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Iran Intelligence Agencies

The Iranian intelligence and security apparatus remains one of the most secretive in the world, and is very poorly characterized in the open literature. Available sources provide only extremely sparse and fragmentary information concerning internal organizational structure, and information on budgets, personnel levels or facility locations is almost entirely lacking in the open literature. While this resource represents the best available profile of these entities, there are obviously significant gaps in coverage and points of ambiguity on which corrections or additions would be most welcome.

The concept of Velayt-e-Faqih ("Supreme Religious Guardian"), or the right of clerics to rule over the Islamic community, is central to the interpretation of Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. This concepts holds that Muslims throughout the world constitute a single community - the Ummah - who must be ruled by a single government. The mullahs of Iran assert that by virtue of the 1979 revolution they have acquired the status of "guardians" of all Muslims throughout the world.

The preamble to the Iranian Constitution vests supreme authority in the faqih, the just and pious jurist who is recognized by the majority of the people at any period as best qualified to lead the nation. Khomeini was the first faqih. The duties of the faqih include appointing the jurists to the Council of Guardians; the chief judges of the judicial branch; the chief of staff of the armed forces; the commander of the Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, or Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Revolutionary Guards); the personal representatives of the faqih to the Supreme Defense Council; and the commanders of the army, air force, and navy, following their nomination by the Supreme Defense Council. The faqih also is authorized to approve candidates for presidential elections.

The years 1981 and 1982 were marked by extensive political violence as the political elite other groups contested for power, with organized gangs attacking individuals and organizations considered to be enemies of the Revolution. The government responded by carrying out mass arrests and executions. At the height of the confrontation, an average of 50 persons per day were executed; on several days during September 1981, the total number executed throughout the country exceeded 100. The government dramatized its resolve to crush the uprising by conducting many of these mass executions in public. By the end of 1982 an estimated 7,500 persons had been executed or killed in street battles with the Pasdaran.

The reign of terror officially ended in December 1982 when Khomeini issued an eight-point decree that effectively instructed the courts to ensure that the civil and due process rights of citizens be safeguarded. The decree forbade forcible entry of homes and businesses, arrest and detention without judges' orders, property expropriation without court authorization, and all forms of government spying on private persons.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei served as President under the Ayatollah Khomeini from 1982-1989. After Khomeini's death Khamenei succeeded to the office of faqih. Consequently, he has direct control of the armed forces, the intelligence services and the Foreign Ministry.

Mohammad Khatami was elected to a 4-year term as President in a popular vote in February 1997. A popularly elected 270-seat (to be increased by 20 seats in 2000) unicameral Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majles, develops and passes legislation. All legislation passed by the Majles is reviewed for adherence to Islamic and constitutional principles by a Council of Guardians, which consists of six clerical members, who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six lay jurists, who are appointed by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Majles. The Constitution provides the Council of Guardians with the power to screen and disqualify candidates for elective offices based on an ill-defined set of requirements, including the candidates' ideological beliefs. The judiciary is subject to government and religious influence.

Several agencies share responsibility for internal security, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Ministry of Interior, and the Revolutionary Guards, a military force that was established after the revolution. Paramilitary volunteer forces known as Basijis, and gangs of thugs, known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah (Helpers of the Party of God), who often are aligned with specific members of the leadership, act as vigilantes, and are released into the streets to intimidate and threaten physically demonstrators, journalists, and individuals suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. Both regular and paramilitary security forces commit numerous, serious human rights abuses.

Supporters of outlawed political organizations, such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization, are believed to make up a large number of those executed each year. A November 1995 law criminalized dissent and applied the death penalty to offenses such as "attempts against the security of the State, outrage against high-ranking Iranian officials, and insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic." The security forces often do not inform family members of a prisoner's welfare and location. Prisoners also may be denied visits by family members and legal counsel. In addition, families of executed prisoners do not always receive notification of the prisoner's death. Those who do receive such information reportedly have been forced on occasion to pay the Government to retrieve the body of their relative.

The Government enforces house arrest and other measures to restrict the movements and ability to communicate of several senior religious leaders whose views regarding political and governance issues were at variance with the ruling orthodoxy. Several of these figures disputed the legitimacy and position of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These clerics include Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Tabataei-Qomi, who has been under house arrest in Mashad for more than fifteen years, Ayatollah Ya'asub al-Din Rastgari, who has been under house arrest in Qom since late 1996, and Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, who died in December 2001 while under house arrest in Qom. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the former designated successor of the late Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and an outspoken critic of the Supreme Leader, remained under house arrest and heightened police surveillance the end of 2002. He was finally freed from house arrest on January 2003 amid concern over his deteriorating health. The followers of these and other dissident clerics, many of them junior clerics and students, reportedly were detained in recent years and tortured by government authorities.

There are several different court systems. The two most active are the traditional courts, which adjudicate civil and criminal offenses, and the Islamic Revolutionary Courts. The latter were established in 1979 to try offenses viewed as potentially threatening to the Islamic Republic, including threats to internal or external security, narcotics crimes, economic crimes (including hoarding and overpricing), and official corruption. A special clerical court examines alleged transgressions within the clerical establishment, and a military court investigates crimes committed in connection with military or security duties by members of the army, police, and the Revolutionary Guards. A press court hears complaints against publishers, editors, and writers in the media. The Supreme Court has limited authority to review cases.

The judicial system was designed to conform, where possible, to an Islamic canon based on the Koran, Sunna, and other Islamic sources. Article 157 provides that the head of the judiciary shall be a cleric chosen by the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi resigned as the head of the judiciary in August 1999, and was replaced by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi. The head of the Supreme Court and Prosecutor General also must be clerics.

Many aspects of the prerevolutionary judicial system survived in the civil and criminal courts. For example, defendants have the right to a public trial, may choose their own lawyer, and have the right of appeal. Trials are adjudicated by panels of judges. There is no jury system in the civil and criminal courts. If a situation was not addressed by statutes enacted after the 1979 revolution, the Government advised judges to give precedence to their own knowledge and interpretation of Islamic law, rather than rely on statutes enacted during the Pahlavi monarchy.

Trials in the Revolutionary Courts, in which crimes against national security and other principal offenses are heard, were notorious for their disregard of international standards of fairness. Revolutionary Court judges acted as both prosecutor and judge in the same case, and judges were chosen in part based on their ideological commitment to the system. Pretrial detention often was prolonged and defendants lacked access to attorneys. Indictments often lacked clarity and included undefined offenses such as "antirevolutionary behavior," "moral corruption," and "siding with global arrogance." Defendants did not have the right to confront their accusers. Secret or summary trials of 5 minutes duration occurred. Others were shown trials that were intended merely to highlight a coerced public confession.

The legitimacy of the Special Clerical Court (SCC) system continues to be a subject of debate. The clerical courts, which were established in 1987 to investigate offenses and crimes committed by clerics, and which are overseen directly by the Supreme Leader, were not provided for in the Constitution, and operated outside the domain of the judiciary. In particular, critics alleged that the clerical courts were used to prosecute certain clerics for expressing controversial ideas and for participating in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism.

The largest religious minority is the Baha'i faith, estimated at 350,000 adherents throughout the country. Baha'is are considered apostates because of their claim to a religious revelation subsequent to that of the Prophet Mohammed. The Baha'i Faith is defined by the Government as a political "sect" linked to the Pahlavi monarchy and, therefore, as counterrevolutionary. Historically at risk, Baha'is often have suffered increased levels of mistreatment during times of political unrest. Baha'is may not teach or practice their faith or maintain links with co-religionists abroad. The fact that the Baha'i world headquarters (established by the founder of the Baha'i Faith in the 19th century in what was then Ottoman-controlled Palestine) is situated in what is now the state of Israel exposed Baha'is to government charges of "espionage on behalf of Zionism." Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, who resigned as head of the judiciary in August 2000, stated in 1996 that the Baha'i faith was an espionage organization. Trials against Baha'is have reflected this view.

The Government announced in September 1998 that it would take no action to threaten the life of British author Salman Rushdie, or anyone associated with his work, "The Satanic Verses." The announcement came during discussions with the United Kingdom regarding the restoration of full diplomatic relations. Several revolutionary foundations and a number of Majles deputies within Iran repudiated the Government's pledge and emphasized the "irrevocability" of the fatwa, or religious ruling, by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, calling for Rushdie's murder. The 15 Khordad Foundation raised the bounty it earlier had established for the murder of Rushdie.

On 08 July 1999, students at Tehran University who were protesting proposed legislation by the Majles that would limit press freedoms and the Government's closure of a prominent reform-oriented newspaper, were attacked by elements of the security forces and Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs. Police forces reportedly looked on and allowed repeated attacks against the students and their dormitory. Human Rights Watch reported that, according to witnesses, at least 4 students were killed in the assault on the dormitory, 300 were wounded, and 400 were taken into detention. The demonstrations continued to grow in subsequent days to include many nonstudents. Looting, vandalism, and large-scale rioting began and spread to cities outside Tehran. Student groups attempted to distance their organizations from these later acts, which they blamed on government-sanctioned agitators. The Government intervened to stop the rioting and announced a 14 July 1999 counter-demonstration of regime loyalists and off-duty government workers, many of whom were bussed in from other cities for the demonstration.

In the aftermath of these events, the Government took action against members of the security forces for their violent assault on the student dormitory, and against student leaders, demonstrators, and political activists, whom it blamed for inciting illegal behavior. In August 1999 the commander of the security forces, General Hedayat Lotfian, was summoned before the Parliament to explain the role of his officers in the dormitory raid. He reportedly announced that 98 officers were arrested for their actions. In September 1999 the head of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, Hojatoleslam Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, was quoted as saying that 1,500 students were arrested during the riots, 500 were released immediately after questioning, 800 were released later, and formal investigations were undertaken against the remaining 200. He also announced that four student leaders were sentenced to death by a Revolutionary Court for their role in the demonstrations. He gave no details of the court proceedings against the four, which apparently were conducted in secret.

The Government arrested the leaders of the Iran Nations Party in the aftermath of the July 1999 demonstrations. The party is a secular nationalist movement that predates the revolution and is viewed as a threat by certain elements of the Government. The party was accused of inciting rioters and of encouraging disparaging slogans against "sacred values." The former head of the Iran Nations Party, Darioush Forouhar, was murdered along with his wife in late 1998 by agents of the Iranian intelligence service.

In February 2000, 20 police officers and officials were tried on charges of misconduct in connection with the demonstrations. The court found that misconduct had occurred, and ordered compensation for 34 injured students. However, the court then released all but two of the accused officers.

The trials in 2000 and 2001 of 13 Jewish citizens on charges related to espionage for Israel were marked throughout by a lack of due process. The defendants were held for more than 1 year without being charged formally or given access to lawyers. The trial was closed, and the defendants were not allowed to choose their own lawyers. Following the trial, defense lawyers told news reporters that they were threatened by judiciary officials and pressured to admit their clients' guilt.

In October 2002 the judicial authorities closed down the National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls, which found in a poll commissioned by the Parliament that approximately three quarters of the population supported dialogue with the US, and close to half approved of U.S. policy towards their country. According to press reports, Institute director Behrouz Geranpayeh was interrogated and held incommunicado for more than a month. Managing Director Hussein Qazian of the private Ayandeh polling institute that participated in the poll was also arrested. Abbas Abdi, one of the organizers of the student takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and now a prominent journalist and member of the board of Ayandeh, was arrested in November 2002. All were charged with a combination of spying for the US, illegal contacts with foreign embassies, working with anti-regime groups, and carrying out research on the order of the foreign polling organization; although government intelligence officials had publicly stated that the accused were not spies. According to press reports, President Khatami's executive branch also rejected the charges, stating that the pollsters were doing legitimate work cleared by the Intelligence and Foreign Ministries. Reformist Parliamentarians were barred from the court, and press reports indicated that the defendants were not allowed to see their families or their attorneys.

In November 2002 the Aghajari verdict sparked large and ongoing student protests at universities throughout the country. Students boycotted classes for almost 2 weeks and in the largest pro-reform demonstrations in 3 years, crowds of up to 5,000 students at college campuses called for freedom of speech and major political reforms, and denounced the Aghajari death sentence as "medieval." A government clampdown through the use of Basiji and other forces led to a quiet period of two weeks that ended on December 7, when there was a large demonstration at the University of Tehran. It was attended by over 2,000 within the walls of the campus, with a larger crowd outside. The demonstrators demanded freedom for all political prisoners, a referendum, and the resignations of the President and the head of the judiciary. Press reports indicated that law enforcement officials and the "plainclothes" force broke up the demonstration using batons, whips, and belts, and arrested over 200 persons, many of whom were still being held at the end of the year. Demonstrations on December 9 and 10 were also broken up violently by Basiji forces.

Pro-democracy demonstrations by students in Iran during 2002 did not lead to greater freedoms. Instead, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the hard-line Muslim clerics who rule Iran, had students, journalists, lawyers, and others who speak out, arrested. Some are released; others continue to be held in prison. The so-called Special Clergy Court has also shut down many reform-minded newspapers, accusing them of insulting the clerical authorities.

There is not a democracy in Iran. There are elections that are not free. People go to the polls, but it is not really a democracy, because many people cannot be candidates. There is some form of freedom of speech that is a little bit different from the Soviet Union at the time of the worst repression, or China. There is some form of freedom of expression for a very limited number of people who are in or on the fringes of the ruling oligarchy. Other people have to be very careful about what they do and what they say. And there is no possibility to organize. Non-Governmental Organizations are not registered. Political parties are non-existent unless they accept the ruling principle of the Islamic Republic.

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Page last modified: 28-07-2011 00:53:04 ZULU