In July 2015, Iran reached an agreement with the United States and other world powers to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, raising hopes that the pact would ultimately strengthen President Hassan Rouhani and allow him to fulfill promises to decrease state intervention in Iranians’ lives. However, there were no significant improvements in the human rights situation during the year, as hard-liners in control of key state institutions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary, appeared determined to prevent any attempts at reform.
With elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts scheduled for February 2016, hard-liners launched a new crackdown in 2015. At least four journalists were arrested, while several intellectuals, artists, and human rights activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American, was sentenced to an unspecified prison term following a closed-door trial on widely criticized espionage charges. There was also a surge in executions during the year, with estimates indicating that the number easily exceeded the reported total for 2014.
Civil Liberties: 10 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 2 / 16
Freedom of expression and access to information remain severely limited both online and offline. However, some journalists and citizens say the situation improved slightly after Rouhani took office. The state broadcasting company is tightly controlled by hard-liners and influenced by the security apparatus. News and analysis are heavily censored, while critics and opposition members are rarely, if ever, given a platform on state-controlled television, which remains a major source of information for many Iranians. State television has a record of airing confessions extracted from political prisoners under duress, and it routinely carries reports aimed at discrediting dissidents and opposition activists.
Satellite dishes are banned, and Persian-language broadcasts from outside the country are regularly jammed. Authorities periodically raid private homes and confiscate satellite dishes.
Newspapers and magazines face censorship and warnings from authorities about which topics to cover and how. Journalists state that they are often forced to practice self-censorship when working on sensitive issues. In late July 2015, the government allegedly instructed newspaper editors to praise the nuclear agreement and avoid publishing content that would suggest a rift among officials. In August, a hard-line daily was suspended over its coverage of the nuclear talks, while two other hard-line media outlets received warnings.
Since Rouhani became president, several new dailies and magazines have been granted publishing licenses, but a number of publications and websites have been closed or suspended. In January 2015, the daily Mardom-e Emrouz was shut down after it published a cover photo of American actor George Clooney expressing solidarity with the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the target of a terrorist attack the previous week. In April, a magazine dedicated to women’s issues and run by prominent editor Shahla Sherkat was temporarily banned over coverage of cohabitation outside of marriage.
Nineteen journalists were behind bars in Iran as of December, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The year’s most high-profile case was that of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, in detention since July 2014. He was tried on espionage charges in four closed hearings between May and August. In November, Iran’s judiciary said Rezaian had been sentenced to an unspecified jail term. The espionage accusations have been widely described as baseless.
Tens of thousands of websites remain filtered, including news sites and social media, which have otherwise become a relatively free platform of expression for many Iranians. The government has said it is pursuing “smart filtering” for social-networking sites such as Instagram, allowing it to block certain content without obstructing the entire service.
Authorities continue to target online activists. In September, reports emerged that well-known internet activist and founder of the popular Weblogina portal Arash Zad had been detained since the previous month on unknown charges. Facebook activist Soheil Arabi, who had been arrested in 2013 and sentenced to death in 2014 for “insulting” the prophet Muhammad, had his death sentence commuted by the Supreme Court in June, though he still faced seven and a half years in prison, with two years of supervised theological study. Reporters Without Borders said in September that more than 100 online activists and bloggers had been arrested since Rouhani took office, in most cases by the intelligence branch of the IRGC.
Various forms of art face restrictions in Iran. All books must be approved by the Ministry of Culture in order to receive a publishing license. Scores of books have been banned, while authors have been accused of subversion, though there were reports in 2015 that book censorship had slightly eased and that some previously banned books were allowed to be published. Filmmakers also face censorship and official pressure. In June, artist and activist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison for a cartoon that criticized members of parliament. It emerged in October that two poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, had been sentenced to 11.5 and nine years in prison, respectively, as well as 99 lashes each, on charges that included “insulting sanctities.” Filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced that month to six years in prison and 223 lashes on similar charges.
Iran is home to a majority Shiite Muslim population and Sunni, Baha’i, Christian, and Zoroastrian minorities. The constitution recognizes only Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities, and they are relatively free to worship. The regime cracks down on Muslims who are deemed to be at variance with the state ideology and interpretation of Islam. Popular spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri was sentenced to death in June 2015 for “spreading corruption on earth,” but the Supreme Court rejected the sentence in December; Taheri, in detention since 2011, was already serving a five-year prison sentence on related charges. At least 30 of his followers have also been sentenced to prison. Sunni Muslims complain that they have been prevented from building mosques in major cities and face employment discrimination for government jobs. In recent years, there has been increased pressure on the Sufi Muslim order Nematollahi Gonabadi, including destruction of their places of worship and the jailing of some of their members.
The government also subjects some non-Muslim minorities to repressive policies and discrimination. Baha’is are systematically persecuted, sentenced to prison, and banned from access to higher education; some 70 Baha’is were in prison as of December 2015 due to their religious beliefs. The Baha’i International Community has also reported the destruction of cemeteries and the closure of Baha’i-owned businesses in recent years. There is an ongoing crackdown on Christian converts. In the past three years, a number of informal house churches have been raided and their pastors detained. Pastor Saeed Abedini, a dual Iranian-American national and a convert to Christianity, is among those in jail.
Academic freedom remains limited in Iran, despite attempts by Rouhani’s government to ease the harsh repression universities have experienced since 2009. In the past two years, about a dozen student associations that had been suspended under the previous administration were allowed to renew their work. Several new student groups also received permits to operate. However, Khamenei has warned that universities should not be turned into centers for political activities. Amnesty International estimates that hundreds of students have been prevented from continuing their studies for political reasons or because they belong to the Baha’i community.