Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order

Iran under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini had a poor record in human rights, including countless deaths of the young, political figures, and members of religious minorities, particularly of the Baha’i faith.

Summary of Event

Until 1979, Iran was under a monarchy headed by the self-styled shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the son and successor of a minor officer who had sought to establish a new dynasty, the Aryan Pahlavis. The shah sought to modernize Iran as a Western state and establish it as a major regional power. The shah found it expedient to be conciliatory toward Israel and brutal toward his opponents, weeding them out systematically. This persecution, along with corruption and poor economic performance, led to urban unrest. By 1978, Iran was paralyzed, and the shah was forced to abdicate in January, 1979. A provisional government under Prime Minister Shahpoor Bakhtiar was installed, but Bakhtiar was forced out of power and replaced by Medhi Bazargan. That government lasted only until November, when the clerics took over. Ayatollah Khomeini thus came to full power. Iranian Revolution (1978-1980)
Human rights abuses;Iran
Iran;human rights abuses
[kw]Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order (1979-1985)
[kw]Executions to Establish New Order, Iran Uses (1979-1985)
Human rights abuses;Iran
Iran;human rights abuses
[g]Middle East;1979-1985: Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order[03480]
[g]Iran;1979-1985: Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order[03480]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1979-1985: Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order[03480]
[c]Human rights;1979-1985: Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order[03480]
Khomeini, Ayatollah
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Bakhtiar, Shahpoor

Systematic persecution followed. A secret list of enemies of the state was compiled. Ten to twenty thousand suspects were instructed not to leave the country. Arbitrary arrests followed investigations of the suspects. Those charged rarely received fair public trials. Revolutionary Guards began searching homes for liquor and pornographic materials, possession of which violates Islamic law.

By the end of 1979, the new regime had imprisoned more than fifteen thousand people. Of these, seven hundred, all political and military figures prominent during the shah’s reign, were executed summarily by firing squads. The remainder were judged to be counterrevolutionaries, seditious plotters, and persons violating Islamic ethics and codes of conduct—prostitutes, drug traffickers, homosexuals, suspected shah sympathizers, and seditious members of ethnic minorities in Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Baluchistan, and Azerbaijan.

In early 1980, the clerics moved a step further. They sought to legitimate the evolving theocracy. Elections were held for a new president and a clerically biased parliament, the Majlis. Iran moved toward theocratic fundamentalism and became viscerally opposed to separation of church and state. Laws were promulgated making all aspects of private and public life subject to fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Individuals were no longer citizens of a secular state. They were part of the ummah, a transnational fellowship dictating every aspect of human life. Iran was seen by the Western world as a blatant violator of basic secular tenets regarding human rights. Of these, the laws that were seen as most pernicious dealt with personal freedom and choice in matters of sexuality, public appearance, politics, and liturgical observance.

Women were required to appear modestly dressed in public, wearing the chador, or head veil. No exceptions were made for non-Muslim women. Secular divorce laws were replaced, and traditional Islamic family law was instituted. This law severely limited certain rights and privileges in matters of custody of children and initiation of divorce proceedings by women. Political participation by women was restricted, and women were limited effectively to one in their representation in the Majlis.

Homosexuality was banned. It was declared a moral depravity and a criminal offense. Public flogging was instituted as punishment for homosexuality and other moral offenses. Death by stoning was introduced, as was amputation of fingers as a measure of punitive deterrence in cases of theft. Revolutionary Guards and courts were given considerable powers to use private initiative for the public moral good. They were to see that public and private behavior conformed to moral standards set by the new order.

Revolutionary Guards searched, without warrants, private homes for anti-Islamic materials, political or pornographic. They searched homes suspected of “anti-Islamic” activities, including possession of liquor. Governmental acquiescence to this private initiative by the Guards opened opportunities for individuals to settle old scores, a process made easier by the lack of juridical standards ensuring due process to protect the accused. The burden of innocence was left with the accused. Political offenders were not given easy access to a legally constituted defense counsel, and admissions of guilt extracted under duress or torture were admissible proof. Torture was indeed used.

Opposition to the new Islamic order—whether by individuals, expressed orally or in the press, or by anticlerical groups—was deemed illegal. One such group singled out for brutal attack by the clerics was the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a group of radical left-wing revolutionaries, three thousand of whom were executed by the end of 1982.

In April, 1980, universities were closed down. Left-wing elements were weeded out, and the universities were reopened under new Islamic guidelines. Similar purges were instigated and carried out in the public sector. Public-sector employment and admission to educational institutions were granted to individuals achieving satisfactory scores in tests of knowledge of Islam and its orthodoxy. These Islamic test requirements were dropped in the mid-1980’s, but while they were in effect, they further increased discrimination against non-Muslim minorities.

By the end of 1982, according to some observers in Tehran, the new regime had executed more than ten thousand people, some summarily and others under brutal conditions. Perhaps the single most systematic violation of human rights, even by Islamic standards, occurred against religious minorities. As befitted a theocratic state, the constitution of 1980 recognized the legal rights of the Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book, or Christians and Jews) and one other pre-Islamic religious group, the Zoroastrians. Representatives from these three minorities were granted seats in the newly formed parliament. These three religious minorities were to be guaranteed protection of life and property under the law only so long as they complied with government regulations.

Armenians and non-Farsi-speaking religious minorities could not propagate religious instruction without severe restrictions, particularly instruction carried out in non-Farsi languages. To allow this, the authorities argued, was to allow the possibility of subversive activities among such minorities. Perhaps the greatest infringement to individual freedom of worship was to occur against Iranians of the Baha’i faith. Baha’is were charged with crimes against God and warring against God. At the revolution’s onset, mobs had demolished Baha’i shrines in Shiraz. Religious groups;Baha’i[Bahai] Revolutionary Guards had subsequently confiscated Baha’i properties and businesses. Vigilante groups continued to weed out known Baha’is. Baha’is, Iran A few were singled out for summary trials and executions. The persecution intensified. In the new constitution, the Baha’is were specifically excluded as a protected religious minority. The ayatollahs considered the Baha’i faith as heretical and the Baha’is, numbering about one-third of a million, as religious subversives. Thereafter, Baha’i social welfare organizations and businesses were banned. Public and private Baha’i worship was made illegal. Baha’is could no longer hold government jobs; employment in the private sector was also discouraged. Baha’i marriages were no longer recognized. Married Baha’i women were thus liable to persecution on grounds of immorality—that is to say, prostitution.


The most dramatic impact of laws advocating the supremacy of theocracy over the rights of the individual was felt by religious minorities. Relations between the government and the religious minorities were fraught with tension and conflict, tensions which began manifesting themselves almost at the outset of the revolution. These tensions centered on Jews Jews;Iran suspected of Zionist or seditious tendencies.

In the light of the regime’s virulence toward Zionism, Zionism international Jewry, and Israel, many Jews became increasingly anxious and began leaving Iran. Some Jews were charged with harboring Zionist sympathies, a treasonable offense punishable by death. Ten of these suspected sympathizers were killed, accused of “warring against God” and “corruption of Earth.” Subsequently, larger numbers of Jews fled Iran. The drive to leave intensified, particularly after a concerted raid led to several arrests. Among those arrested was a rabbi who was charged with helping Jews to flee Iran. Others were forced to make public anti-Israeli statements. The public recanting of one’s faith or political sympathies in return for clemency for life or permission to work was not confined to Jews. Christians suffered similar discrimination and persecution. On the whole, however, Jews fared better than Christians. Unlike the Christians, predominantly of Armenian descent, Jews in Iran spoke Farsi. This helped ease tensions between them and the authorities.

The Baha’i leadership, fully aware of the regime’s fundamental commitment to eradicate the faith as heresy, responded swiftly. It sought to comply with the new regulations. It disbanded the national association, but to no avail. The persecution continued and intensified. By September, 1980, seven Baha’i leaders had been executed. In December, 1981, eight more followed. The Baha’is, now rendered formally leaderless, became easy targets, ready to be plucked one by one. Members of the Baha’i national executive committee who sought to evade prosecution were all spotted, apprehended, and killed. Baha’is sought to prevent desecration of graves in their cemeteries, again to no avail. Baha’i cemeteries were, like Baha’i residences, easily earmarked.

Lesser-known Baha’is sought to avoid arrest by going into hiding. Some found refuge with friends of other faiths. Arrests continued, however, as many Baha’is could not evade vigilante groups, spies, and Revolutionary Guards. More than 190 Baha’is were arrested following the prosecutor general’s orders banning Baha’i worship. By December, 1985, 767 Baha’is were languishing in jail. Approximately 200 Baha’is had been killed since the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution. Their plight continued, and Iran remained firmly entrenched in theocracy, committed to a new order, rid of heretics and secularist tendencies.

The human rights record of Iran from October, 1979, to the end of 1984 shows 6,108 accountably dead. One hundred thousand were killed during the Iran-Iraq War, many in their early teens. This sad record is a chilling manifestation of the potential harms stemming from purist normative doctrines. Executions;Iran
Human rights abuses;Iran
Iran;human rights abuses

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report. London: Author, 1979. An invaluable report on human rights violations. It outlines in detail the horrendous impact that the march of Iran from a secular state to a theocracy had on human rights. A must for anyone wanting a graphic documentation on the subject. Also see the next five annual reports published by Amnesty International documenting year by year the events that led to religious, political, and protheocratic persecutions.
  • Durschmied, Erik. Blood of Revolution: From the Reign of Terror to the Rise of Khomeini. New York: Arcade, 2002. A survey of the world’s revolutions. The final chapter analyzes Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power.
  • Keddie, Nikki R. Iran: Religion, Politics, and Society. London: Frank Cass, 1980. Keddie has written extensively on Islam. This work is a broad survey on Iran, with ample information for the general reader as well as the informed.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, 1941-1980. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press, 1981. A useful book worth dipping into to grasp the thoughts and the mind of the man who brought the shah to his knees.
  • Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1996. An informative text that examines Iran’s old and new civilizations. Features a chapter on Khomeini and Mohammad Reza Shah.
  • Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. An exploration of Khomeini’s rise to power and an analysis of his life. Bibliography and index.

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