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Human Rights and International Law

Iran and human rights
Zachary Karabell
from Human Rights and Comparative Foreign Policy: Foundations of Peace, David P. Forsythe, ed.
United Nations University


I. Historical introduction

At the height of the Cold War, Iran allied itself with the Western bloc. The Shah of Iran, Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, owed his throne in no small measure to the assistance of the US Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Service, which in 1953 had helped him organize a coup against the nationalist leader Muhammad Mossadegh. 1

The Shah saw himself as the heir to a thousands-year-old tradition of Persian monarchy. He desperately wanted Iran to become a modern, industrial state, with an educated populace, but he resisted the notion that Iran should democratize. 2 Over the years, various American administrations pressured him to open up the political system, allow for political opposition and elections, and loosen the laws of land ownership. The Shah periodically made gestures in that direction but refused to make more substantive changes, claiming the West failed to appreciate the challenges of Iranian society. If ever the pressure became too great, the Shah would subtly remind Western diplomats that any changes that might result in upheaval could jeopardize the stability of Iran and thereby undermine Western influence in the "Northern Tier."

In the late 1970s, however, the Shah faced internal challenges brought on by rapid urbanization and inflation. His response was often to crack down on opposition, using the security service SAVAK as one of his primary tools of repression. SAVAK had an unsavoury reputation, and United Nations human rights forums called attention to SAVAK's tendency to resort to torture, detention without stated cause, and other violations of international human rights norms.

When US President Jimmy Carter placed at least the rhetoric of human rights at the centre of his administration's foreign policy, Iran came under intense and unfavourable scrutiny. Even before Carter, the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act forbade US aid to any government that "practiced the internment or imprisonment of that country's citizens for political purposes." The Shah, who was by this time ill with cancer, reacted to the new American focus on human rights with a series of reforms, decrees, and gestures. He did allow opposition parties greater latitude, and he apparently closed some of the more notorious SAVAK detention centres. 3

In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown. Within two years, forces loyal to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to dominate the post-Shah revolutionary government. The initial opposition to the Shah was a loose coalition of Marxist guerrillas, radical students, disaffected and underemployed technocrats, affluent merchants, liberal intelligentsia, and Shiite clerics. But it was the clerics, and Khomeini in particular, who commanded the loyalty of the urban masses. With support from the bazaari merchants and with the income from the many mosque foundations, the clerics were able to mobilize people and resources more effectively than other revolutionary factions. The radical clerics also were not shy about using force, and they were ruthless in eliminating opponents.

The resulting Iranian revolution was hostile not just to the old regime but to its international supporters. As the United States was the primary ally of and patron to the Shah, it received the brunt of the revolution's animus. Iran's international human rights policy is intimately entwined with its relations with the United States. Over time, anti-Americanism became institutionalized by the revolutionary regime, with regular gatherings organized by the clerical authorities that included ritual and repeated denunciations of the United States as the "Great Satan."

The United States, for its part, demonized Iran as the "godfather" of international terrorism. Under the successive administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton, Iran was singled out as a "rogue state" and treated as an international pariah.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the United States government consistently labelled Iran a "terrorist state." US intelligence agencies saw a direct link between Tehran and Lebanon's Hezbollah faction, which was responsible for multiple kidnappings of US citizens in the 1980s. Iran was also implicated in the bombing of American soldiers in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. Dozens of Iranian dissidents living abroad in exile have been assassinated by organized hit squads. In addition to US intelligence sources, French, British, and German agencies have traced the trail of responsibility back to Tehran. 4

Terrorism is not identical to human rights abuses, though the two often accompany one another. Whereas the international human rights community has been more careful to distinguish between them, the United States has tended to lump the two together in its critique of Iran. To that mix, it has added another: Iran's purported attempt to obtain nuclear weapons. In the words of former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Robert Pelletreau, "We have deep objections to several of Iran's policies, including its support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for Hamas and other violent groups seeking to derail the peace process, subversion of other governments, and a human rights record which is deservedly condemned by the international community." 5

The animosity between Iran and the United States directly shaped and continues to shape the human rights policies of the Iranian government. That does not mean that Iran's domestic policies are shaped by either American or international criticisms. Laws governing property, theft, marriage, and speech stem from the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence, and have little or nothing to do with the international community. Yet, even in the domestic sphere, the Islamic Republic of Iran contends with many of the same accusations that the Shah did.

Although the human rights violations of SAVAK were widely publicized and denounced by the Iranian opponents of the Shah's regime, once in power these same opponents have committed many of the same abuses. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been repeatedly censured for human rights abuses by the United Nations. For instance, in 1983, a UN Human Rights Commission report estimated that between 5,000 and 20,000 people had been executed since 1979. The same report documented electric shock torture, whippings, and mock executions in Iranian jails. The allegations were vehemently denied by the authorities in Tehran. 6 In 1987, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing "deep concern" over human rights violations in Iran, including persecution of religious minorities; the vote was 58 in favour, 22 against, and 42 abstentions. 7

More recently, Amnesty International reported that "thousands of political prisoners" were being held in Iranian jails, many of them "without charge or trial." The report noted that "flogging and amputation" were common punishments for persons convicted of crimes such as theft or fraud. Political trials involving accusations of espionage or "propagating pan-Turkism" fell "far short of international fair trial standards." And the report also raised the issue of extrajudicial executions of prominent critics of the regime. 8

In response to international criticism, members of the Iranian government have responded in several ways. They have denied that the alleged abuses have occurred; they have defended certain practices as sanctified by Islamic law; and they have attacked the United States for slandering the Islamic Republic and using international human rights regimes as yet another way to isolate and undermine a government that it wants overthrown.

Clearly, Iran does not possess a strong domestic legacy of human rights. Both the Pahlavis and the revolutionary government spoke of basic rights such as education, employment, housing, freedom of assembly, and fair trial. Yet both the Shah and the revolutionary clerics interpreted all of these human rights as secondary to the rights of the monarchy (under the Shah) or to the law of God and the Koran (under the revolution).

Until 1979, Iran had been governed for thousands of years by monarchs. With few exceptions, the rule of these monarchs was absolute. Traditionally, the clergy deferred to the monarchy; they supported the monarch as the source of order in society. Even if a particular king was brutal and corrupt, the clerics tended to believe that even a bad monarch was preferable to chaos. And they believed that, without a ruler, society would inevitably descend into chaos. At the turn of the twentieth century and for a brief period in the early 1950s, a constitutional movement flourished in Iran but, each time, traditional Iranian absolutism trumped constitutionalism, albeit with the help of outside powers. In 1907, both the British and the Russians supported the king against the reformers, and in 1953 the United States supported the Shah against Mossadegh.

With the advent of the Islamic Republic, Iran underwent a dramatic change. Suddenly, rights were at the centre of political debates. Not human rights per se, but rather Islamic rights. The Koran and the huge corpus of Muslim jurisprudence spoke volumes about the rights of individual believers in relation to the state and to the ruler. These rights, however, are secondary to the will of God. In the Islamic Republic, there have been and continue to be heated debates over rights, debates that are bounded by and complicated by the paramountcy of God, the Koran, and the legacy of Khomeini. Since the election of the moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami to the presidency in 1997, the internal debate over both human rights and Islamic rights has intensified. Though Khatami welcomes and even fosters the airing of different views and different perspectives, the Iranian government continues to exist within the framework established by Khomeini and the clerics who established the Islamic Republic.

Thus, neither in the past nor in the present does Iran have a tradition of absolute human rights. Rather, human rights are understood within the context of other rights. In the case of the revolutionary regime designed by Khomeini, human rights exist only within the framework of an Islamic Republic and Islamic law. Individual human beings have rights that Islam and God grant to them, not rights that attach to them simply because they are human beings. 9

II. National domestic factors

In terms of human rights, the two most significant factors in Iran today are Islam and Iranian attitudes towards the American government. Islam and how it is interpreted by the post-Khomeini regime are arguably the most important domestic factors in Iran. The revolutionary Shiite ideology of the Islamic Republic is unique, and it conditions the official attitude of the regime toward all questions. On human rights, the clerical regime asserts that Islam has its own standards; Iran therefore makes the cultural relativist argument about human rights and rejects many critiques of its record on the grounds that Western societies have no authority to impose their standards on Iran. At the same time, whenever they are criticized for human rights violation, the leaders of the Islamic Republic accuse the United States of using the international human rights movement to isolate Iran.

World Islamic revolution was both the ambition and the policy of the first Islamic Republic. 10 Various branches of the revolutionary government sponsored conferences on political Islam that amounted to primers on how to achieve power. Khomeini called on Muslims everywhere to rise up against their corrupt leaders and transform their societies according to God's law. These appeals struck a resonant chord amongst Shiite Muslims in Iraq and the Gulf states, as well as in war-torn Lebanon, where the Hezbollah Party is funded by Iran. The rhetoric was also revanchist, at times stridently so. Using a combination of repression and accommodation, Muslim states as disparate as Morocco and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia tried to stave off the potentially destabilizing influence of revolutionary Islamic ideology.

By 1988, however, the Iranian government no longer placed export of revolution at the top of the agenda. As is true for many states, the Iranian regime was not and is not unitary. Different ruling groups in Iran adhere to different lines on the export of revolution, on political pluralism, and on crime and punishment. Some retain the early revolutionary fervour, others are simply ambitious for power and influence and give only lip-service to Islam; some speak of ending Iran's international isolation; others resist any rapprochement with the United States. With the death of Khomeini in 1989, no one individual appeared who could subsume the contradictory impulses.

Khomeini's successor as spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, represents the powerful "hard line" of Iranian politics. Yet, though Khomeini until his death in 1989 and after that Khamene'i as supreme jurisconsult exercise extraordinary powers under the Iranian Constitution, the exact division of powers and jurisdictions of various branches and ministries has always been vague. This makes any discussion of Iranian human rights policy (or any other policy) difficult. In short, there is no single Iranian "human rights" policy.

It has long been accepted by students of American government that bureaucratic politics often lead not to a unitary policy, but rather to policies. The same is true for the post-Khomeini Iranian state. Not only is there a range of views, but it is not always clear who is determining policy, and quasi-official organizations such as the Mustazaffin Foundation may implement policies that are more extreme, more violent, and less respectful of international norms than the officials of the interior or other ministries.

On at least one issue, however, there is consensus: in the eyes of Iranian leaders, the United States is the primary threat to the Islamic revolution. For that reason, Iranian statements on human rights almost always include statements about the United States. In the eyes of Khamene'i, the most pernicious factor in world affairs in general and on Iran in particular is "the hegemony of the United States." He has repeatedly assailed the US government for "its influence and interference in Islamic countries." 11

The Iranian government views the international system through the lens of its distrust of the United States. In the Iranian view, the international system is dominated by the United States. As the international hegemon, the United States makes the rules, and these rules are designed to keep any would-be competitors at a disadvantage. The Iranian revolution embraced an ideology that explicitly and virulently rejected the United States as a hegemon. This ideology was based on the principle that Islam is the only true path for Iran, and that the rules of Islam, as explicated by the supreme jurisconsult, are profoundly different from the rules of the "Great Satan," the United States. In the words of Khamene'i, "the Islamic Republic's system is standing against this hegemonic system." 12

Believing that the US government is unalterably opposed to Iran, Iranian leaders interpret any international criticisms of Iranian human rights abuses in light of American attempts to undermine the revolution. In the words of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, "I think human rights is used as an instrument to exert pressure and also to achieve some goals that particularly the United States pursues. For example, you see in the U.S. an incident takes place, the mass killing in Waco, Texas of the Davidian sect ... but very soon, they just stifle the matter as if nothing has happened. But if a small incident takes place in Iran, it is blown way out of proportion and is publicized for years." Rafsanjani also castigated the treatment of prisoners in the United States and asserted that in Iran, contrary to the accusations of the US government, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Commission, prisoners "visit with their families, and are treated with dignity." 13

From Iran's perspective, the international human rights regime is part of that US-controlled hegemonic system. Condemnation of Iran's human rights record is, therefore, interpreted by the ruling clerics as an attack on Iran by the United States and its proxies. It does not matter whether the institutions criticizing Iran are American, European, Asian, or independent. It does not matter whether Iranian human rights abuses are publicized by NGOs such as Amnesty International, or United Nations groups such as the Human Rights Commission. All of them are perceived as part of a hegemonic system created and dominated by the United States.

For instance, in 1992, Iran reacted angrily to a harsh UN report by expelling all foreign Red Cross workers from the country on the grounds that the Red Cross had been complicit in helping UN authorities compile the report. 14 Justifying the expulsion, Iranian officials at the United Nations criticized Human Rights Commission envoy Galindo Pol for failing to do justice to the status of human rights in Iran under political pressure from Washington. Iran's deputy foreign minister accused Pol of copying the US State Department's report on human rights. 15

These allegations were reiterated by Iran in 1996, when a UN special representative on human rights, Canada's Maurice Danby Capithorne, visited Iran. An editorial in the Tehran Times stated that:

Criteria for human rights are respected by everyone; however, any judgement on the situation of human rights in a country should be harmonious with the nation's culture, religion and traditions. The special envoy should not surrender to direct and indirect pressures from the United States and other Western powers, whose aims are to use human rights as a leverage against Iran.... One can magnify minute flaws of any country in order to present it in a bad light. The consequences would be that countries which do, in fact, violate human rights in a major way take on a low profile, while countries with minor human rights violations enter the stage for the scrutiny of world public opinion. 16

When Capithorne submitted his report in October, he noted that the condition of human rights in Iran had deteriorated, with many new instances of arrests of teachers and lawyers who had said or written things that the clerics found objectionable. 17

The Iranian government's response to American condemnation of its human rights record is not without foundation. Successive US administrations have been highly selective about which countries they single out for human rights criticism. Until 1989, countries seen as allies in the Cold War infringed human rights with the impunity born of the knowledge that the United States and NATO would turn a blind eye. Even today, US policy on human rights is extremely varied and even contradictory. The case of China demonstrates these contradictions. The same abuses committed by the Chinese government, including torture, extended imprisonment without habeas corpus, press and political party restrictions, and extraterritorial attacks on dissidents, elicit condemnation when committed by Iran but muted objections when committed by China. 18

Iran's belief that international politics are dominated by the United States and its allies is also hardly unfounded, nor is its suspicion that US and UN condemnations of human rights abuses are not always as neutral as they are purported to be. The United States points to the Iranian government as the fount of international terrorism, both in the Middle East and throughout the world, yet evidence for American accusations remains flimsy at best.1 19 Certain branches of the Iranian government, and the Mustazaffin Foundation in particular, may be more complicit than others in funding international Muslim groups who use violence to achieve their aims. That much seems clear, but the more extreme allegations that inner circles of the Iranian government order and implement international terrorism are unproven.

Nonetheless, Iran often overstates the influence of the United States on international human rights issues. America dominates the Security Council, but it has rarely had its way in the General Assembly. And it is in the General Assembly that most human rights resolutions are debated and passed. Though the Islamic Republic may be correct that the international system is permeated by American hegemony, in the area of human rights American officials often struggle unsuccessfully to assert their agenda. A quick look at the history of international human rights law shows that Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Scandinavia, has been at the forefront, not the United States.

Furthermore, most human rights organizations have concluded that Iran has severe human rights problems. The fact that they may not be as severe or as extensive as the United States and the United Nations allege does not mean that the Iranian government respects human rights, its denials notwithstanding. 20 Neutral human rights organizations have documented mistreatment of prisoners, executions, torture, assassination of dissidents abroad, lack of political pluralism, and oppression of religious minorities. Although the rights record of the "second republic," as post-Khomeini Iran is sometimes called, has shown improvement, that record is still troubling, the election of Khatami to the presidency notwithstanding.2 21 Faced with these charges, Iran does not simply deny that abuses are taking place. Rather, the Iranian government argues that it cannot and should not be judged by a set of standards alien to Islam. Unlike many autocratic countries, the Iranian government has an ideology that justifies policies that the international community labels human rights abuses.

Much of this ideology falls under the category of cultural relativism. 22 According to Iran's leaders, Islam is a complete system of law and morality distinct from secular, Western law and morality. 23 The individual in the Iranian revolutionary framework is not free to do as he wants. Rather, he is free to do God's will, much as the early Puritans in Massachusetts were free to live morally. Islamic law (sharia) defines the universe of rights. Under the sharia, a chronic thief should be punished with the loss of a hand. Hence, that is moral. That punishment is right. Similarly, the sharia does not speak of political pluralism as a right. In fact, according to Khomeini's theory of the supreme jurisconsult, human rights are adjudicated by the jurisconsult speaking for the Hidden Imam. Whatever the jurisconsult decrees is by definition right, assuming that his decrees are compatible with the Koran and the sharia.

Iran claims for itself an Islamic tradition of rights and responsibilities. In 1996, the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, announced a new set of tougher punishments, in accord with "Islamic penal law." Under the revised code, "a robber or a thief found guilty of robbery or theft for a fourth time would not be entitled to leave nor to pardon when he is serving his sentence." He described the laws as "progressive." 24 A month later, commenting on international criticisms of Iran, he defended the "Islamic penal system" and said that, whether or not Western societies like Islamic proscriptions for punishment, that system "cannot be altered." It cannot be altered because, according to the clerics who govern the Islamic Republic, the Islamic penal system is the product of the sharia. It is God's law. Yazdi announced that, in order to leaven the Western bias in international human rights, Iran had established an "Islamic human rights commission." 25

Also in 1996, the official radio station of the Islamic Republic launched a weekly programme on human rights called "Hidden Truth." According to the producers, the aim of the programme was "to unravel the real essence of the concept of human rights.... The program will look at the various philosophical and legal aspects of human rights, how the concept is used and abused by various countries and international organizations, and the situation of human rights in other countries." Much of the programme consisted of an attack on "Zionist" human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories and American inconsistency in condemning abuses in some places and not in others. 26

In 1997, Dr. Mohammed Khatami won the Iranian presidential election to succeed Rafsanjani. Khatami was known as a cultural moderate, and his victory had not been expected. In Iran, his election was touted as a testament to the openness of Iran's political process. International monitoring agencies concurred that the actual voting had been conducted fairly and in an orderly fashion, though numerous potential candidates had been disqualified by a committee of experts who rule on the religious acceptability of potential office holders.

In speeches and interviews before the election, Khatami spoke about human rights. Time after time, he pointed to the rights that the Islamic Republic guarantees, yet he also indicated areas where the actual record fell short. On freedom of the press, he stated that "publications should be the eyes and ears of the people since their main role is to channel freedoms. A great transformation took place in our country's press after the revolution." He continued, "[u]nfortunately, self-censorship persists and there is still intolerance on the part of some officials and organizations with regard to publications." On the rule of law, Khatami commented that "one of the sources of pride for the system and the revolution which was brought about by the efforts and insistence of his eminence, the Imam [Khomeini] (may his soul be sanctified) was the compilation and ratification of the constitution, a mere eight months after the victory of the Islamic Republic so that we could all be aware of our rights and obligations within a legal framework." 27

In another interview, Khatami championed multi-party democracy. "A dynamic and progressive society cannot strengthen itself without civilized institutions, which include parties.... This culture of participation and involvement ... should metamorphose naturally so that all the leanings, the factions, and the press can play a role." In the same interview, Khatami discussed the importance of independent universities — "the bulwarks of thought and wisdom in our society," the Constitution — "which has specified the rights and limits of individuals and the duties and powers of the government and each institution," the rule of law — "what is important is a society governed by law and order that is organized in such a way that each person is aware of his duties and performs them accordingly," and the status of women — "women constitute half of our society and every decision that is made regarding society should take that half into consideration.... Women in our society have been deprived of most of the rights that Islam has envisioned for them, and the social and external possibilities ... have not been as extensive as those for men. We should therefore take steps so that this historical tyranny and deprivation is eliminated." 28

In a dramatic break from the past, candidates during the 1997 presidential election freely and sometimes bitterly criticized the Rafsanjani government and the Ayatollah Khamene'i for infringing freedoms that were supposedly guaranteed under the sharia and the Constitution. One candidate stated that "at present there is no such thing as press freedom in the country. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a ceremonial publication. The person in charge of the executive authority must feel duty-bound to implement the Constitution." 29

This ideological framework allows the Iranian government to infringe "human rights" as defined by the West, particularly in the areas of penal law, court trial, restrictions on women, and political pluralism. But it also enjoins Muslims to, among other things, protect religious minorities (albeit with certain restrictions 30) and orphans, because both of these obligations are laid out in the Koran and are therefore enshrined in the Iranian Constitution. In a long article published in a Tehran newspaper on Islam and rights, a professor at the Qom religious seminary (where future clerics are trained) spoke of freedom as "a right bestowed upon every human being by God, and no one is entitled to deprive any individual of this right.... Freedom is not something granted to people by rulers and legislators." With a logic that might have warmed Rousseau's heart, the professor asserted that all human beings are blessed with free will but, "as the result of living in society, man should limit his own free will ... in relation to the free will and actions of others." That does not mean, this argument continued, that a human being should ever submit to the dominion of other human beings. "The acceptance of Islam," the professor continued, "and the call of the prophets does not mean unquestioning obedience to others.... God forbids any compulsion in religion." In short, faith makes men free, but no one can be forced to accept faith. As a result, the Koran forbids the establishment of a religious dictatorship, and society will most approximate the religious ideal when "freedom of thought and expression" is not restricted. 31

It is impossible to listen to this Qom professor or to President Khatami without recognizing that there is an Islamic human rights ideal and that many Iranians in positions of power and authority take the question of human rights extremely seriously. In many respects, the Islamic ideal is compatible with the international human rights conventions. In some areas where it is not, such as political pluralism and freedom of the press, the restrictions are not absolute and may not be any more restrictive than certain limits in Western societies. For instance, the right of free expression is not absolute in the United States, and it is even more constrained in the United Kingdom by strict libel laws. The difference is that restrictions in Western societies do not stem from religious law. And, although a council of experts frequently invalidates the candidacy of parties and individuals who do not meet minimum criteria under the government's interpretation of "Islamic suitability," political pluralism is rarely without some restrictions in any country.

However, while Iran defends itself against certain allegations of abuses on the grounds of cultural relativism, in other areas, the government violates its own constitutionally and religiously enshrined norms. In short, the Iranian government frequently fails to live up to its own rigorous standards of human rights.

The most egregious example is the treatment of the Baha'is by the revolutionary government. The Baha'is are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that the revolutionary regime considers heretical. Although the Koran enjoins Muslims to protect religious minorities, it also reserves the deepest condemnation for apostates. The Baha'is are neither particularly numerous in Iran nor particularly powerful, but they have been hounded, arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed by mobs, by revolutionary police, and by the armed forces. The regime has frequently assailed the Baha'is as outside the fold of Islam and deserving of death as heretics.

Just as the war with Iraq provided the new Islamic government with an external enemy to focus the energies of the country, the Baha'is act as an internal enemy whose presence helps the regime establish legitimacy. The persecution of the Baha'is acts as a glue for an otherwise fissiparous Iranian populace. Iranians may be divided between rural and urban, radical and moderate, religious and ostensibly religious, but they are all one "us" in the face of the Baha'i "them." The Baha'is internally serve much the same regime-stabilizing function as does the United States externally.

Although the persecution of the Baha'is serves a purpose for the regime, it can be squared with the sharia only by calling the Baha'is apostates, and that is a highly questionable designation. A similar rationale underlay Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. The regime responds to critics internal and external by saying that it acts in accord with the sharia, but in the case of both Rushdie and the Baha'is, as well as with its extraterritorial assassinations of dissidents and its restrictions on press freedom, 32 the regime not only violates international human rights norms but also stretches the sharia to the limit.

In recent years, Iran has shown some improvement in human rights, though the pattern tends to be two steps forward, one step back. The revolution has long since lost the fervour of its early years and, like most revolutions, it has entered its Thermidor phase. Many Iranians yearn for economic stability and normalcy, and they are increasingly cynical about the religiosity of the regime and its clerics. As a result, they are no longer as willing to support and aid the government in mass arrests or suppression of political dissent, and the 1997 presidential elections were the most democratic Iran has ever seen. Though political parties and candidates still must be approved by a council of experts, the grip of the Iranian government has loosened, and human rights abuses have consequently decreased.

III. Multilateral and bilateral policy

As we have seen, in its rhetoric the Iranian government adheres to a set of Islamic human rights standards. At times, Iranian officials claim that these standards are equivalent or even superior to international norms. At other times, Iranians defend themselves against criticism from the international human rights community on the grounds of cultural relativism. Its response to UN human rights deliberations and investigations is to deflect attention away from its own abuses and toward alleged abuses by the United States and US allies. Whether it is former President Rafsanjani pointing to events in Waco, Texas, or officials recalling the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by the American naval frigate Vincennes in 1988, 33 Iran tries to shift the international focus away from its own abuses and towards unpublicized violations in Western countries.

Iran is also a leading advocate of Palestinian rights, and it has repeatedly attacked the United States for its double standard over Israel. In the words of Sirous Nasseri, Iran's representative on the Human Rights Commission, "[t]he United States justified Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and invoked security reasons and the fragility of negotiations. They turned a blind-eye to atrocities committed by Israel and established a double standard." 34

Suffering from a US trade embargo and recent US laws that penalize foreign companies for doing business with Iran, Iran tries to draw attention to the "double standard" whenever it can. As part of its continuing campaign against Capithorne's report for the Human Rights Commission, Iran assailed the hypocrisy of the West on the treatment of religious minorities.

The largest religious minority in France and England — the Muslims — is without rights, employment, or social security. Germany, with its implicit support of racists, periodically attacks the Muslims in that country.... The nation of Iran has a Constitution. This law may not be satisfactory to those who are running the New World Order, but is it a violation of human rights to act on and implement what is given in the nation's constitution? 35

Iran calls on other countries not to follow the US line on Iran. When Japan made a proposed loan dependent on official Iranian condemnation of terrorism, the Iranian foreign ministry urged Japan not to buckle under US pressure "to refrain from carrying out business with Iran." Officials remarked that, by support for terrorism, the US government seemed to have in mind Iran's support for fundamentalist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Iran vigorously defends its relationship with these groups, which are, "in the opinion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, struggling to attain their just rights — there is a difference between their popular struggles and terrorism." 36

In 1996, the US Congress passed the Helms—Burton bill, which penalizes foreign companies for doing business with Iran and Cuba, because of their alleged support of terrorism and violation of human rights. The Tehran Times urged the European Union "to take a firm stance against U.S. hegemony." 37 But though Iran attempts to shift the debate on human rights, its influence in international affairs is limited, and few countries follow Iran's lead. UN human rights resolutions introduced and supported by Iran, whether condemning the treatment of prisoners in the United States or the treatment of Palestinians in Israel, are routinely voted down.

In its bilateral relations with other countries, the Iranian government must balance the same competing interests that any country does. At times, pragmatic strategic interests determine policy, and at other times Iran focuses on human rights, especially in its interaction with other Muslim countries. In its support for insurgent groups such as Hamas in Israel—Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian government sought both to extend its sphere of influence and to spread a brand of Islamic revolution that the early Republic valued greatly. In its relations with the Islamic government of Sudan, Iran has been at best cool, sometimes competitive, and occasionally hostile. Vying for leadership of the international political Islamic movement, the governments of the Sudan and Iran have spoken well of each other in public, but relations have been frosty.

Iranian leaders frequently avowed their solidarity with the Muslims of Bosnia during the mid-1990s, and Iran was an advocate of international action to prevent the massacres of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs. The government also criticized the European Union and the United States for their lack of action in Bosnia, and it often suggested that the unwillingness of the West to act in Serbia demonstrated a "human rights for me but not for thee" attitude. 38 The decision by the NATO powers to bomb Serbia in response to events in Kosovo was welcomed by some in Iran, although the dismal result for the Muslim Kosovars who were expelled from their homes was interpreted by Iranians as yet another sign of the West's disregard for the human rights of Muslims.

Iran has vehemently condemned human rights violations in the Gulf sheikhdom of Bahrain, assailing Bahraini restrictions on press freedom, freedom of assembly, and the religious freedom of Shiite Muslims. 39 In Algeria, after the military government annulled elections won by fundamentalists in December 1991, that country was plunged into a brutal civil war. Iran excoriated both the military junta and the West for supporting it. According to the Tehran Times, "[t]he ruling junta in Algeria is not serious about putting an end to the bloodshed in that Muslim country.... Those countries that shed crocodile tears for the people of Cuba, China and other parts of the world claiming these nations are suffering from a lack of democracy gave the green light to the Algeria ruling clique encouraging them to annul popular elections." The editorial claimed that, even though the Algerian government infringes the fundamental rights of its citizens, rights recognized by the UN Charter, the "so-called patrons of human rights" adopt "a double standard" in the policy toward Algeria. 40

In neighbouring Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban movement took control of Kabul in 1996. The Taliban are a puritanical Sunni group whose interpretation of the sharia differs significantly from the ideology of the ruling clerics in Iran, and Iranian official news sources have been highly critical. In the words of a Tehran Times editorial, "[a] brief survey of the Taliban's record will shed light on the nature and doctrine of this fanatical and reactionary group which is seeking in vain to seize total political power in Afghanistan." Among its other crimes, the Taliban militia "banned Afghan women from all kinds of social activities.... Women are not even allowed to walk freely in the streets.... The group also compels the men at gunpoint to take part in congregational prayers." The paper called on the United Nations to intervene, and it warned that if the United Nations did nothing it would be tantamount "to approving all the inhuman and barbaric acts committed by the Taliban fanatics ... and will seriously undermine the respect for human rights in Afghanistan." 41 The Iranian government took a position on human rights violations in Afghanistan that was noticeably more stringent than that taken by the Western powers. Iran may have had strategic reasons for opposing the Taliban, but there is no more reason to impugn the integrity of the human rights argument developed by Iranian leaders in the context of Islamic rights than there is to question human rights arguments put forth by the US State Department.

IV. Conclusion

Though Iran has never embraced the Western notion of universal human rights, the Islamic Republic does believe in "Islamic rights." In some respects, these are identical to the human rights championed by the United Nations. The laws of Islam and the Iranian Constitution offer protection from poverty and arbitrary violence at the hands of either the state or other people; property rights are defined and respected; and the rule of law is respected. In other areas, such as the treatment of women and crime and punishment, the Islamic Republic adamantly defends practices that many Western countries view as human rights violations. And, like most countries, the actual practices of the government frequently contradict or fail to live up to these ideals. The rule of law is often trumped by arbitrary exercises of power, and in at least one case, the Baha'is, religious minorities are persecuted.

Iran also suspects the motives of the international human rights movement. Many of the governing clerics simply do not believe in liberalism or political pluralism as defined by the Western democracies. Though Khatami has spoken in favour of pluralism, he makes his case on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence, and he does not embrace Western liberal traditions. At the same time, there is more genuine intellectual freedom and political participation in Iran than in dozens of countries in the Arab and Muslim world. Iranian leaders then interpret the denunciation of the human rights community as an annoying but predictable aspect of the campaign waged against Iran by the United States.

Although there is a thin line between apology for and explanation of Iran's human rights record in the 1990s, the situation is neither as grim as the United States says nor as pristine as the Iranian government avers. The excesses and atrocities of the early years of the revolution have largely ceased and, as the revolution becomes more institutionalized and less fervent, the human rights situation has improved. However, as long as there is an Islamic Republic dominated by the clerics, Iran will continue to interpret human rights differently than the international mainstream.


Note 1: See for example, Mark Gasiorowski, "The 1953 Coup d'État in Iran," International Journal of Middle East Studies (August 1987), 261-286; Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience in Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Zachary Karabell, Architects of Intervention: The United States, the Third World, and the Cold War, 1946-1961 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).  Back.

Note 2: Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), passim.  Back.

Note 3: Mohsen Milani, The Making of Iran's Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy to Islamic Republic (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), 180ff; James Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), chaps. 1-2.  Back.

Note 4: Nicholas Bethell, "The Real Threat of Iranian Terrorism," The Independent, 20 August 1996, p. 14.  Back.

Note 5: "Comments of Robert Pelletreau, at the CENTCOM Annual Southwest Symposium, Tampa, Florida, May 14, 1996," U.S. Department of State Dispatch 7/23, 3 June 1996.  Back.

Note 6: Summary of the report in the Washington Post, 1 March 1983.  Back.

Note 7: "Rights Abuses Distress U.N.," New York Times, 27 November 1987.  Back.

Note 8: "Iran," Amnesty International Report 1997 (Washington DC, 1997), 184-187.  Back.

Note 9: Gudrun Kramer, "Islamist Notions of Democracy," Middle East Report (July-August 1993), 2-8; Sharough Akhavi, "Islam, Politics and Society in the Thought of Ayatullah Khomeini, Ayatullah Taliqani and Ali Shariati," Middle Eastern Studies (October 1988), 404-423; Gregory Rose, "Velayat-e Faqih and the Recovery of Islamic Identity in the Thought of Ayatollah Khomeini," in Nikki Keddie, Religion and Politics in Iran (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 166ff.  Back.

Note 10: Anoushiravan Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (New York: Routledge, 1995), 126-168; Judith Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 429-445; Milani, The Making of Iran's Islamic Revolution, op. cit., 239ff; Said Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Ahmed Hashim, The Crisis of the Iranian State (Oxford: Adelphi Papers No. 296, 1995), 30ff; "Iran vs. the World," special issue of Time, 17 August 1987; John Esposito and John Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 52-60.  Back.

Note 11: Khamene'i speech on Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Foreign Broadcast Information Service [hereafter FBIS], FBIS-NES, 6 May 1995.  Back.

Note 12: "Ayatollah Khamene'i Delivers Speech to Students," Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, FBIS-NES, 1 November 1995, pp. 63-65.  Back.

Note 13: Excerpts from Rafsanjani interview with George Nader, president of Middle East Insight, in Washington Post, 9 July 1995.  Back.

Note 14: "Iran, Angry at U.N. Report, Expels Red Cross Workers," New York Times, 22 March 1992, p. 14.  Back.

Note 15: "Iran Says U.N. Report on Iran's Human Rights Biased," Xinhua General Overseas News Service, 9 March 1992.  Back.

Note 16: "Daily Says Human Rights Should Be Judged on Nation's Traditions," British Broadcasting Corporation, 6 February 1996.  Back.

Note 17: John Lancaster, "Iranian Crusade; Suspecting Liberal Tendencies in Schools, Clerics Launch Islamization Crusade," Washington Post, 15 December 1996, p. A31.  Back.

Note 18: Aryeh Neier, "The New Double Standard," Foreign Policy (Winter 1996-97), 91-102.  Back.

Note 19: "Is Iran the Godfather?" The Economist, 17 August 1996, p. 33ff.  Back.

Note 20: Reza Afshari, "An Essay on Scholarship, Human Rights, and State Legitimacy: The Case of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Human Rights Quarterly 18/3 (1990), 544-593.  Back.

Note 21: "Iran: Law versus Pen," The Economist, 28 June 1997, p. 42.  Back.

Note 22: See Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993), 36ff; Ali Mazrui, "Islamic and Western Values," Foreign Affairs 76/5 (September/October 1997), 118-132.  Back.

Note 23: Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 282-299.  Back.

Note 24: "Iran: Yazdi—New Penal Law Provides for Tougher Punishments," IRNA, 8 July 1996, FBIS-NES-96-133.  Back.

Note 25: "Iran: Judiciary Chief Rejects Charges of Human Rights Violations," 27 June 1996, FBIS-NES-96-127.  Back.

Note 26: "Iran: New Program Exploring Human Rights Begins Broadcasting," Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran First Programme, 27 August 1996, FBIS-NES-96-169.  Back.

Note 27: "Iran: Khatami on Obligations of Press, Other Issues," Ettela'at, 18 March 1997, FBIS-NES-97-086.  Back.

Note 28: "Iran: Khatami Views Universities, Women's Role," 17 March 1997, FBIS-NES-97-057.  Back.

Note 29: Comments of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, in "Iran: Presidential Candidate on Lack of Free Press in Iran," Kar va Kargar, 11 March 1997, FBIS-NES-97-077.  Back.

Note 30: "Iran: Restrictions on Minority Communities Quite Natural," Iran News, 23 June 1996, FBIS-NES-96-127.  Back.

Note 31: Comments of Mohammad Taqi Fazel-Meybodi, in "Iran: Qom Academic Advocates Freedom of Expression," Kiyan, 1 October 1996, FBIS-NES-97-020.  Back.

Note 32: Christopher Lockwood, "Iran Is Stepping up Its Campaign of Murder," Daily Telegraph, 28 June 1996, p. 16; "Iran: Law versus Pen," op. cit., p. 42.  Back.

Note 33: "Iran: Iranian Embassy Release Recalls Vincennes Incident," IRNA, 5 July 1996, FBIS-NES-96-131.  Back.

Note 34: Sirous Nasseri speaking at the UN Human Rights Commission, M2 Presswire, 19 March 1997.  Back.

Note 35: "Iran: Human Rights Report Attacked," Kar va Kargar, 1 December 1996, FBIS-NES-97-045.  Back.

Note 36: "Iran: Japan Makes Loan Conditional on Criticism of Terrorism," Salam, 6 July 1996, FBIS-NES-96-132.  Back.

Note 37: "Iran: EU Urged to Take Firm Stance against U.S. Hegemony," Tehran Times, 13 July 1996, FBIS-NES-96-138.  Back.

Note 38: "Khamene'i Delivers 'Id al-Fitr Sermon," Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 3 March 1995, FBIS-NES.  Back.

Note 39: "Iran: Editorial Criticizes Bahraini Ruling Elite, Human Rights," Iran News, 19 December 1996, FBIS-NES-97-003.  Back.

Note 40: "Iran: Daily on Human Rights, Democracy Violations in Algeria," Tehran Times, 22 July 1996, FBIS-NES-96.  Back.

Note 41: "Iran, Afghanistan: Daily Views Taliban Human Rights Record," Tehran Times, 22 January 1997, FBIS-NES-97-017.  Back.