Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, claimed in a message to the Iranian people on April 1, 1979 – after they had overwhelmingly supported the establishment of the Islamic Republic in a national referendum – that coercion and suppression by state security agencies would be a thing of the past.
"The government can no longer force the nation,” Khomeini said. “The Islamic government is in the service of the nation. ... And the nation, if a prime minister suppresses the people, they will sue him in the courts, and if his guilt is proven, he will be punished for his actions. The Islamic system will no longer prefer a minister to a normal citizen. Caliphs of the Muslim world in the early days of Islam appeared before a judge with a Jew, with whom he had a disagreement; when the judge ruled against the Caliph, he obeyed."
But was Iran’s security apparatus dismantled by the Islamic Republic? And did torture and other forms of coercion and suppression, allegedly inflicted by security agencies in the past, come to an end? Were the country’s new leaders and its people equal before the law?
Security in the Islamic Republic
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's internal security and foreign intelligence was in the hands of the National Intelligence and Security Organization, known as SAVAK. The revolutionaries had accused SAVAK of torture against prisoners and opponents of the Pahlavi monarchy and, in their public messaging, portrayed it as a violent actor in the country.
SAVAK was established in 1956 and then dissolved just before the Revolution, at the height of public protests, by the order of Shapur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister to serve under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The truth of the allegations of torture and ill-treatment by SAVAK is not the subject of this report – rather it is Khomeini’s claim that under the Islamic Republic there would be no more security apparatus in Iran.
But the constitution of the Islamic Republic does not address the formation (or non-formation) of a security and intelligence organization. But it does, in several articles, prohibit torture (Article 38), arrests without a court order (Article 32), forced confession (Article 38, again); and it establishes the principle of presuming innocence (Article 37), which was influenced by revolutionary protests against SAVAK.
The Lie in Khomeini’s Promise
The Islamic Republic has not gone without an intelligence and security organization – not at any point in the past 42 years. But the functions of state security were initially assumed by several institutions, and were not centralized; later, the Ministry of Intelligence was created to solve problems created by this decentralization, effectively replacing SAVAK.
ISNA News Agency, in its report Untold Stories of the Establishment of the Ministry of Intelligence, on October 13, 2019, provided details on how intelligence organizations have taken shape under the Islamic Republic.
Saeed Hajarian, one of the founders of the Ministry of Intelligence, said in the report: "Towards mid-February 1979, in the days after the victory of the Revolution, power had mainly fallen into the hands of the komitehs [armed revolutionary militias]. Due to the lack of a single command, a kind of tribal order was created among the komitehs and in their intelligence work until Imam Khomeini ordered Mr. Mahdavi to form a central komiteh to coordinate the komitehs. In the provinces, this was done by Khomeini’s representatives. Shortly after the Revolution, the Revolutionary Guards were formed and some intelligence work was also carried out by them. Judges themselves also collected intelligences on the cases before them. I remember Mr. Khalkhali [chief justice of the Revolutionary Courts at the time] had a team gathering intelligence on his own casework. The Provisional Government and the Revolutionary Council were trying to revive remnants of SAVAK, especially its ‘Department 8’ anti-espionage office, which guarded embassies and worked to uncover foreign spies.”
Khomeini was claiming to dismantle Iran’s security apparatus just as his new Islamic Republic was putting into place organizations – from the komitehs to the Revolutionary Guards and the Revolutionary Courts, as well as the provisional government – that all had their own intelligence and security capabilities.
Four years later, on October 17, 1983, Iran’s parliament approved the Law on the Establishment of the Ministry of Intelligence, delegating all of SAVAK’s powers to the new ministry.
Was the Instrument of Suffering and Torture Dismantled in the Islamic Republic?
Despite Iran’s new constitution banning torture, numerous accounts of torture by the Islamic Republic’s security agencies have been published in recent years. And not a day has passed without torture and forced confession under the Islamic Republic. Thousands of cases of torture and forced confessions can be cited; in some cases, the violation of the rights of the people by intelligence and security agencies has been so severe and criminal that the Islamic Republic has been forced to accept responsibility and has repeatedly faced protests from international institutions, including the UN human rights rapporteurs.
The most prominent of these examples include:
- Torture and murder of dissidents by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence in the 1990s, which led to the notorious “Chain Murders” of intellectuals, and the resignation of the then minister of intelligence.
- Torture and murder of protesters against the result of the 2009 election, imprisoned in Kahrizak Detention Center, which led to the trial of the then Tehran prosecutor.
- Torture and forced confessions of Tehran mayors in Tohid Detention Center by police intelligence, leading to the dismissal of Sardar Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the then commander of the police intelligence service.
- Torture and forced confession of dormitory students at the University of Tehran (1999), especially Ahmad Batebi, in Tohid Detention Center.
- Torture and forced confession of hundreds of political activists and journalists over the past 40 years by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
- The abduction and torture of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist and founder of the Amad News website and Telegram channel, his forced confession by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and his execution by the judiciary.
And is true to say that ministers and ordinary citizens are equal before the law in the Islamic Republic? Iran’s leaders since 1979 have insisted on the independence of the judiciary – but it has repeatedly shown otherwise. The reality has shown a clear difference between leaders and citizens in the Islamic Republic and, in some cases, the judiciary has not even filed lawsuits against elements of the Islamic Republic let alone abide by the law and justice.
Complaints Against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
No information is available on anyone who has filed complaints against the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, over the past 30 years. The only exceptions are complaints or protests raised in the media such as those by the former revolutionary and dissident Mohammad Nourizad. But there are two indisputable facts; so far, no court has been convened to hear a complaint against the Supreme Leader, and many people have been tried and sentenced to prison for writing letters of protest to Khamenei on charges of "insulting" the Supreme Leader.
Tajzadeh's Complaint Against Ahmad Jannati
Mostafa Tajzadeh, political deputy of the Interior Ministry under former president Mohammad Khatami's government, between 1997 and 2005, filed a complaint against Ahmad Jannati – a member of the Guardian Council which vets parliamentary candidates and has the right to disqualify people from standing – and said that his complaint was never heard."
Numerous complaints against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
According to official reports from the National Audit Office and the Article 90 Commission, which oversees the government, the judiciary, and parliament the, a former speaker of parliament and several others filed complaints against former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but none have been heard. "In Ahmadinejad's case and dealing with him, I said that there is a wisdom in the delay," said Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the deputy head of the judiciary, in explaining why complaints against Ahmadinejad had not been heard. "I did not say that the case should not be considered because of expediency. I still can't talk about the wisdom of not handling Ahmadinejad's case. But over time, many issues will become clear to the people."