Nabz-Nameh Khordad 1393

2014/06/20

By serving as the middle ground between people and their government, civil society offers citizens an outlet for advocacy and for holding government accountable. Civil society organizations (CSOs) therefore remain independent of government while carrying out activities that complement government services. In this manner, both government and citizens stand to benefit from a free and active civil society.


Nabz-Nameh Khordad 1393

Civil Society in Iran

By serving as the middle ground between people and their government, civil society offers citizens an outlet for advocacy and for holding government accountable. Civil society organizations (CSOs) therefore remain independent of government while carrying out activities that complement government services. In this manner, both government and citizens stand to benefit from a free and active civil society.

In Iran, civil society encompasses both public interest groups (which advocate for particular issues and/or deal with public welfare) and professional associations (such as labor unions or other groups that seek to benefit their members). The Islamic Republic’s default outlook on civil society has been one of distrust, viewing CSOs and labor unions as a challenge to the government’s monopoly over legitimacy. This policy has weakened Iranian civil society by making it an active victim of repression and brain drain, as many civil society leaders are imprisoned or forced into exile.

Past and Present

In Iran, the independence and activity of civil society has generally been at the mercy of broader political currents in the country. The state of civil society in the Islamic Republic can be seen in the tumultuous trajectory of Iranian history from the Revolution of 1979 and the turbulent 1980s through the different presidencies of the last two decades.

Since the Revolution began more as a reaction against the Shah’s government than as a particular ideological movement, it originally represented a broad cross-section of Iranian society. Groups representing ideas as disparate as political Islam and Marxism (and even combinations of the two) entered into alliances of convenience that unleashed massive societal change in Iran. In this atmosphere of open debate and mass participation, civil society experienced a momentary flourishing.

However, freedom of expression was rapidly crushed in post-revolutionary Iran as conservative religious elements consolidated their authority over essentially all aspects of society and suppressed dissenting voices. As the ideological identity of the new Iranian state solidified in the context of the Iran-Iraq War, civil society likewise fell victim to a system that swiftly punished any deviance from a set course.

Dependent Civil Society

Civil society cartoon 1

An independent civil society bridges the gap between citizens and government by serving the interests of both. In Iran though, through a combination of political restrictions, ambiguous legislation, and arbitrary enforcement of laws, government applies pressure on civil society for its own benefit and at the expense of citizens.

Cartoon by Kianoush Ramezani

Following the war and particularly after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary fervor that dominated Iranian society eased to a degree, allowing for relatively more expression. But it was not until the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997 and the general optimism that surrounded this event that civil society truly emerged as a force in Iran. It was during his administration, in fact, that the term “civil society” became a common part of public discourse in Iran.

The resurgence of Iranian civil society, like many of the Khatami-era reforms, was short-lived. Strong resistance from conservative circles and the subsequent policies of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad eroded much of the progress that civil society made in the previous eight years. Under Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), government surveillance and regulation of CSOs increased at the expense of material and moral support for them, and the relationship between government and independent civil society assumed a confrontational dimension. The assertiveness of the Tehran bus drivers’ union since 2004, the One Million Signatures movement for ending discrimination against women (launched in 2006), and the grassroots activism that emerged upon Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election in 2009, are prominent examples of civil society-backed campaigns against increasingly repressive policies—all have been met with sweeping crackdowns by authorities.

Currently, Iranian civil society is subject to the same guarded optimism that more broadly characterizes Iran under the Hassan Rouhani administration. Although Rouhani did not campaign as a reformer per se, there are undeniable parallels between his election and first year in office with the earlier portions of Khatami’s presidency. Whether this translates into concrete, long-term gains for civil society remains to be seen.

Legal Uncertainty

A major challenge for the current status and future prospects of civil society in Iran is the legal ambiguity surrounding CSOs. The Iranian Constitution, in its Article 26, provides the foundation for civil society activity in Iran by stating that “political parties, societies, political associations and guilds, and Islamic or recognized minority religious associations are free to be established, under the condition that they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic standards, and the foundations of the Islamic Republic.” As is the problem with other rights and freedoms outlined in the constitution, the vague stipulation for these groups to not violate certain principles and standards leaves ample room for interpretation as to what constitutes violation. Therefore, the same arbitrary nature that pervades governance and justice broadly in Iran also applies to the condition of civil society.

“Political parties, societies, political associations and guilds, and Islamic or recognized minority religious associations are free to be established, under the condition that they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic standards, and the foundations of the Islamic Republic.”

-Article 26 of the Iranian Constitution

In addition to the constitutional basis for civil society, a number of laws over the years have sought to shape or redefine the scope of CSO activity in Iran, though these multiple efforts have perhaps made the situation even less clear. In 2003, as part of the effort to promote Iranian civil society during the Khatami presidency, a set of prominent CSOs worked with the Ministry of Interior on a draft law to ease government regulations on and increase support for CSOs. Although parts of it were accepted by the conservative Majlis, the draft was ultimately rejected in favor of a 2005 law that had mixed implications for civil society. Although the so-called “Executive Regulations Concerning the Formation and Activities of Non-Governmental Organizations” clarified and consolidated the application and registration process for CSOs, they also increased government oversight over CSOs and clamped down further on political activity.

Another draft, the “Bill on the Establishment and Supervision of CSOs ,” underwent several revisions during Ahmadinejad’s first term and came up for debate in the Majlis in 2011. The proposed bill was met with protest from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, which feared that its stipulations would seriously jeopardize the independence and viability of both existing and new CSOs. Passage of the bill was ultimately postponed by the Majlis, but subsequently portions of it have been signed into law, including the articles that established the Supreme Committee Supervising NGO Activities, controlled by the Ministry of Interior and other representatives from the security apparatus, such as the Basij.

Rouhani’s stance on civil society has been considerably softer than his predecessor’s, but like all potential reformists, he is constrained by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Majlis, the IRGC and Basij, and the multitude of conservative institutions and influencers in Iran. One noteworthy document put forth by Rouhani’s government is the Charter of Citizen Rights, yet critics note that the Charter contains contradictory language and that it ultimately presents only that which is technically already guaranteed by the constitution. What the Charter actually means from a legal perspective therefore remains an unanswered question.

Ongoing Challenges

Due in part to the legal ambiguity that surrounds the regulation of civil society, authorities are inconsistent not only in their enforcement and interpretation of rules, but also in their approach to certain CSOs relative to others. There is a double standard for civil society in Iran, as some CSOs are accorded official legitimacy and backing, while others face suspicion or outright persecution. The difference in treatment between these two classes of CSOs lies often in personal connections of a group’s leadership with government authorities, contradicting the ostensibly “non-governmental” nature of these organizations.

While Iranian civil society organizations work to improve the welfare of people inside Iran, success is dependent on connections to the outside world. Currently, Iranian CSOs suffer from a relative lack of access to their counterparts abroad as well as to the tools available to those organizations. International institutions only have a limited presence in Iran, and even in cases where these institutions are active (as in the case of the United Nations), the government applies pressure on CSOs to work through official channels in order to access them.

Further Resources

Resource Library

Resource Library

The Nabz-Iran Resource Library is a growing database of useful materials, including: UN treaties, declarations and conventions Iran has signed; legal documents, including the Iranian constitution and relevant Iranian laws; reports from non-governmental organizations (CSOs); fact sheets on the status of Iran's international obligations; and other material related to the human rights situation in Iran. For more information on human rights in Iran, visit www.nabz-iran.com or visit the Nabz resource library at www.nabz-iran.com/en/resource-library.

Nabz-Iran is an initiative seeking to amplify Iranian voices and support efforts for the citizens of Iran to assert their rights. Through an online platform, the initiative culls information from Iranian media sources, personal networks and on-the-ground witnesses and provides resources and analysis of legislation and international agreements to which Iran is a signatory, including analysis on election laws, human rights reports from leading international organizations and fact sheets on the international standards. The site seeks to amplify the voices of Iranian activists by collecting, mapping, and sharing information on rights conditions in Iran while creating a venue for Iranians to share their stories. In addition, the initiative develops and provides resources and training materials to help strengthen the ability of Iranians to advocate for greater accountability and related political reforms.