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Human Rights in Iran - Iranian Human Rights Abuses


The Iranian flag.

The flag of Iran. The Arabic text in the center reads "Allah"; the two lines of Arabic text each read "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") eleven times. The pre-1980 flag design consisted of the three simple stripes without the Arabic text.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.


On February 11, 1979, the pro-Western Iranian constitutional monarchy was overthrown and the nation became the Islamic Republic of Iran, ruled by a non-elected religious Supreme Leader who is addressed as "Ayatollah." The population of Iran falls just under 70 million, with an average annual income equivalent to approximately US$8,000.

Structure of the Iranian Government:

The Iranian government is led by the President (head of government), who is elected every four years and wields limited power; the Ayatollah, who is selected by the Assembly of Experts for life (or until the Assembly impeaches him), who wields near-unlimited power; the Guardian Council, a group of twelve jurists appointed to six-year terms by the Ayatollah and the judiciary branch; the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 clerics elected every eight years by popular vote (comparable to the U.S. Senate); and the Majlis, a group of 290 policymakers elected every four years by popular vote (comparable to the U.S. House).

Is Iran a Democracy?:

While Iran is often described as a fundamentalist regime autocratically ruled by the Ayatollah, the Ayatollah is subject to impeachment by the Assembly of Experts, which is elected by popular vote (though candidates must be clergy, and can be disqualified in any case by the Guardian Council). This means that if Iranian elections are legitimate, Iran is a democracy. The trouble is that the Guardian Council tends to disqualify candidates who might challenge the status quo.

The State of Human Rights in Iran:

At present, Iran is an enigma--a fundamentalist religious regime and an industrialized democracy, a country where women are educated and can legally vote but can be subject to arrests, beatings, and imprisonment, a country where youth who use Facebook ostensibly reelect political candidates with an 11th-century concept of divine right law. It is both nationalistic and cosmopolitan, theocratic and modern, fundamentalist and socialist. It is, in all probability, a secular democracy waiting to happen.

Speech, Press, and Assembly:

Free speech, as such, does not exist in Iran. Human rights activists and other perceived agitators are sometimes subject to beatings, arrests, torture, and disappearance.

Religious Expression:

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a religious institution with no secular concept of law. Those who convert from Islam to another faith may face execution for apostasy. Religious minorities are routinely subject to widespread persecution.

Women's Rights:

In Iran, women can vote and run for Parliament and are not prohibited from traveling freely, but they are also subject to police beatings and torture for violating perceived social norms, are not protected from domestic violence, and are discriminated against in other subtle ways (such as inheritance law).


Arabs (who make up 3%) of the population, Azeris (who make up 24%), and Kurds (who make up 7%) are frequently subject to racial profiling and mass arrests at cultural functions. Although there are very few Jews in Iran, vicious antisemitism is also a serious problem.

Beatings, Arrests, Torture, and Executions:

Iranian police tend to respond to peaceful political demonstrations by viciously beating and arresting protesters, who are then subject to further beatings, torture, sexual assault, and denial of medical treatment in prison. Iran formally executed 94 prisoners in 2005, and many more died in prison under mysterious circumstances.


Although Iran's democratic processes are circumvented by the theocratic government structure, the Ayatollah's power is rooted in the support he receives from large segments of the population. A substantial shift in public opinion, leading to the consistent election of reformist candidates, could result in the long-term liberalization of Iranian human rights policy.

This process seemed to be underway in 1997, when a surge of reformist voters--primarily women and young adult males--elected philosophy professor Mohammed Khatami, who was reelected in 2001. But Iran is more nationalist than it is reformist, and when conflict between the United States and Iran reached a fever pitch during the U.S.-led "war on terror," and the emerging possibility of a much more literal war between the United States and Iran, the Iranian people responded by reasserting more conservative Islamic values. This led to the election of anti-reformist candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, along with the election of a clear conservative majority in Iran's parliament.

In June 2009, the Iranian government announced that Ahmadinejad had been reelected to a second (and, under term limits, final) term as president with two-thirds of the popular vote. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have protested the purported outcome of the election, which was not in keeping with projections or the public national mood, which favored the election of reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Bowing to public pressure, the Ayatollah initially ordered an investigation into the election results--but the investigation resulted in a simple reassertion that Ahmadinejad was the victor, with no new evidence to back up the claim.

Protesters took to the streets on June 19th, 2009, and were treated brutally by the Basij (paramilitary police). As many as 150 people have died, journalists have been expelled, and a human rights crisis--and possible revolution--is underway. The situation is ongoing.

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  6. Human Rights in Iran - Human Rights Abuses, Iranian Human Rights Violations

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