated as a matter of government policy. This included abuses and numerous suspicious deaths in custody from previous years. Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.
Government officials materially contributed to human rights abuses in Syria, through their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hizballah forces; in Iraq, through aid to pro-Iran militia groups; and in Yemen, through support for Houthi rebels, who targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted “increasing restrictions” on freedom of expression.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In June and August, two dozen civil society activists circulated two separate letters calling on the supreme leader to step down and begin a process to develop a new constitution. Authorities arrested nearly all of the signatories to these letters and charged them with “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” Their trials continued before a revolutionary court.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.” According to the Washington Post, the ministry temporarily stopped issuing permits to any foreign correspondents during the summer.
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials (approximately $2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
In June, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding over Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 28, sentenced Masoud Kazemi, editor in chief of the monthly political magazine Sedaye Parsi, to four and one-half years in prison followed by a two-year ban from working as a journalist for national security charges of spreading misinformation and insulting the supreme leader. In November 2018 authorities arrested Kazemi for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Industry.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 38 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of December.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations throughout the year in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. On May 4, authorities arrested Marzieh Amiri, a journalist for Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, at a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran. In reaction to Amiri’s arrest, member of parliament Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar reportedly said to state media, “[J]ournalists don’t have the right to report on anything they want. They are the problem.” Pourmokhtar noted there was nothing wrong with Amiri’s arrest since she had been exposing important information to enemy states. Amiri posted bail of one billion rials ($23,000) and was released from Evin Prison in late October.
In July, Amnesty International called for the release of three reporters for Gam (Step), a Telegram app news channel covering labor issues. According to Amnesty International’s report and other reporting from human rights organizations, authorities arrested Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Gam’s editor in chief; his wife Sanaz Allahyari, a reporter; and Amir Amirgholi, a Gam staff reporter, in January. The journalists reportedly faced national security charges connected to their reporting on workers’ rights protests in Khuzestan Province. Authorities released the journalists on bail in late October.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
In July the Huffington Post reported that the government had set conditions for the BBC not to share reporting materials it gathered inside the country with BBC Persian, its Persian language channel. According to the report, the agreement was made in exchange for the government to allow a BBC correspondent into the country.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.
National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials. In January authorities charged three members of the Iran Writer’s Association with national-security-related crimes, reportedly for publishing information opposing censorship of art and literature, according to CHRI.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose the president, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts and parliament, provided all have been vetted and approved by the Guardian Council. Elections are based on universal suffrage. Candidate vetting conducted by unelected bodies, however, abridged this right in all instances. Reported government constraints on freedom of expression and the media; peaceful assembly; association; and the ability freely to seek, receive, and impart information and campaign also limited citizens’ right to choose freely their representatives in elections.
The Assembly of Experts, which is composed of 86 popularly elected clerics who serve eight-year terms, elects the supreme leader, who acts as the de facto head of state and may be removed only by a vote of the assembly. The Guardian Council vets and qualifies candidates for all Assembly of Experts, presidential, and parliamentary elections based on criteria that include candidates’ allegiance to the state and adherence to Shia Islam. The council consists of six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) and approved by parliament.
The supreme leader exerted significant influence over the activities of elected officials. For example, on November 17, according to press reports, the supreme leader’s office sent a letter to parliament urging members of parliament to end debate on fuel rationing and pricing, which spurred major countrywide protests two days earlier.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government implemented the law arbitrarily, sometimes pursuing apparently legitimate corruption cases against officials, while at other times, bringing politically motivated charges against regime critics or political opponents. Officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. Many expected bribes for providing routine services or received bonuses outside their regular work, and individuals routinely bribed officials to obtain permits for otherwise illegal construction.
Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. Government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which are defined under law as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but no government agency is required to approve their budgets publicly.
Numerous companies and subsidiaries affiliated with the IRGC engaged in trade and business activities, sometimes illicitly, including in the telecommunications, mining, and construction sectors. Other IRGC entities reportedly engaged in smuggling pharmaceutical products, narcotics, and raw materials. The domestic and international press reported that individuals with strong government connections had access to foreign currency at preferential exchange rates, allowing them to exploit a gap between the country’s black market and official exchange rates.
Corruption: The judiciary continued an anticorruption campaign that observers viewed as motivated by several factors, including political infighting and replacing lost revenue due to economic challenges. The supreme leader approved a request from the head of the judiciary in 2018 to set up special revolutionary courts to try individuals for economic crimes, seeking maximum sentences for those who “disrupted and corrupted” the economy. He was quoted saying that punishments for those accused of economic corruption, including government officials and those from the military, should be carried out swiftly. Amnesty International criticized the courts’ lack of fair trial and due process guarantees.
In October a court reduced a seven-year prison sentence handed down in May to Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of President Rouhani, to five years. The exact nature of the charges was unclear, but he was convicted of receiving bribes. Some observers asserted the case was motivated by retribution sought by hardline political and judicial figures.
In November, Radio Farda reported that as a part of the judiciary’s drive against corruption, a number of employees of the State Deeds and Properties Organization were arrested on charge including “taking huge bribes, forgery, and cooperation with profiteers to appropriate public and private property.” These arrests came in tandem with the arrest of the Rudehen City Council chairman, Manouchehr Hemmat Najafi, on charges of embezzlement and bribery, and of 25 other individuals in connection to a case of unlicensed construction projects. As of December 9, details of the number of arrested employees and their positions have not been disclosed.
Financial Disclosure: Regulations require government officials, including cabinet ministers and members of the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, and Assembly of Experts, to submit annual financial statements to the government inspectorate. Little information was available on whether the government effectively implemented the law, whether officials obeyed the law, or whether financial statements were publicly accessible.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government restricted the operations of and did not cooperate with local or international human rights NGOs investigating alleged violations of human rights. The government restricted the work of domestic activists and often responded to their inquiries and reports with harassment, arrests, online hacking, and monitoring of individual activists and organization workplaces.
By law NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior and apply for permission to receive foreign grants. Independent human rights groups and other NGOs faced harassment because of their activism, as well as the threat of closure by government officials, following prolonged and often arbitrary delays in obtaining official registration.
During the year the government prevented some human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and scholars from traveling abroad. Human rights activists reported intimidating telephone calls, threats of blackmail, online hacking attempts, and property damage from unidentified law enforcement and government officials. The government summoned activists repeatedly for questioning and confiscated personal belongings such as mobile phones, laptops, and passports. Government officials sometimes harassed and arrested family members of human rights activists. Courts routinely suspended sentences of convicted human rights activists, leaving open the option for authorities to arrest or imprison individuals arbitrarily at any time on the previous charges.
In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed concern about the arrest, arbitrary detention, and sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. He noted acts of intimidation and reprisals in detention, including torture and mistreatment, as well as reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and journalists for engaging the UNSR and cooperating with other UN mechanisms.
According to NGO sources, including HRW and Amnesty International, the government’s rights record and its level of cooperation with international rights institutions remained poor. The government continued to deny requests from international human rights NGOs to establish offices in or to conduct regular investigative visits to the country. The most recent visit of an international human rights NGO was by Amnesty International in 2004 as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with the country.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: During the year the government continued to deny repeated requests by the UNSR on the situation of human rights in Iran to visit the country.
On November 15, for the seventh consecutive year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing serious concern about the country’s continuing human rights violations. The resolution repeated its call for the country to cooperate with UN special mechanisms, citing the government’s failure to approve any request from a UN thematic special procedures mandate holder to visit the country in more than a decade. It drew attention to the government’s continued failure to allow the UNSR into the country to investigate human rights abuses despite repeated requests. The most recent visit by a UN human rights agency to the country was in 2005.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The High Council for Human Rights, headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, is part of the judicial branch of the government and lacks independence. The council continued to defend the imprisonment of high-profile human rights defenders and political opposition leaders, despite domestic and international pressure. Larijani continued to call for an end to the position of the UNSR. There was no information available on whether the council challenged any laws or court rulings during the year.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but neither the constitution nor law specifies trade union rights. The law states that workers may establish an Islamic labor council or a guild at any workplace, but the rights and responsibilities of these organizations fell significantly short of international standards for trade unions. In workplaces where workers established an Islamic labor council, authorities did not permit any other form of worker representation. The law requires prior authorization for organizing and concluding collective agreements. Strikes are prohibited in all sectors, although private-sector workers may conduct “peaceful” campaigns within the workplace. The law does not apply to establishments with fewer than 10 employees.
Authorities did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. The government severely restricted freedom of association and interfered in worker attempts to organize. Labor activism is considered to be a national security offense, with severe punishments up to and including the death penalty. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination and does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
Antiunion discrimination occurred, and the government harassed trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and journalists during a crackdown on widespread protests. Independent trade unionists were subject to arbitrary arrests, tortured, and subjected to harsh sentences.
According to media and NGO reporting, on May 1, International Labor Day, police violently attacked and arrested at least 35 activists who had gathered for peaceful demonstrations demanding workers’ rights, organized by 20 independent labor organizations, in front of parliament. The government barred teachers from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day. Several prominent teachers and union activists remained in prison or awaited new sentences, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi (see below).
The Interior Ministry; the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare; and the Islamic Information Organization determined labor councils’ constitutions, operational rules, and election procedures. Administrative and judicial procedures were lengthy. The Workers’ House remained the only officially authorized national labor organization, and its leadership oversaw, granted permits to, and coordinated activities with Islamic labor councils in industrial, agricultural, and service organizations with more than 35 employees.
According to CHRI, the labor councils, which consisted of representatives of workers and a representative of management, were essentially management-run unions that undermined workers’ efforts to maintain independent unions. The councils, nevertheless, sometimes could block layoffs and dismissals. There was no representative workers’ organization for noncitizen workers.
According to international media reports, security forces continued to respond to workers’ attempts to organize or conduct strikes with arbitrary arrests and violence. As economic conditions deteriorated, strikes and worker protests were numerous and widespread across the country throughout the year, often prompting a heavy police response. Security forces routinely monitored major worksites. According to CHRI, workers were routinely fired and risked arrest for striking, and labor leaders were charged with national security crimes for trying to organize workers.
According to a CHRI report, in August 2018 security forces violently suppressed protests at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane company in the southeast. Haft Tappeh, the country’s largest sugar production plant, had been the site of continuing protests against unpaid wages and benefits for more than two years. According to CHRI, at least five workers were detained and charged with national security crimes but later released on bail following negotiations between labor representatives and judicial officials. In May the protests resurfaced in response to the announcement of a joint indictment issued against five journalists and two labor rights activists. Sepideh Gholian, Amir Hossein Mohammadifard, Sanaz Allahyari, Ali Amirgholi, Asal Mohammadi, Esmail Bakhski, and Ali Nejati were charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “forming groups with the intention to disturb national security,” and “contacts with antistate organizations.”
According to NGO and media reports, as in previous years, a number of trade unionists were imprisoned or remained unjustly detained for their peaceful activism. Mehdi Farahi Shandiz, a member of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Labor Unions in Iran, continued serving a three-year sentence, having been convicted of “insulting the supreme leader” and “disrupting public order.” There were reports that Shandiz was beaten and tortured in Karaj Prison and kept for prolonged periods in solitary confinement.
The government continued to arrest and harass teachers’ rights activists from the Teachers Association of Iran and related unions. In March media outlets reported continued nationwide teacher strikes demanding better pay, rights to an official union, and the release of teachers’ rights activists who were jailed during protests in 2018. That same month Hashem Khastar, a teachers’ rights activist from Mashhad, was allegedly abducted by unknown individuals, resurfaced shackled to a bed at a psychiatric hospital, was released, and taken into custody.
According to a CHRI report, Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) jailed since 2017, continued a 14-year combined sentence for charges associated with his peaceful defense of labor rights. CHRI reported in July that Beheshti-Langroudi commenced another hunger strike protesting his unjust sentence, the judiciary’s refusal to review his case, and the mistreatment of political prisoners. Esmail Abdi, a mathematics teacher and former secretary general of ITTA, continued a six-year prison sentence for labor rights activism. He was arrested in 2015 and convicted in 2016 for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” CHRI reported in April 2018 that Abdi had written a letter from Evin Prison criticizing the judiciary’s “arbitrary and illegal rulings” and “widespread violations of the rights of teachers and workers in Iran.” He decried the “criminalization of trade unions” and demanded a public trial that he had thus far been denied.
According to reports from international media and human rights organizations, truck drivers launched nationwide strikes over low and unpaid wages and stipends throughout the year. HRANA reported that the government arrested at least 261 drivers in 19 provinces following a round of protests in the fall of 2018. The drivers were threatened with heavy sentences, and Attorney General Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri issued a public statement suggesting that those who initiated the protest should be subject to the death penalty. In October 2018 the International Transport Workers’ Federation expressed concern over the government’s harsh crackdown on labor action by truckers across the country, including the threat of the death penalty against organizers.