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Democracy & Human Rights In Iran Continue To Decline

By The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*

Iranians have struggled against the repressive tactics of their country’s hardline elite and security services for decades, including their recent handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Though Iran does hold flawed regular elections for president and parliament, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei maintains ultimate power as the head of state by controlling key unelected institutions, including the security forces, government-run media and the judiciary. Nearly all aspects of civil liberties are restricted, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and political participation. Women are particularly restricted, facing discrimination on issues related to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. Hundreds of political activists are imprisoned or have been disappeared, and torture, lack of due process, as well as arbitrary killings are common.

In spite of these oppressive conditions, Iranians have continued to resist their authoritarian rulers and pinned their hopes on leaders who could challenge these rulers and even the very system itself. In 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected president on a platform of reform. Continuing these promises, Rouhani was reelected for a second four-year term in May 2017. Unfortunately, little has changed under his leadership as he has been either unwilling or unable to stop repressive elements in the government from continuing to stifle the voice and freedoms of the people. In response, citizens have resorted to public protests on a more regular basis. While there were protests in 1999, 2001, and 2009, protests have now taken place in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Since late 2017, hundreds of small protests have taken place every month on a variety of issues ranging from the economy, to the environment, to politics and culture. The triggers for these protests are typically economic, political, or social issues, such as the fuel price increase in November 2019. However, the frustration is sustained by long-standing political grievances, such as corruption and mistakes made by the regime, including the downing of Ukrainian Flight 752 after taking off from Tehran, inflating turnout for the February 2020 parliamentary elections, and the inadequate response to COVID-19.

These protests and other forms of resistance do not seem to pose a danger to the regime, as its security and intelligence services are strong, and the opposition is weak and decentralized. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, after the November 2019 protests, security forces detained 8,600 protesters and killed about 1,500, while the government imposed a media and internet blackout for nearly a week. The Supreme Leader is 81 years old and much of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — security forces which report directly to him — is ageing, which could mean a transition soon. Further, the grim economic situation, as well as the effects of U.S. sanctions, show no sign of improving, meaning protests and grievances will likely continue. The current U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” through sanctions may benefit from a dual policy of outreach and caring for the Iranian people, who have become increasingly apathetic about politics and the likelihood of reform in their country.

Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for supporting democracy, human rights and rule of law in Iran include:

  • Adding a “maximum support” strategy for the people to the current U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime.
  • Providing continued offers of humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people for basic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Working with the international and U.S. private sector to provide the means to keep internet access available to Iranian citizens during state-imposed blackouts.
  • Coordinating with European counterparts to reach out to Iranian labor unions, who have been protest leaders throughout the country.
  • Along with the European Union, supporting programs to train Iranian civic activists, lawyers and others about their rights and advocacy techniques.
  • Supporting movements, such as environmental groups, that unite people across ethnic, cultural, and political lines, which are more difficult for the regime to control.
  • Increasing opportunities for ordinary Iranians to study in the U.S. and other western countries and participate in non-political cultural, social and academic work.
  • Developing a comprehensive information campaign along with other democracies to counter the Iranian state-run media by broadcasting on topics such as democracy, the free market, and freedom of the media.
  • Countering Iran’s misinformation and disinformation by pointing out the regime’s mistakes and exploiting the frustration born from them.
  • Collecting as much intelligence as possible on the IRGC in order to exploit any potential divisions as a possible transition approaches.
  • Leveraging history by reminding the Iranian people that they used to enjoy democracy and freedom of information – these are not principles that the West is trying to impose.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

For more information on McCain Institute Programs, visit our pages for Human Rights and Freedom, Democracy Programs, and Empowering Leadership.

Publish Date
March 10, 2021