Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Third Report

Human rights in Iran

59. Iran's 1979 constitution enshrines respect for human rights within the context of an Islamic state. Islamic interpretations of human rights differ in some respects from those prevalent in the West. In this section, we consider Iran's record on human rights under three headings: political, personal and religious freedoms.

Political freedoms

60. The political situation in Iran has developed considerably since our visit in October last year, when we heard from figures at the heart of government and from independent commentators alike that the pro-reform groups would find it difficult to maintain their majority in the Majles. The overwhelmingly youthful population of Iran (60 percent of Iranians were born after the 1979 revolution) appears to have concluded that its interests are best served by co-existing peacefully with the clerical establishment. Young people in Iran today are able to associate freely, to listen to the music of their choice, to access the world wide web and—if such be their desire—discreetly to indulge in alcohol and other drugs. But while they enjoy fast food and western music, they have no wish to lose their Iranian identity. The clerical establishment, as the guarantor of that identity, may therefore be regarded as in some ways benevolent, while the reformist politicians are seen as ineffectual, and few young Iranians see any incentive to engage in politics.

The elections of February 2004

61. Many of those whom we met in October—including, ironically perhaps, senior members of the establishment—expressed considerable concern that apathy would be the distinguishing feature of February's elections. This was despite attempts by many leading politicians—including our host for the visit, Dr Mohsen Mirdamadi[49]—to radicalise Iranian voters, through their opposition to the decision of the Guardian Council to ban reformist candidates from standing for election. Dr Mirdamadi was one of those members of the Majles who was barred from standing for election again.

62. Iran's political affairs are a matter for Iran, but the extent to which elections in Iran are seen to be free and fair must affect its relations with other countries, not least with the United Kingdom and its European partners. The decision of many candidates to withdraw from the ballot in protest at the decision to ban reformist candidates deprived the election of democratic validity. Iranian voters were not presented with a full choice of candidates, and they responded by abstaining in large numbers. It is difficult to know how many of those who did not vote were engaging in a deliberate protest against the banning of candidates for whom they would have wished to vote, and how many were apathetic or were disillusioned with the record of the Khatami administration or with the political system generally. Equally, one cannot be certain how many of those who voted did so only in order to have their identity papers stamped. What is certain is that democracy has suffered a blow in Iran.

63. The decision by the Council of Guardians to prevent more than 2,400 candidates from standing, because those candidates' Islamic credentials were, in the view of the Council, unsatisfactory, appears to us to have been a deliberate attempt to subvert the process of reform in Iran and to frustrate the will of its people. Relations between Iran and the United Kingdom, its European partners and other democracies are bound to be affected by such anti-democratic practices.

64. President Khatami continues in office for another year, but he will have to work with a legislature which is dominated by hardliners. Yet it is possible that the incoming parliament will find it easier to achieve a consensus on the changes which will be necessary for Iran to improve its relations with other countries. The example of China is often cited as demonstrating that economic liberalisation can proceed in the absence of full political freedoms. However, while such reforms might allow Iran to do more business with the rest of the world, only the adoption of fully democratic values can ensure its complete acceptance by the international community.

65. For some time, the European Union and Iran have been discussing a trade and co-operation agreement, which in return for undertakings by Iraq to respect human rights and democratic values, would grant Iran improved access to EU markets.[50] Negotiations on the agreement proceeded slowly during the first half of 2003, and have been in a state of suspension for some months. The Foreign Secretary has said that the recent elections were "flawed" and that although dialogue between the EU and Iran should continue, the election result "will obviously create a new environment for the discussions with Iran to take place [in]".[51]

66. We conclude that the recent elections in Iran were a significant and disappointing setback for democracy in that country and for its international relations, at least in the short term. We recommend that the Government take every opportunity through its pronouncements and through its policies to remind Iran of the benefits to its own people and to its standing in the world of upholding democratic values.

Personal freedoms

Young people, education and employment

67. In the period immediately after the 1979 revolution, and in particular during the lengthy war against Iraq, Iran's new rulers encouraged a substantial increase in the birth rate, which peaked at over 3 percent.[52] This disproportionately large generation has had to be provided with health care and primary, then secondary, then further and higher education. All this has been provided by the Iranian state. That such a vast undertaking has been achieved successfully, with high levels of literacy and a generally good standard of health, represents a considerable accomplishment.

68. Iran has been less successful in providing employment for its baby boomers. Its well-educated young people too often find there are insufficient jobs suited to their skills. One consequence has been a high level of emigration among the more educated classes of young people. This is not entirely bad news for Iran, as its emigrant workers send valuable foreign exchange home and, when they return, bring with them the further skills they have learnt while abroad, but it would clearly be better for Iran if it were able to make more use of the considerable talents of its people.

The position of women in Iranian society

69. Women in Iran are in many respects freer than their counterparts in some other Islamic countries. In Iran—unlike in some other countries in the region—women may vote, hold political office, work and drive a car. Almost two thirds of new university entrants are currently women. However, women in Iran still suffer unequal rights under marital law and their employment position is significantly worse than that of men.[53] Iran is investing in the education of large numbers of women who cannot then find appropriate employment, to the detriment of the Iranian economy and Iranian society as well as to that of the women themselves.

70. In January 2003, we received a report from our parliamentary colleague, Dr Phyllis Starkey MP, who had led a delegation of women parliamentarians to Iran. Dr Starkey told us that:

Women are disadvantaged by the current legal system, particularly in relation to divorce, and in court a woman's testimony is valued at half that of a man. Economically women are at a disadvantage compared with men.[54]

She concluded that:

Overall, we retained concerns about abuses of human rights and the crab-like progress towards real democracy, because the conservative religious authorities frequently obstruct reform. However, our delegation returned convinced that Iran was moving in the right direction and that the British policy of constructive engagement was correct.

71. While in Iran, we pursued some specific aspects of gender inequality. For example, we discussed with several of those whom we met the unequal position under Iranian law of female heads of households, and of divorced women seeking custody of their children. Until recently, women were granted custody only of female children under the age of seven and males under the age of two; all other children were placed in the custody of the father. We were informed that a proposal to change this law had been passed by the parliament, but rejected by the Council of Guardians. The matter had been referred in accordance with the constitution to the Council of Expediency. After our return, we were pleased to be informed by the Iranian Embassy in London that the Expediency Council had approved the law, and that henceforth mothers will usually be granted custody of children of both sexes until the age of seven, the position thereafter to be determined by the courts, if the parents cannot agree between themselves.[55] We welcome this sensible reform, which is evidence of a pragmatism in Iranian society often overlooked in the West.

72. On the other hand, the abhorrent practice of stoning women adulterers remains part of the Iranian legal corpus. Such punishments have been subject to a moratorium, but it is very disappointing that they have not yet been abolished.

73. We were privileged during our visit to Tehran to meet Nobel Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi. Mrs Ebadi was a judge until 1979—an unique position for a woman under the rule of the Shah—and has been a campaigning lawyer since being removed from the judiciary, taking on and winning a number of high-profile cases. Mrs Ebadi spoke to us about her desire to see Iranian society reform itself and articulated very effectively her confidence that this will be achieved. She pointed out that, 25 years after she was sacked because of her gender, there are once again women judges in Iran.

74. Like our parliamentary colleagues who visited Iran in 2002, we conclude that the position of women in Iranian society remains unequal, but that it has been moving in the right direction. We welcome the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Shirin Ebadi. However, we are seriously concerned that Iran has yet to repeal provisions allowing the stoning of women adulterers and we conclude that Iran cannot be fully accepted into the international community while such abhorrent practices remain permitted under its laws.

The Kazemi affair

75. The murder of Canadian-Iranian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi in July 2003 has served to place a renewed emphasis on the lack of respect for human rights on the part of some sections of the Iranian establishment. It appears that Mrs Kazemi was beaten to death by her interrogators, having been arrested while photographing locations associated with student unrest—in particular, Evin Prison, where many of those detained for political reasons are held. The initial interrogation was carried out under the supervision of Judge Saeed Mortazavi, before Mrs Kazemi was handed over to Iran's internal security service. An inquiry by the Article 90 Committee of the Majles—whose Chairman we met in Tehran—established that the injuries which caused death had been administered while Mrs Kazemi was in the custody of the judiciary.[56] Despite this, the judiciary has arrested an intelligence officer and has charged him with responsibility for Mrs Kazemi's death; in return, the intelligence ministry, with the support of most of the political establishment, is defending its employee. The trial was opened and adjourned in November, with no date set for its resumption. Mrs Shirin Ebadi is representing the Kazemi family.

76. That the judiciary of any country should be found to be culpable for such an horrific abuse is deeply worrying. Those of us in the West who have supported the policy of constructive or critical engagement with Tehran must be particularly disappointed and concerned. Although we can take heart that the facts have apparently been established and made public by a committee of the Iranian parliament, it would obviously be better for Iran's international standing if these abuses were to cease altogether.

77. The Kazemi affair demonstrates one of the difficult dilemmas which face those who wish to develop a more positive relationship with Iran. Iran is a highly complex society, with competing centres of power and influence. To treat it—as one would treat most nation states—as a single entity, which is either in the 'good' camp or in the 'bad' camp, is to ignore that complexity. Dealings with all aspects of the Iranian socio-political system may be a necessary feature of critical engagement, but they must always be handled with sensitivity, and with an emphasis on encouraging the more positive elements.

Religious freedoms

78. When we visited Tehran, we met members of the Majles who represent Iran's officially recognised religious minorities. The Iranian constitution acknowledges the existence of the long-established Christian (mainly Armenian), Assyrian, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities and provides for each such community to elect a number of parliamentary representatives (one, in most cases) which is broadly proportionate to the officially accepted number of its believers.

79. We did not hear any criticism of the Iranian authorities from the official representatives of minority faiths, and neither did we expect to hear any. Other evidence suggests, however, that religious converts, in particular, have been persecuted. The Foreign Secretary told us that:

Under Iranian law, apostasy—conversion from Islam to Christianity or any other religion—is a crime and in theory may be punished by death. Accurate information about the actual treatment of converts or those who seek to convert others is hard to obtain and we do not have a full picture. We are not aware of cases where the death penalty has been used on Christian converts in the period since President Khatami was first elected in 1997. In 1994, a Christian convert in Mashad, a pastor, was reportedly charged with evangelising and subsequently executed. We have also heard reports of the extra-judicial killing of Christians for evangelising, most recently in 2000 in Rasht. While some converts who keep a low profile appear not to face significant harassment by the authorities, others may be subject to restrictions or punishment.[57]

80. Iran is not the only Islamic country to incriminate apostates, but it is surely particularly unfortunate that the Iranian establishment apparently feels so insecure that it cannot tolerate conversion. We respect the pre-eminent position of Islam in Iran, but we conclude that Iran's interpretation of the tenets of Islam with regard to those who proselytise or who convert to other faiths is incompatible with its desire to enjoy normal relations with other countries.

81. We have also received criticism of Iran from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who told us in February last year that:

While the Jewish community [in Iran] may not suffer to the extent that the Bahá'ís or Christians have, Jews nevertheless continue to live under an oppressive regime. The Jews who were falsely imprisoned on charges of espionage in 1999, have now mostly been released. However, it is believed that up to 5 men remain in prison, and according to Iranian Jewish communities abroad, a number of others have disappeared, possibly while trying to escape from the country.[58]

Nevertheless, the Board concluded that "there are positive signs emerging from within Iran" and noted that increased contacts with the West are likely to add to pressure for change in Iran.[59]

The Bahá'ís of Iran

82. It is notable that all three religions whose adherents are recognised as having special rights in Iran are older than Islam. However, Iran is home to many members of a younger religious community—the Bahá'ís. The Bahá'í faith originated in Iran in the 19th Century as a development of Islam and is estimated to have approximately 300,000 adherents in modern-day Iran.[60] Although Bahá'ís do not directly threaten other religions, and are not perceived as a threat outside Iran, the Iranian clerical establishment regards them as apostates and they are banned from practising their faith.

83. There appears to be little prospect of the present Iranian regime changing its constitutional position on the Bahá'í faith, and any attempt to force the issue in the way that the nuclear question was resolved would, in our estimation, be most unlikely to succeed. However, this need not be a counsel of despair. We judge that over time, Iran is likely to become a more secular state, which would in all probability develop a greater tolerance of religious minorities. Even if Iran were to remain an avowedly and constitutionally Islamic republic, the Rushdie precedent suggests that it its leaders are not incapable of finding pragmatic solutions to questions of religion.[61]

84. We conclude that Iran's treatment of its Bahá'í community is not consistent with its human rights obligations under international law. We recommend that the Government continue to press the Iranians to treat members of all religious minorities fairly and equally, while recognising the pre-eminent position which Islam enjoys in Iranian society.

'Blood money'

85. While in Tehran, we discussed the grievance felt by non-Muslims in Iran that so-called 'blood money' was paid at differential rates, with more being paid in respect of Muslims than those of other faiths. Blood money, or di'yeh, can be paid under Sharia law, which allows the family or relatives of a murdered person to choose between pardoning a convicted murderer, demanding blood money or insisting on capital punishment. In January 2004, we were informed by the Iranian Embassy in London that the Council of Guardians had approved a bill amending the constitution to provide for equal blood money for all Iranian nationals, regardless of their religion.[62] We welcome this change, which provides a small but important example of Iranian society moving in the right direction.

49   Chairman of the International Affairs and Security Committee of the Majles Back

50   In the words of a European Commission press release of December 2002: "The EU expects that the deepening of economic and commercial relations between the EU and Iran will be matched by similar progress in the areas of political dialogue and counter-terrorism. These are interdependent, indissociable and mutually reinforcing elements of the global approach which is the basis for progress in the EU-Iran relations." Back

51   "EU ministers unite to attack 'flawed' elections", The Times, 24 February 2004 Back

52   See, eg, The rate now stands at 1.2 percent. Back

53   HC (2000-01) 80, pp 12-14; HC (2002-03) 405, Ev 151-3 Back

54   HC (2002-03) 405, Ev 146 Back

55   Ev 22 Back

56   The Article 90 Committee (so named because it is established under Article 90 of the Iranian Constitution) fulfils an ombudsman-type role and spends much of its time investigating alleged miscarriages of justice. Back

57   Ev 22 Back

58   HC (2002-03) 405, Ev 147 Back

59   HC (2002-03) 405, Ev 148 Back

60   HC (2000-01) 80, p 8 Back

61   Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie has never been (and cannot be) revoked, but it is no longer regarded as being in force. Back

62   Ev 22 Back

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Prepared 19 March 2004