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Political freedom in Iran?

Jashar Erfanian, Mitra Khalatbari/ cbJanuary 9, 2014

Iranian President Rouhani has criticized restrictions on political parties and opposition activists and is pushing for a politically more open Iran. But domestic opposition among conservatives is strong.

Hassan Rouhani opening a conference in 2013. (Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Regime critics and reform-minded Iranians who voted for Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 Iranian presidential elections had high hopes. During the campaign, the cleric had announced he wanted to put an end to the oppression of opposition activists and parties.

Expectations rose when a couple of opposition activists were released from jail shortly after Rouhani took office. Even the release of two prominent reform politicians, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, who were leaders of the opposition's pro-democracy "Green Movement" in 2009, seemed within grasp.

But since the initial prisoner releases, the government's efforts have mostly come to a halt as conservative members of the opposition work to obstruct the president's reform plans.

Demand for more freedoms

Rouhani, who succeeded conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office, gave a speech in front of Iranian governors in the Interior Ministry on Tuesday (7.1.2014), displaying concern about the current political situation in Iran. Rouhani criticized the reigning police-state atmosphere in the Islamic republic.

Portrait Shirin Ebadi. (Photo: Arne Dedert dpa/lhe)
Ebadi: No democracy in the near futureImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, Rouhani's criticism doesn't go far enough.

"If President Rouhani criticizes the police-state, he also needs to go a step further and point out the actual problems and parties responsible," the Nobel Peace Prize recipient told DW. "After all, as president, he is the guardian of the people's rights as stated in the constitution. Many arrests, like those of Mussawi and Karrubi, were definitely unconstitutional."

Rouhani also made the case for supporting the activities of "legal political parties" on Tuesday. "We cannot manage the political affairs of a country that has more than 70 million people without political parties," Rouhani said according to Iranian news agency IRNA.

The president, however, lacks the power to take measures in order to revive Iran's party landscape - the highest instance for all political questions is the conservative cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran.

Fearing the opposition

Ebadi said she does not believe that the theocracy will move towards more democracy anytime soon, "Whenever a party distances itself from the conservative regime and gains a foothold among the population, it has to prepare to be rendered illegal."

Picture of an Iranian woman wearing a green bandana and sunglasses with the lower half of her face painted green. (Photo: AP Photo/Ghalam News, HO)
The Green Movement protested Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009.Image: AP

But at least Rouhani tries to strengthen those reform parties that are still allowed to work, said Tehran political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam. "The conservative leaders in Iran are still weary of political organizations," Zibakalam told DW. "That's why the strengthening of legal parties would be a first step toward real democratization in the future."

While there are numerous fractions and different political camps in the country, Iran doesn't have a classic party system. Following the protests against Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009, many parties were prohibited or severely restricted in their work. That was especially true for parties and organizations fighting for a more liberal society, which were accused of disloyalty to the Muslim establishment.

"Criticizing the regime is considered subversive and a danger to national security by the powerful conservatives in Iran," Ebadi said. "Every politician and activist who openly passes judgment on the system has to endure that kind of accusation. In a situation like this, parties lose their value to society."

The conservative elites have to show a general willingness for change for Rouhani's vision to become reality, according to Ebadi.

"As long as criticism is considered a danger to the system, Iran will never have a true multi-party democracy," she said.