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Why Can’t Civil Society Groups Function in Iran?

March 26, 2021
Behnam Gholipour
6 min read
Civil society groups began to flourish after Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997, and so did the problems they face
Civil society groups began to flourish after Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997, and so did the problems they face
The Imam Ali Charity Association was one of the most reputable civil society institutions in Iran. After years of looking after the rights of children, it was dissolved
The Imam Ali Charity Association was one of the most reputable civil society institutions in Iran. After years of looking after the rights of children, it was dissolved

When the Imam Ali Society was dissolved by order of the judiciary, it left a hole in Iranian society, and in the lives of the children it aimed to protect. The organization, also known as the Society of Students Against Poverty, was one of the most reputable civil society institutions in Iran and had been running for many years. But following pressure from Iran’s hardline conservatives and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's "public relations" office, it was forced to close.

The Rouhani administration’s defense of the decision confirmed the opinion voiced by 12 Iranian civil society organizations: the Islamic Republic has no interest in non-governmental organizations or the causes they champion.

The closure of the charity provoked a huge reaction, including criticism of the judiciary. Perhaps almost as shocking was the Interior Ministry’s backing of the judiciary and its decision to reiterate the allegations against the association. It was a rare move for the ministry, which has tended to stay quiet when it comes to actions taken by the judiciary.

Civil society institutions began flourishing when Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997, and the regime was immediately wary. Since then, Iran has seen the establishment of numerous institutions of all sizes serving a range of causes across the country. But because of the government's suspicious view of the activities of such institutions, they struggled to fully implement their plans and objectives, and over time they cut down or even ceased their activities. But throughout this time, the Imam Ali Association was one of the most important and successful organizations in operation.

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, officials’ skepticism and hostility toward these organizations grew, and this has continued under the administration of Hassan Rouhani. The government also began setting up parallel quasi-governmental institutions working on the same causes in an effort to control the activities of charities and to block members of the public and civil society activists from setting up independent, non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

During these years, the government and its officials have pursued a range of restrictive policies regarding the running of independent institutions. These ongoing and restrictive measures were recently discussed during a meeting of representatives from 12 NGOs organized by the Institute of Humanities and Social Studies of Jihad Daneshgahi. The institute published the outcomes and conclusions reached during this session in an article entitled "Factors and obstacles affecting the role and the efficiency of civil society in the Islamic Republic of Iran” featured in its quarterly journal Theoretical Policy Research.

The article outlined the experiences of the 12 civil society organizations that attended the meeting. Representatives from the NGOs spoke about the constraints they faced, the narrow-minded attitudes they had to contend with, the perspectives and approaches various branches of government had when it came to “security” issues. They outlined the specific obstacles they faced in going about their work.

A representative from the Imam Ali Society also participated in the meeting, but now the association exists only in name.

The 12 civil society organizations described the role various branches of government and powerful figures played in smothering and blocking their charitable work. Among the huge pressures they faced, they tallied a total of 46 legal cases brought against them.

As set out in the article under the heading “Interaction between organizations and the government: More Threats, Fewer Opportunities", the groups identified a long list of problems civil society organizations face in the Islamic Republic. Chief among them were:

-Government distrust and pessimism toward civil institutions;

-Existence of inappropriate, mis-applied and incomplete rules;

-Government intervention instead of supervision;

-The need to engage with a range of vast, complex organizations within the government as part of their work; some of these government institutions purport to carry out the same work that the NGOs do;

-The government adopts a national security-led approach to civil society groups, therefore effectively seeing these organizations as potential criminals;

-Government groups are inconsistent in their policies toward NGOs, particularly when it comes to establishing criteria these groups have to meet by law, meaning an organization can more easily break the law without knowing it because these stipulations are so vaguely worded;

-Civic institutions have low capacity and are under-funded so it is difficult for them to have the cultural and social reach they need.

The research also went on to say that the discussions among NGOs indicated that, when it came to the specific issues and causes these groups dealt with, government had “no interest in handing over the governing and administrative roles to the private sector” to deal with these problems.

Representatives who attended the meeting confirmed that the quality and strength of relationships between officials and civil society vary from province to province, and even from county to county, and they are often determined by geographical location. Therefore, the position of these institutions in the provinces of Tehran or Fars is relatively strong, while in other provinces such as Sistan and Baluchistan, these organizations are somewhat weaker.

The groups also noted that "associations that pursue environmental issues are less threatened (and, of course, less welcomed), but if a civil institution gets involved in political and security matters, or if it enters domains that are considered to be red lines, (for example, studies about women and the actions of women), the institution will be suppressed."

The study also found that in cases where civil society institutions were set up by former government officials, the activities of these institutions were better supported and their communications with various government departments were smoother due to the fact that their founders are "better acquainted with the ways of talking to the government and are more successful”. It added that if that if that former government official left the organization or was dismissed, “the quality of communication with the civil society institution changes fundamentally”.

The NGO representatives added: "Some civil society organizations are more successful than others in establishing relations with the government and influencing it. The reasons are linked to the identity of the association, and the extent to which it has appeared to be successful and strong in various fields."

The NGOs’  final conclusion was that "the interaction of the three branches of government  — the legislature, executive and judicial branches — with civil society institutions is not the same” across the three branches. In fact, the judiciary tends to be less engaged and have fewer interactions with institutions. The executive branch tends to have the most interaction and engagement with them.

But that was not the case for the Imam Ali Association. It was the judiciary, working with the executive, both with the support of the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, that dissolved a successful and well-known popular organization, accusing It of a range of chargeable offences and shutting down its activities.

Related coverage: 

Rouhani’s Government Shuts Down Charity Supporting Vulnerable Children

The Relief Organization that has Angered the Revolutionary Guards


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