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Mockery of Justice: The Framing of Siamak Pourzand

3. Political Background

Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victory in the 1997 presidential election sharpened the factional rivalry inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Political and ideological differences came to the fore more forcefully and the contest over the future direction of the society intensified.[1]

The power struggle was primarily between two main factions within the clerical establishment: reformists and conservatives.[2] Khatami recognized the strength of the reformist movement and sought to appeal to reformers by coming out against certain restrictions on individual freedoms under the Islamic Republic. He advocated for a degree of social liberalization and repeatedly pledged during his election campaign to uphold the constitution, protect the rights it guaranteed, and instill the rule of law.[3]

Although the election signaled the strength of popular demands for reform, it did not change the basic framework of the Islamic revolutionary system, and the electoral victory did not translate into deeper social reforms. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamene’i, remained the most powerful political figure in the country and the conservative bloc within the clerical establishment retained control over many state institutions through which they sought to pursue an anti-reform agenda.

The Iranian constitution vests absolute authority in the person of the Supreme Leader under a theocratic doctrine known as the Guardianship of the Jurist.[4] The Supreme Leader is constitutionally responsible for overseeing the general policies of the Islamic Regime of Iran,[5] leaving the President to exercise only the day-to-day authority. The Supreme Leader exercises his power through a network of special representatives[6] who have the authority to intervene in any state matter on behalf of the Supreme Leader.[7]

During President Khatami’s first term in office, reformists and conservatives within the religious establishment vied for control of the various levers of state. In 1998, a number of Iranian dissident intellectuals had been brutally murdered in an apparently coordinated campaign that became known as the ‘Chain Murders’ and was ultimately linked to the Ministry of Intelligence.[8] The Minister of Intelligence serving at the time of the ‘Chain Murders’ was the conservative cleric Dorri Najafabadi, who was considered to be close to the Supreme Leader.[9] In 2000, President Khatami took advantage of the popular outcry provoked by the ‘Chain Murders’ to appoint a reformist cleric, Ali Younesi, in Najafabadi’s place. Younesi purged the Ministry of elements associated with the ‘Chain Murders.’ The resulting diminution of their influence within the Ministry led conservatives to seek to extend their influence through the other state intelligence organs.[10]

A number of military and government institutions in Iran maintain an intelligence capability that is independent of the Ministry of Intelligence. The Ministry of Intelligence has primacy in all national security issues while the other intelligence units act primarily in support of their parent institutions.[11] Collectively these subsidiary intelligence units are often known by the shorthand term “parallel institutions” (Nahadhayih Muvazi)[12]. Although the Minster of Intelligence is appointed by the President, in conjunction with the Majlis (Iran’s parliament), the heads of the Intelligence Protection Organization of IRGC, the Intelligence Protection Center of NAJA,[13] the Intelligence Protection Organization of the Army,[14] and the Intelligence Protection Center of the Judiciary are all appointed by the Supreme Leader consolidating conservative control over these “parallel institutions.” Many of those purged from the Ministry of Intelligence by Ali Younesi found new positions in the parallel intelligence units.[15]

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