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.
Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The 2018 parliamentary elections, while imperfect, generally met international standards of free and fair elections and led to the peaceful transition of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adil Abd al-Mahdi. On December 1, in response to protesters’ demands for significant changes to the political system, Abd al-Mahdi submitted his resignation, which the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) accepted. As of December 17, Abd al-Mahdi continued to serve in a caretaker capacity while the COR worked to identify a replacement in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.
Numerous domestic security forces operated throughout the country. The regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies generally maintained order within the country, although some armed groups operated outside of government control. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) consist of administratively organized forces within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the Counterterrorism Service. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of order; it oversees the Federal Police, Provincial Police, Facilities Protection Service, Civil Defense, and Department of Border Enforcement. Energy police, under the Ministry of Oil, are responsible for providing infrastructure protection. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for the defense of the country but also carry out counterterrorism and internal security operations in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior. The Counterterrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister and oversees the Counterterrorism Command, an organization that includes three brigades of special operations forces. The National Security Service (NSS) intelligence agency reports directly to the prime minister.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, operated throughout the country. Most PMF units were Shia Arab, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority PMF units generally operated within or near their home regions. All PMF units officially report to the national security advisor and are under the authority of the prime minister, but several units in practice were also responsive to Iran and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each maintained an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the PUK and KDP separately controlled additional Peshmerga units. The constitution also allows for a centralized, separate Asayish internal security service; however, KDP and PUK each maintained Asayish forces. The KDP and PUK also maintained separate intelligence services, nominally under the KRG Ministry of Interior.
Civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned PMF units. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts.
The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority governorates beginning in early October. Demonstrators gathered in the streets to reinforce their demands for an end to corruption and a restructuring of the government. Civilian authorities quickly lost control of the situation. Security and armed groups, including PMF forces, responded with live ammunition, tear gas canisters shot as projectiles, and concussion grenades, in an attempt to suppress the demonstrations. By official accounts, as of December 17, more than 479 civilians were killed and at least 20,000 were injured. While one general and several officers were under investigation, efforts to achieve accountability were limited.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; significant interference with the rights of peaceful assembly; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; threats of violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnee populations perceived to have been affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); widespread official corruption; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Shingal Protection Units (YBS), and the Iran-aligned PMF that operate outside government control; trafficking in persons; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; violence targeting LGBTI persons; and restrictions on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions, discrimination in employment of migrants, women, those with disabilities, and child labor.
The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, investigated allegations of abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the ISF, including a ministerial investigation of the October protests, but the government rarely punished those responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the ISF, Federal Police, PMF, and certain units of KRG Asayish internal security services.
Despite a reduction in numbers, ISIS continued to commit serious abuses and atrocities, including killings through suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The government had ongoing investigations and was prosecuting allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, publicly noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the 2005 counterterrorism law.