Is the “Islamic Republic of Iran” a democracy?
A look into the elections, government structure, and fundamental democratic features in Iran.
The name of the political system in Iran since 1979 has been the “Islamic Republic of Iran”, so it’s a self-declared democracy, but is it a real democracy in its form, function, and nature? The question is, can we recognize a country with a democracy based on the official name of the ruling system? If that’s the way, then the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, must be appreciated as the greatest democracies in the world. The other question is the appearance and what you see from the outside; elections, divided government branches, and parliament, as the most famous features of democracy, might be present in a country, but would that make it a democracy? We’ve seen countries like Saddam’s Iraq, or Assad’s Syria with Parliament and elections, while everyone agrees they cannot be recognized as democracies at all.
The question applies to Iran, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a government with a democratic name, and the most famous features of democracy, like elections and parliament. But can we accept Iran as a democracy? To answer this question, you need to dig deeper and look into the structure of the governing system and the way it works.
Democracy has a clear definition and some standard principles. These often include “freedom of assembly,” “property rights,” “freedom of religion and speech,” “inclusiveness and equality”, “civil rights”, “consent of the governed”, “voting rights”, “freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of the right to life and liberty” which is very important and we get back to that a lot, and “minority rights”, “rule of law”, “Freedom of information and communication, like the Internet”, and “The right to seek justice.”
And to define democracy, we can say it’s a type of governance, in which through a non-written agreement or contract, people create a body, called the state, and give it some responsibilities and authority to act as the organizing institute of society. There are three main bodies in a standard democratic government: the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. They are entirely independent, and next to this separation of branches, there are features for checks and balances of their performance.
The government is elected by the people’s direct vote, and they can depose the government peacefully with their votes at any time or every four or five years, depending on the type of government and constitution. In this kind of governance system, people of all ethnicities, religions, languages, and backgrounds have their representatives in all branches and parts of the state, like the parliament or the executive branch, and their interests are looked after by their representatives. Nobody is above the law, and everyone is equal. This governance body, which has obtained its authority on behalf of the people, also has responsibilities and must make sure all these principles are observed.
These definitions and principles might seem very basic, but to look into the ruling system in Iran, we need to define democracy before anything — and it was necessary to mention them, so we can proceed and check to see if these principles and features are found in Iran or not.
As mentioned earlier, if the name or title could make a country a democracy, the Democratic Republic of Congo could be on top of the list, because it is both a republic and a democratic governance system! Who wouldn’t love this or the democratic republic of Germany? There are many examples. So it’s not with names and claims that a government can claim to be a democratic one, but the principal features of a standard democracy. To check the Islamic Republic government, and see if it is a democracy, we have to check those principal features one by one.
Elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran
The first nationwide election in Iran was held about 120 years ago, after the constitution revolution in the 1900s in which people rose to restrict the authority of the Shah or the king, set up a modern judiciary system, have their parliament of representatives, and started the tradition of constitutional monarchy in Iran as the first type of democracy in modern Iran. The elections, campaigns, and voting came to the literature and life of Iranians with that revolution and the first parliament.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, thirty-nine national elections have been held in 43 years. A number that the Islamic Republic likes to boast about when it comes to democratic values and features. If you look at it without checking the conditions of those elections, you might agree that this is a functioning democracy, and agree with the claims of democracy in Iran. To have a better image of the actual situation, you need to look at presidential and parliament elections and see how they are held.
Like any other election, elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran start with people announcing they want to run for the elections and then registering according to the constitutional process. The issues and tricky procedures start right here. For the presidential elections, major figures who have a chance of winning, first ask for a meeting with the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, and ask for his permission to enter the competition! If they get the green light or see no objection, then they would go on and register.
It is not like that if the Supreme Leader does not approve, you cannot register officially, but the entire system knows that doesn’t have his approval, and that makes you an outcast, so no one dares to support you. One of the latest examples of this step is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president of the Islamic Republic. He wanted to enter the race for the last presidential elections, and like other prominent figures of the regime, went to see Ayatollah Khamenei and asked for his permission to enter the race, but contrary to his expectations, he was persuaded to stay home and not to run for the presidency. He and his supporters tried to deny that the Supreme Leader has ordered him to keep his distance from the elections and calling it just rumors and speculations, claiming if it is real, Ayatollah Khamenei expresses his wishes in public and through official tribunes. A couple of days later, Mr. Khamenei surprised them and explained in an official meeting with his students, that he has told Ahmadinejad that it is better for him to stay away from the presidential elections. At the end, he said they wanted to hear these sentences behind a microphone, so here it is behind a microphone! A reference to Ahmadinejhad’s supporters claims that if it was real, the Supreme Leader would explain it behind microphone!
For anyone who observed the developments in Iran it was clear that Ahmadinejhad is out of the competition with these remarks, but he and his team didn’t back down and he registered for the elections. A couple of weeks later, The Guardians Council disqualified him from running for the presidency while he had been the president for eight years. It was one of the examples of how important and influential these green lights from the Supreme Leader can be, and how he can choose who runs for the office and who cannot.
When it comes to the bureaucracy of registering, it is like other countries, you can register if your profile fits the criteria which include age limits, higher education minimum, being born in Iran to an Iranians father, no history of opposing the Islamic republic or being a member of opposition groups during your life, strong and undoubted belief in Islam, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s after the registration that one of the most controversial legal bodies of the Islamic Republic of Iran steps in; The Guardians of the constitution Council mostly called the Guardians council.
The Guardians council defined job, as its name shows, is to protect the constitution, prevent laws from passing if they are in contrast to the constitution, confirm the qualification of those who want to run for elected offices and elections, and confirm the results of the elections and their conformity with the laws and regulations. The name of the Guardians council comes to the headlines of the media from a couple of months before to some months after the general elections in Iran because of their influence and effect on the candidates and election results.
The spotlight starts months before the elections when people officially register for the elections. Here’s when the Guardians Council steps in. If you register, they dig into your life, your past, your family, friends, political views, and your whole life even before you were born, because your parent’s political views or activities decades ago can lead to your disqualification. Officially, they are tasked with approving that the person is eligible to run for that office. What’s important to mention is that this process is not a process to remove nominees, but a process to approve the eligibility of a person. It means you might have nothing bad in your life, nothing to make you not fit for the job, but it doesn’t mean you are approved, because you have to have something in your life that makes you eligible! It is entirely against the modern and standard criteria that see everyone as innocent unless proven otherwise. In this system of qualification, the nominees must have a history that proves their loyalty, blind obedience, unquestioned service to the government, and unwavering support for the supreme leader.
One of the features that the Council looks for in the nominee’s profile to find the fit person for the job, is based on a vague definition of eligible persons in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, in which the person is called a “statesman”, or “a man of politics”. The guardian council has used this vague definition to cross out all female nominees through the past forty-four years. No woman has ever been able to run for the presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran, because of this definition, and the interpretation from the guardian’s council that the statesmen are only men, so women are not eligible to run for the office according to the constitution.
In all democracies with elections, there are some criteria or conditions for those who want to run for elected offices like the presidency, but they are only created to make sure that only those enrolled have at least the support of some people or political parties with them. They might ask the nominees to bring signatures from five thousand of people who support them or register on behalf of a political party. The conditions like these are not created to cross out half of the population because of their sex or prevent people with different political views to enter the competition. This is exactly what takes place for all the elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Guardian Council starts its job, take the list, and then gives back a list of the approved nominees, the people who can officially run for the office. As each year has passed, this process has become tighter and more exclusive. During the first national elections, only a few people were disqualified and removed from the race, but as it went on, It has become so exclusive that even ex-presidents, ex-ministers, ex Members of Parliament are removed from the list by the Guardian Council because they were considered not fit for the job.
For example, in the latest presidential election, from the total of 592 men and women who registered, only seven men were approved to run for the office. For the elections before that, 1363 men and women registered, and only six men were approved. For the eleventh Islamic Majlis (The Parliament in Iran), half of those who registered were approved, or for the Parliament elections in 2016, over 60% of the registered people, which was 12,123, were crossed out from the competition.
When you see the numbers of the removed people from the competition and consider the fact that half of the population is deprived of the right to run for the presidential elections, you can testify that this process is anything but democratic. It might seem like a democratic system, with people registering for elections, votes cast, counted and the winner announced, but this is just the appearance, and if you take a deep look into the procedure and its criteria, you see that this is not democratic at all when women are not able to run, and only those who are staunchly and undoubtedly with the highest level of loyalty and obedience are allowed to run for the offices like presidency or parliament.
It’s also very effective to know that those who register are people who have been in the system, and many of them are even MPs of previous parliaments, ex-presidents, ex-ministers or high-ranking officials, not the opposition figures or those who disagree with the government. But still, we see that many of them are removed from the race.
The final group of nominees who make it to the final stage which is the election campaign and voting are all deeply connected to the supreme leaders and IRGC, in a way that competition between them for the presidency is anything except a political views battle for their desired methods of running a country. They are so close and allied that many of them resign in favour of each other, and the only reason for their supporters to vote for one of them against the other might be some personal histories or the claims that which one is closer to the Leader, more obedient and more favoured by him!
The circle of trusted people who run for the presidency is so small that you can see the main character almost in all presidential elections during the past two or three decades. For example, Mr. Ghalibaf has been running for the office since 2004 and has always lost or resigned in favour of others. But after the last time that he resigned in favour of Raeisi, he was awarded the spokesperson seat at the parliament for his service. Or the three main runners in the elections before that, Rouhani, Raeisi, and Ghalibaf, each took one branch of the government the next year. This method of elections management or elections engineering has made Iranians disillusioned in the system in a way that the turn-out for the latest national election was the lowest since 1979 revolution, and the white votes were the second in final rankings!
After the names of nominees are announced, the competition begins. Considering what was mentioned above, you may hope that from this point it might be a fair competition, but it was just the beginning.
There are always a group of nominees for the Parliament and one or two nominees in the presidential elections that are favoured by the most powerful office in Iran, which is the supreme Leader’s. Political observers, politicians and journalists get cautious and careful in the months leading to elections to find the signals in the speeches from the Supreme Leader or IRGC commanders showing who they support.
Most of the times this is something obvious in advance, but in the recent elections, in which all nominees with the slightest difference in political views are removed and only loyals to the leaders are allowed to run, it is not clear to the observers who the Supreme Leader’s Office support. Almost all nominees claim they have that support, but only one nominee is telling the truth, and when it becomes clear to everyone, other competitors resign in favour of the nominee who has the support from the most powerful office in Iran; like what Ghalibaf did in the two last elections, and resigned in favour of Raeisi. The message of support is conveyed in the speeches, by giving some hints, or some actions that show the person who is favored. For example, it might be mentioned that the highest office prefers someone as the president who has the most simple and austere life. The nominee who had that feature was Ahmadinejad, and it became clear that he has the support he needs, the support that lead to his victory in the controvertial elections in 2008.
This person then enjoys the support of the IRGC as the most influential military, political, and economic force in Iran, with unending resources for his campaign, which includes the national TV and lots of newspapers. His hands will be open to having a big campaign without worrying about the fundraisings like nominees in western democracies.
National TV, with lots of talk shows, news channels and programs, series, speeches, and various other programs start undermining his opponents and campaigning for him indirectly. They offer more air time to his supporters, invite experts to talk shows to criticize or attack his opponents, make videos about his work in the previous positions and become the media wing of his campaign. If you know that there’s no independent or private TV network in Iran, and the monopoly is with the Iran National Broadcasting Network, you find out how much this support could help that person.
The story of elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran has more details and interesting or shocking facts, but what I explained is the summary of the most important ones, which help a foreign observer better understand the real election process in Iran. To someone from other countries, unfamiliar with the system, it might seem like a real democratic election, as there are nominees, election campaigns, voting, vote counting, and the winners are chosen by the majority of the voters; but when you know how it is done in reality, you know it is a democratic façade, with an undemocratic structure to the core.
Division of the government branches
One of the most essential features of democracy is the independence of various government branches and their division. The branches are usually (1)the executive, which we call the government and you go to polls every four or five years to choose a new government for your country and we in Iran choose our new government from the nominees that are handpicked for us kindly, (2) the judicial, which includes the courts and justice system, and (3) legislative, that comes in the form of parliaments, which is called Majlis in Iran, literary meaning the place for holding sessions.
The principle of division of government branches was created in order to prevent the alliance of these branches against people, or their conspiracy to cover their corruption or illegal activities. The executive branch has a limited time, mostly four or five years, extendable for only one more term, with vast executive authority, which is to be supervised by the legislative branch, the Parliament that is consisted of common peoples representatives who are there to watch the government, catch them in case of abuse of power, illegal activity, or actions against the law. The judicial branch and its independence from the other branches are very important in a democracy; its independence can prevent any conspiracy of executive and legislative to oppress people and repress their fight for democracy.
The principle of division of government branches is mentioned In the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, and according to the laws on paper; but the facts and what happens, in reality, is entirely different from the words on paper. The three branches are not divided or independent at all. In fact, those branches are something above allied and act like parts of a body, all connected to a central brain that puppeteers them to do their respective jobs in harmony and in service of a broader entity, which is the Islamic Republic. It emanates from the understanding and vision of government in the system, which is entirely different from modern democracies.
All branches and statesmen of the Islamic Republic of Iran see the government as a united body placed above the citizens that do not get legitimacy from people, as such legitimacy only comes from divine sources. Different government branches in IR exist only to manage the different jobs they need to handle, not to divide the power to prevent tyranny and dictatorship. When you believe your legitimacy doesn’t come from citizens, it’s logical that you do not see yourself as responsible to people and in service of them. In their speeches or interviews, they claim that they have taken the responsibility and positions only to serve in a divine campaign.
The heads of these branches see themselves as responsible and in debt to the system that has given the seat, not the people and their votes. The head of the executive branch is only elected from a very small group of nominees handpicked by the Guardian Council and wins the elections with help from the IRGC and media which is controlled by the Supreme Leader. The same applied to the Parliament spokesman who is chosen according to the deals made before the parliament opening, not the partisan negotiations and people’s votes; the head of the judiciary is chosen directly by the supreme leader for 10-year terms.
This division of branches is so baseless in the Islamic Republic of Iran that each of the three main nominees in presidential elections takes the seat as the head of one branch. The winner, Rouhani became the president after the previous term’s campaign, and the two runner-ups, Raeisi and Ghalibaf, became the heads of the judiciary and legislative respectively. That was while Ghalibaf had never been a member of parliament in his life. There are lots of exchanges of people and seats between these branches as the heads of the legislative are always a nominee in presidential elections, and the loser in those elections are usually sent to the parliament or awarded the spokesperson seat there.
According to the classic definition, the parliament members are considered the representatives of people in the capital, who are elected to act on their behalf and in their interest. They must protect their constituent, and raise their voice. But what happens, in reality, is far from the standards in a normal democracy. MPs see themselves as representative of the Islamic Republic, not their voters and common people, as a result, they do not act as a normal MP in a normal democracy.
When people, their constituent, are frustrated with the conditions and come to the streets to protests the ever-worsening economic situation and ask for fundamental reforms, 277 members of parliament write a letter to the judiciary and ask for their execution.
All their performance is based on the policies dictated to them, to support a government, or create problems for them, to call ministers, or withdraw their vote of confidence. They do not act based on the interest of people, as they have been silent during the past years while the economic and social conditions were getting to an unbearable point. They are so disconnected with the society and their constituents that exactly in times of turmoil and uprising, they try to make laws about Hijab, or issues that are not the concern of the majority of Iranians. Their blind eye on the social, economic, and political issues made their job so meaningless for Iranians that in the latest Parliament election, the turnout was the lowest in the history of the IRI. In that election, people could win a seat in the parliament with the vote counts that could place them 50th at the nominees’ vote count table.
Iranians do not see any representative in the three branches of the government. They have correctly understood that no one protects their interests, and nothing comes out of the elections that might help them. That’s why the turnout for the last elections has been decreasing to a record low which even made some of the officials worried about it. But as usual, they don’t see the problem in the system and their performance, instead attribute the low turnout to the foreign enemies’ propaganda and the negative influence of social media and satellite TV channels.
This approach of the government and officials to the people and state, combined with failure after failure of attempts to create change through elections, disillusioned people and created an ever-increasing gulf between them and the government, a gulf that can be seen in the nationwide demonstrations that shook the entire country and don’t seem to be controlled or stopped. The general belief amongst Iranians is that it doesn’t change anything in their lives who is elected as the president or who win the seats in the parliament, because they see the government as a body that is completely separated from the people and this distance is increasing day by day.
Independence of the Judiciary system
There are a few short footages from one of the court sessions held for protestors baselessly accused of murder and corruption on earth, both punishable by death. In one of them, the defendant’s lawyer comes to the stand, and is asked by the judge to have his defendant’s last defense, he says “As my defendant has been cooperating with the court and interrogators, and confessed to all his crimes, I just ask the court to decide on the sentence with the Islamic Mercy!” It might be unbelievable, but that was it! The only defense he made was mentioning that he accepts all charges and asks for mercy.
Anyone who has seen a normal judiciary system might, reasonably, ask why the defendant didn’t employ another lawyer, or a better one. To help the readers understand the system, there are some facts to explain.
When a political activist, or a protestor in the street, is arrested, which is done during or after a demonstration, or at the person’s home, workplace or in the street, without any warrants or court orders, with violence and insults to the family and anyone who is present, he/she is mostly charged with non-political crimes that are related to national security; crimes like espionage, endangering the national security, and cooperating with hostile states. This is a tactic to reduce the number of political prisoners and also enable the judiciary system to treat the detainee and process his/her case with a special method.
When someone is detained with either political or security-related charges, he/she cannot choose the lawyer he or prefers. For these cases, Islamic Republic’s judiciary system has made a shortlist of some lawyers and the defendant can select from that list only. The mentioned list consists of the most loyal and pro-regime lawyers you can find in the entire world. They are selected because the system, trusts them to handle these special cases as they have to play an important role. Their role is to make the courts and the process look democratic and legitimate.
The shortlisted lawyers join the process as the defendant’s lawyer to help the system in presenting the courts as a legitimate and democratic one. But their job isn’t limited to that symbolic purpose, they have a very important role to play in the scheme to direct the detainee to the desired path.
Instead of defending the detainee, as their job is, they collaborate with the interrogators and security officers to force him or her to accept all charges and confess to the crimes. They do it by telling lies, giving baseless promises, frightening him/her of a worse situation if they don’t cooperate, telling him he will go home if he confesses, and many other tactics. They approach the detainee, who is most of the time very young and inexperienced, as a person with goodwill who wants to help them, they pretend to be someone who is trying to save them. But their real role is the good cop in the good cop, bad cop tactic.
These lawyers persuade the families to keep silent and not talk to the media about their loved one being in detention with serious charges, they give false hope to the detainee and their families by claiming that everything will be fine soon if they do not talk to the media or protest the detention. The forced lawyer forces the detainee to accept all charges because that’s the only way to get out
Those so-called lawyers do not represent the entire lawyers’ community in Iran, especially if we consider is the influential role they have played in the recent history of Iran, there are lots of honorable lawyers who have tried to help the detainees and offer them and their family’s legal advice or tried to defend them in court. Some lawyers tried to offer legal advice on social media so people are familiar with their rights and legal procedures, and about 50 of them were detained for informing people about their rights!
have to confess that except for the short period of military coups, Stalin’s time, and Nazi Germany, I haven’t seen a judiciary system as the one in Iran, biased, unjust, dependent, and in service of the intelligence organizations. Even in the Apartheid government, you can see some independence in the judicial system, or the courts during the civil rights movement, but in Iran, that’s worse than what you can imagine, as the judiciary system is only the typewriter machine for the intelligence organizations, the sentence is not decided by the judge, but the interrogators and security forces tell the court what to include in the sentence. They are above the law and all procedures.
Despite the explicit instruction of the law that any detainee may have his lawyer present at the interrogation, even those loyal shortlisted lawyers may not be present during the interrogation or have access to the case against their clients.
Detentions are, most of the time, arbitrary, baseless, and illegal. They are extended infinitely and there’s no limit to that. Mental and physical torture is something normal, and we have had people like Sattar Beheshti who were killed under torture. Many of the detainees are deprived of their medicine, and in one of the worst cases, a political prisoner named Behnam Mahjoubi was sent to a psychological ward and came back like lifeless flesh. He said that he has witnessed the downfall of humanity in those days in the hospital.
A couple of months ago, I read the news that someone had sued Emmanuel Macron, the France President in a civil court, or we have heard or seen the sitting or ex-high-ranking officials prosecuted for their performance. That’s a clear sign of democracy, which says everybody is equal, no matter how wealthy or powerful they are, or what their religion and beliefs are. It’s a sign of a healthy Judiciary system that is independent and unbiased.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the courts don’t work like that. A Couple of years ago, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, Iran’s supreme leader prohibited the import of vaccines from The UK and the USA, so Iran had to wait for the Russian and Chinese vaccines, which were not provided quickly, or wait for its own vaccine to arrive!
During that time, tens of thousands of innocent Iranians died. A group of lawyers and civil activists gathered together and decided to press charges against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran for preventing the import of vaccines and causing tens of thousands to die. They had just made the decision and had done nothing, but they were detained quickly with charges of national security or insulting high-ranking officials. That’s how everyone is equal in the law’s eye here.
Checks and Balance
The government in Iran is called the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamic section is real and authentic, and that’s the part that they have been staunchly loyal to, but the republic is in question. In this republic, the most powerful person, according to the constitution, and beyond the constitution, is not elected by the people, and he is the person who selects the commanders of the Army, the IRGC, the police, some ministries, and many other important positions in Iran, and more important than all, it’s a lifetime power.
It might be justified that the supreme leader is selected by people indirectly, and people’s representatives are monitoring his activities. This is the line used domestically and internationally in defending the claim that the government in Iran is democratic and functions like other democratic countries. The claim is that the position of the supreme leader is democratic and elected indirectly by the people, that he can be deposed anytime with votes of the people’s representatives; therefore, it’s not a lifetime seat of power.
To provide others with reasons for their claim, the supporters of the Islamic Republic system often mention the body which is created for this specific task of choosing and supervising the supreme leader and his performance; the Assembly of Experts for Leadership.
The Assembly of Experts for Leadership, usually called the Assembly of Experts, was created and tasked with selecting the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic when it’s needed, and monitoring the supreme leader’s activities, and deposing him if they do not see him fit for the job anymore. So, on paper, this legal body is what makes this position a democratic one because the Supreme Leader is selected by the people’s representatives, and according to the constitution.
To investigate and fact-check this claim, we need to check two facts; first, the claim that the Assembly od Experts’ members of the representatives of people, and second, the claim that they are monitoring the performance of the Supreme Leader and might depose him if they see him not fit for the job anymore.
The Assembly is mostly made of Iranian clergies who are elected by people. There are eighty-eight high-ranking clergies in the Assembly who are called Mujtahid. They all must have a special education position that enables them to interpret the Quran and other Islamic sources for the current age, making them Mujtahid. So even all clergies cannot nominate, because they have to pass a very hard written exam and then an interview to be able to run for the seat. For example, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, wasn’t allowed to nominate because he had to take the exam and he refused to do so.
I described the elections in Iran and the process of nominating, qualifications, and how they are handled. The same process applies to the election for the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, and anyone who wants to run for the Assembly of Experts, first must prove that he is a Mujtahid, and then go through the approval or qualification process of the Guardian Council. The number of nominees approved for this elections, or allowed to register, is so exclusive and small, that there’s only one nominee for many of the seats of the Assembly. Because of the theoretical and constitutional power of this assembly, efforts have been made to make it impotent and loyal to the Supreme Leader.
Like other elections in Iran, the nominees have to be approved by the Guardian Council, but the question is who chooses, approves, or appoints the members of this Council. The Guardian Council consists of 12 members with vast authority and influence in the political life of Iran. They are tasked with approving the laws passed by the parliament, and as explained before, approving the nomination for elections. Six of those twelve members are appointed directly by the Supreme Leader. They are a high-ranking clergy in Iran, called Faqih. The other six members are the Muslim jurists proposed by the head of the Judiciary System, who is appointed directly by the Supreme Leader, and elected by Parliament members whose nominations are approved by the Guardian Council.
As a result, we have a Council almost entirely appointed by the Supreme Leader, that is in charge of approving people to nominate for the presidency, parliament, Assembly of Experts for Leadership, and other elections. It is not reasonable to expect the approved nominees, and winners of the Assembly of Experts to be critiques of the Supreme Leaders or capable of supervising his performance seriously and deposing him if needed. This complicated network of approvals, appointments, nominations, and indirect elections has created ad façade of democracy for an undemocratic structure in which there are tremendous authority and no responsibility for the most powerful figures.
The system is designed in a way that the leadership monitors and indirectly chooses the people who are supposed to monitor him and chooses the next leader. We are talking about a position that has the ultimate power in Iran, and decides about war and peace, life and death, which vaccine comes and which does not, and many other things, decisions that all affect the lives of 85 million Iranians.
The same type of approach and point of view applies to the Majlis (Iranian parliament) which is ironically called the House of People (khaaneye Mellat). Normally, the MPs in the Majlis must be the representatives of the people, and the cities or districts they represent. But if you just look at their positions and stances during past decades, you see they, like other branches and organizations, see themselves as a section of power ruling over Iran, separated from the people.
In a system like this, the congressional representative does not believe that they are chosen by people, or owe them anything. They know they are chosen and supported by the system, and they know in reality they represent the system, not the people. Because of that, with no concerns about people getting angry with them, or voters turning their back on them, they approve laws that the majority of the society is against them, but it’s not important for the MPs. In fact, this belief is shared with all people who work in any branch of the state. They do not work for people, and they do not serve them.
The nation that revolted against the previous regime, the Pahlavi kingdom, in hopes of freedom of speech, democracy, and equality, now faces a situation in that none of them are achieved. The name might be different, and democratic as it bears the name of Republic, but in action, this is the most undemocratic democracy in form of Republic.
Freedom of Speech
Sattar Beheshti is a well-known name for us in Iran. He was a simple worker with a simple life, but a brave heart. He had a blog and a Facebook page in which he wrote some pieces about his life and expressed opinions about politics and Iran’s government. He was arrested by the cyber police in 2012, while his weblog had less than 30 viewers in October of that year. Days later, his lifeless body was delivered to his lonely mother. He was beaten to death during the interrogations. This single case of state-murder can summarize the freedom of speech conditions in Iran, and there would be no need to further describe the situation, as you dig deeper you find more facts and incidents like this.
Terms like free speech, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression are used interchangeably in political discourse. However, in a legal sense, freedom of expression includes any activity of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
According to the “Universal Declaration of Human rights”, and specifically Article 19 of this charter, “everyone shall hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, as art, press, publication or through any other media of his choice.”
If we take that as a standard to measure the freedom of speech in Iran, we are able to see how far we are from the UN-declared standards. Based on this charter, freedom of the press, freedom of receiving information, and freedom of expressing ideas in any form are all human rights.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ranked 173 among 180 countries, and the other countries lagging behind Iran in this index are almost all in civil war or total chaos. Islamic Republic of Iran has made a big prison for journalists. Just one of the most recent examples can be Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi who were detained for reporting Mahsa Amini’s murder a couple of months ago, and an older one could be the students uprising (AKA Kooye Daneshgah in 1999 which started with the news that SALAM and some other reformist newspapers were closed by the order of the court.
It’s normal to see a newspaper or magazine closed for the slightest criticism of the government. The major newspapers are state-owned, or owned and managed by prominent figures of the IRGC or those who are very close to the circle of power. The main headlines have to get approval from authorities before being sent for publishing. The frequency of closing or suspending newspapers and magazines is so serious that editors and journalists have to self-censor to prevent the closure of their newspapers. That’s the worst level of censorship, a level that the journalists and authors are forced to censor themselves and their colleagues.
So there remain some newspapers and magazines, and they always feel the threat of closing or suspension. There’s no clear rule about it, or the journalists and editors must work super cautiously because a tiny mistake could put them in jail.
Iran is amongst the five countries with the most journalists in prison. The internet and social media have helped journalists in doing their job, but still, the danger of detention and prison is present, and as there’s no clear law or regulation, they always feel in danger.
There are some regulations for some time, for example writing about inflation when the prices are going higher every day, mentioning the names of specific people, criticizing a minister, or writing positively about something. They are orders that are given to the editors, and they have to accept them and act accordingly if they don’t want to see the newspaper closed and its journalists lose their jobs.
The same goes for books. Authors In Iran have to find a publication to publish their books. This part is normal and like other countries, but what happens next is not normal and might surprise you. Then the publication gives a copy of that book to the Culture and Guidance Ministry, which is called Ershad in Iran. They check the book inside out. Sometimes they reject the book completely, and on other occasions, they give you a version of your book that they find better. They remove some parts, change sentences, they might add or remove characters, change the events in the story, or omit a whole chapter. They may make changes in your logic if that’s not fiction, or force you to change what you are saying.
Sometimes the version that Ershad sends back to the publication is a whole new book and has no resemblance to what the authors have written. They face a dilemma, either to accept the surgery on their work or to forget about publishing it. That’s why many Iranian authors publish their works online. Any sign of opposition to the government, showing western countries a good place, depicting Iran as an undeveloped or authoritarian country, sexual content, and lots of other criteria must be observed if you want your book to be published. But even online publishing has its problems, as the authority may charge you with crimes for the content of the published book.
The same process applies to music and other artworks and creations. Your music must be approved by a committee in Ershad. They approve, reject, or modify the music and lyrics based on what they believe is decent, what is western and indecent. It’s so common that there’s an online comedy series about it!
The case of Movies goes beyond that, and the government is more meticulous about it, because they have a much bigger audience compared to books or some music. So the structure and method for movie censorship is different. The abovementioned approval process applies to the movies too, even harder. But the main tools of censorship isn’t that ministry. Any writer or director needs a producer and money to make his movie, and almost all the producers and producing companies in Iran are directly or indirectly owned and linked with the IRGC, so they won’t work on anything that’s not in line with their propaganda. They specifically choose or order movies to use for their propaganda.
It is almost impossible for an independent director to have his movie made out of this network, but even if a director somehow manages to fund his movie, the script goes through the same process as a book, but much more severe and meticulous. And if everything goes well, and the movie is ready for cinemas, the director will see that the network that controls the cinemas and their programs is again owned and run by the IRGC which is branded as the private sector in Iran. So there’s no way that an independent movie can be made, and seen in cinemas in Iran.
Sometimes a movie or book is banned and collected from stores or cinemas after it is published or shown in the cinema! Because the clergy or some hardliners complain about it, and Ershad (the Guidance Ministry) quickly removed the book or movie from the market! So even after all those steps, there is no guarantee that your work can reach the targeted audience.
That’s why most of the independent and great poets, authors, translators, writers, or film directors leave Iran to continue their work, or leave their beloved profession forever. Nowadays in Iran, only a small group of dependent names are active, names that are supported and inflated by the government so that they could come to their help whenever it is necessary. They are the faces who comment positively about the economy or politics in international festivals or interviews, those who join the state or IRGC projects and whitewash the atrocities.
The free speech issue is not limited to journalists and their papers, books, music, and cinema; ordinary Iranians, intellectuals, university students and professors, sportsmen and women, political, civil and trade activists, and anyone who might write, speak, paint, or record something feels the need and lack of freedom of speech in Iran. The case of Sattar Beheshti tells the result of the simplest critique of the government, and there are thousands of other names who raised their voice in protest like him.
I can also mention the case of Mohsen AmirAslani, who was executed for questioning the logical and scientific possibility of one of the stories mentioned in the Holy Quran, the Holy book of Islam, in which a prophet spends a couple of days in the stomach of a whale. He spoke openly about it and doubted the possibility of such an incident. He was tried for insulting a prophet and executed later.
Any form of criticism about the government, its officials, and especially the Supreme Leader will lead to a form of punishment sooner or later. It makes no difference if you are a high-ranking clergy, a Mujtahid or even Faqih, like Montazeri, who was next in line for leadership after Ayatollah Khomeini, but he was under house arrest until his death; or the previous prime minister, Mt Mousavi, who has been under house arrest with his wife for thirteen years; prominent lawyers, intellectuals, writers, university professors, and students, even football players or other athletes, have all been detained, tried, punished or imprisoned for their spoken disagreement or criticism.
Islamic Republic of Iran’s opposition to any form of freedom of speech comes from the fundamental belief that, as explained above, they do not see themselves as appointed by people and responsible to them to act according to their wishes, but they think they are above people, they assume people are incapable of understanding the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, they see people as minors and ignorant, who need the government to make decisions for them, to decide what is good for them to read, listen and watch, and what must be censored. In summary, they see themselves as the shepherd and people as the sheep.
A Republic, with no room for freedom of speech, with prisons full of intellectuals, students, political and civil activists, journalists, teachers and workers who tried to make unions, cannot be a democratic government, no matter how many democratic phrases are used in its title, or how the appearance might seem to the outside world.
Data, Information, and communication Censorship
If you leave outside Iran, anywhere in the world, except for China, you can open the social media apps like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and others, to post images, and tweet about your ideas or everyday life; You can communicate with your friends and family on Telegram, WhatsApp, or other messaging applications. You can upload your files to the cloud systems, upload or watch YouTube movies, make a podcast, upload it, and listen to your favorite podcasts; you can listen to music on the major music application and websites; You can play online games and chat or talk to your friends on Voice Chat application made for this purpose, you can read books on Scribd, read newspapers, magazines, and blogs about various issues, and there are lots of other things that you can do easily.
But all the abovementioned communication or internet platform and applications are blocked in Iran. As mentioned before, the only news agency and TV networks are owned and run by the government, with no private news agencies or channels. So the state (mostly equal to the IRGC) has a monopoly on the media and news, so they can decide what is published or shown, when, and how. The same goes for other types of media, like entertainment channels, cinemas, and radio. They are all state or IRGC owned and run.
So we have a state that chooses how to feed its citizens with news, movies, music, etc. They change the context of news by translating some words as they wish, and they use image editing software to put their words in the mouth of western newspapers or media. Fact Checkers are so busy in Iran that they have to prioritize their subjects. They use archive videos to show big crowds in pro-government rallies, ignore some news that is not in their favour, knowingly mistranslate some news to change the message, refer to famous fake news sources for propaganda, and only cover news that shows the western countries struggling with lots of problems, chaos, shortcomings, and mismanagement, but ignore good news about EU or the USA. The emphasis is on innovations, record-breakings, management miracles, and domestic capabilities.
But, thankfully, technology has helped us Iranians. In the 90s the satellite TV came to Iran, with the Turkish channels of music, news, and movies. The government, as is expected from them, tried to crack down on it. It was declared illegal to own, use, and trade satellite dishes and receivers. It became a business like trading AK47 guns! You had to find the phone number of a dealer, call him and say who recommended him, then he would come to your house, with his equipment concealed, and install the satellite receiver and dish.
Police would raid houses, door to door, as if they are searching for a terrorist, but their mission was to find the satellite dishes on the rooftops or the receivers in houses. They confiscated the equipment and went on to the next building, next block, and then the next street! It was a familiar scene in that decade. Neighbors tried to alarm each other when the police attacked a neighborhood. People would go to the rooftop to move their dishes or conceal the equipment.
It took two decades of clandestine trade of satellite dishes and receivers so the government of Islamic Republic of Iran finally found out that it’s impossible to confront communications that way. So they found a better idea and started scrambling the satellite signals with what we call digital parasites. They are very powerful waves of signal directed toward the source of satellite signals to scramble the signals and prevent the receivers on people’s rooftops receive the entire signal from the satellite. This method is proven to be a cause of cancer and many other diseases, but the government doesn’t stop, and still endangers the lives of citizens just to stop people from watching satellite channels!
When the internet arrived in Iran and got popular, about 25 years ago, it became another source of information, news, communication, and knowledge for people. And as you might have guessed, the reaction of the government to this new technology was the usual one: crackdown. Since that time, the government’s tactics for the crackdown on the internet have been categorized into two types: first, restricting the internet speed in Iran, preventing efforts to increase the capacity and connection speed, and second, blocking websites, applications, platforms, and communities.
In the beginning, internet censorship was not very strong. Iranians could bypass it easily with simple tools. But later, the Chinese who are masters in this field came to the help of IRI. Now, after years of developing the censorship infrastructure in Iran, almost all social media is blocked, news websites, political sites and blogs, video streaming, gamins, and anything that would give new information, offer actual news, enable people to communicate, or help them transfer files and messages, are blocked!
The censorship and restriction on the internet have become so strong and sophisticated that its getting harder day by day for Iranians to access social media platforms or news websites. There are tens of VPN applications on every Iranian’s mobile phone because they are the bridges we need to access free internet. The market of VPN and censorship bypass applications is a market of about 350 million dollars, and the government and IRGC have known about its profit and usefulness for intelligence and monitoring citizens. The main provider of the VPNs that people use to bypass internet censorship is the IRGC. They make great profits in this market and get access to all Iranians’ communications through the VPN that they have provided to them., so they can check their online activity, the messages they send and receive, and find the identity of those who speak against the government anonymously in the social media.
Since 2018, when the government shut down the internet in response to the unprecedented nationwide uprising known as bloody November, or Bloody Aban, the methods of internet crackdown have become more sophisticated. IRI has used some private sector companies (The IRGC disguised as the private sector) to prepare the infrastructure for their next stage which was the National Internet. The government always envied the internet systems in China and their system of censorship. Their dream of having a similar system in Iran is coming true with spending millions of dollars to create the structure that is necessary for this dream.
IRI has almost finished its mega project of National Internet, a project that will detach Iranian users from the internet as we know it. They have moved all websites, applications, and platforms’ servers inside Iran, and then forced private websites to do the same or lose their credentials, all .ir websites are moving their servers, and when all other websites join them, they will be ready to run their domestic internet and disconnect us from the outer world. Their dream is of a country with people who are not connected with the outside world or in contact with others on the other side of the wall.
I don’t know if they last long enough to finish the project and run it, or whether new technologies will help us once again. But to talk about the dream they have, and the history of the government regarding freedom of speech, I might be able to provide the reader with a glimpse of it in Iran.
The right to Assembly
One of the clearest signs of democracy and freedom in a country is that you can see political parties, trade unions, workers’ syndicates, students’ unions, parliament coalitions, NGOs active in various fields, and independent newspapers and media.
The current situation and history of the past forty-four years show that any kind of assembly, including unions, syndicates, NGOs, and charities are considered as a threat or problem by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, when people come together, to organize themselves to do something, it’s a threat in mind of the government. It makes no difference who are those people, what has brought them together, and what they want to do. As a result of this approach, there are no independent parties with authentic grassroots members and presence in society, trade unions, workers syndicates, student unions, NGOs of various fields, or political organizations in Iran.
All parties are banned and closed, except for some nominal parties that are used only for election time. Setting up a party needs approvals and permissions, and the scope and space to work are so limited that no one goes for that. All older political parties in Iran are banned, and disbanded, with members imprisoned, executed, or exiled. Some parties stayed active thanks to their exiled members, but they are mostly a ghost of their past now. Attempts to establish new parties and work in Iran has usually lead to prison and exile again
Trade unions and syndicates are a red line for the government and intelligence organizations. People have been detained, lost their jobs, tortured, and imprisoned for just attempting to start a trade union. The examples of the Bus drivers syndicate, the Hafttappe Syndicate, and the courageous efforts of workers to have their trade unions and fight for their rights were responded to with violence, prosecution, layoffs, and harassment.
NGOs in various fields grew for a brief period, but soon the window was closed, and they faced lots of problems. Charities like Emam Ali NGO that were working on child labor, poverty, education, and poor districts, were declared illegal by the order of the court and disbanded, with thousands of people relying on them for their lives! The manager and founder of the NGO was detained as well.
NGOs that work on the environment, or try to educate people about nature and Iran’s environment, are also seen as threats. Even a group of them were detained a couple of years ago and charged with espionage, which is a serious crime. It was later declared that their manager committed suicide in prison. And many other members stayed in prison for long periods of time.
The government’s adversary and fight against any form of organization is based on a long-term strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to create a society that is incapable of organizing any meaningful or dangerous activity against the ruling system. As a result, what we have is an atomized nation. A nation with no group, organizations, syndicate, parties, or unions. A nation that is atomized so severely that it look likes a flesh with no bones, no structure to keep the body up or help it walk. That is what the government has done to this nation in 44 years. Iran’s society is atomized in a way that the myth that Iranians cannot work together was created out of this strategy and lack of cooperation. It was done to weaken the civil society and make sure that this nation, in this situation, cannot stand against anything, or revolt.
It was a good strategy, it made it harder for this society to rise up, and it took decades for it to say enough is enough. Iranians came to the street to protest for many reasons. One of the most important ones is the democracy, a dream that has been occupying the mind of Iranians for over 120 years.
In this article I tried to give an image of the political structure of government in Iran, and provide an answer to the foreigner viewer who might wonder why Iranians are calling for democracy while their country is a republic; they have elections to choose the president and Parliament members, and even the supreme leader is elected by people indirectly, and I also talked about what they mean in action and out of books and articles.
As explained before, the mindset of the state in Iran is not the normal one, that says the state is created based on an unwritten accord between people and state, that they give the authority to the government, so they run the country, protect them, and guarantee their freedom and safety.
They see the government as the power they have, separate from the people, in a way that people do not have any rights, and they must accept the situation and do as they say. They don’t see themselves as responsible or in a position to answer to people. The Parliament (called Majlis), the judiciary system, and the executive branch do not see themselves as serving people, they just have one thing to do: serve the supreme leader, and answer to him, not ordinary people. That’s clear in their behavior, that they ignore all cries and requests from society, and only act based on the order from above, no difference if people agree to that or not. That can be anything, but not a democracy!