Access to the country for independent human rights investigators remained restricted, although the government did declare its willingness to admit U.N. special rapporteurs to the country. There continued to be lively discussion of human rights issues in the press and in Parliament, although independent local human rights groups were not permitted to function.

Several lawyers known for their defense of human rights were targets of prosecution. Mohammad Dadkhah, part of the defense team of the Iranian Freedom Movement, was sentenced to five months in prison in May. He was also banned from practicing law for ten years.

The judiciary confirmed the sentences of several lawyers associated with reformist causes, including cases relating to the assassinations of writers and intellectuals in 1998. One lawyer, Nasser Zarafshan, was sentenced to five years in prison and fifty lashes. The bar association described the flogging sentence as indefensible and unjustifiable. The appeal was dismissed. Zarafshan had probed the involvement of Ministry of Intelligence officials in the 1998 murders and claimed in the press that there were more victims of these killings than had been mentioned in the trial of officials involved in the killings.


European Union

European and Iranian officials met repeatedly throughout the year to extend cooperation in a range of areas, including counter-terrorism, trade, and the promotion of human rights. The E.U. remained committed to a policy of engaging with Iranian leaders, while at the same time giving human rights a high profile in its public discourse about the relationship. E.U. Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten told the BBC that the dialogue was aimed at bolstering Iranian reformists, such as elected president Mohammad Khatami. "It can't seriously be anybody's idea of a good way of promoting stability in the region to think that we should isolate and cut Iran off forever," he said. "If you don't talk to the reasonable people, you fetch up with fewer reasonable people to talk to."

The improvement of relations with the E.U. remained vulnerable to interference by hardliners opposed to such normalization. In March, the planned visit to Berlin of Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi was canceled when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declined to receive him, a decision that many observers believed resulted from political machinations by Iran's conservative judiciary. Schroeder was displeased with the apparently punitive transfer of Said Sadr to a remote and notorious prison near the Afghan border in advance of Karrubi's visit. Sadr, an Iranian employee at the German embassy in Tehran, had been imprisoned in Iran since the controversial Berlin Conference in 2000. Shortly before his planned trip, Karrubi apparently had angered hardliners by telling German journalists that he was trying to secure Sadr's release; the judiciary responded by transferring Sadr to the remote prison, derailing the visit.

In a move likely to please the Iranian government, the E.U. recognized the Mojahedine Khalq Organization (MKO) as a terrorist group on May 3. The MKO was based in Iraq and launched armed attacks against Iranian targets. It was described as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. The E.U., however, did not include the affiliated National Council of Resistance in its designation.

On June 17, the E.U. placed human rights at the top of a list of four areas in which it wanted to see improvements through its policy of engagement with Iran: (1) human rights and fundamental freedoms; (2) non-proliferation; (3) terrorism; and (4) the Middle East peace process.

In September, Iran approved a new British ambassador. The move ended an eight-month diplomatic dispute following Tehran's rejection in January of David Reddaway, described by conservative newspapers in Iran as a Zionist and a spy. It was an indicator of the importance given to Iran by the E.U. and the U.K. that embarrassing incidents of this nature were not permitted to stall the momentum of engagement. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw traveled to Iran in October to further advance the relationship but was met by an upturn in political and public executions, interpreted by many as another example of the conservatives using their control over the judiciary to seek to influence Iran's foreign policy.

United Nations

In April, during the fifty-eigth session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, a draft resolution criticizing the situation in Iran was defeated by a roll-call vote of twenty to nineteen, with fourteen abstentions, marking the first time in more than fifteen years that a resolution criticizing Iran's human rights practices did not pass at the commission. It brought to an end the mandate of the U.N. special representative on human rights in Iran and was seen as a major victory for Iranian diplomacy. The Iranian government regarded the special representative's mandate as political and repeatedly blocked his access to the country, despite the balanced and constructive tone of his reporting over many years.

In July, Iran said it would give immediate access to United Nations thematic rapporteurs to allow them to examine its human rights record. Iran's ambassador, Mohammed Reza Alborzi, told High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson that specialists would "be welcome." By the end of the year no visits had taken place.

United States

Possibilities for an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations based on the shared goal of removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan were not realized due to continuing U.S. concerns over Iranian support for terrorism. Such concerns were exemplified by the seizure of the Karine A, caught smuggling weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Authority.

President Bush's characterization of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" during his January 29 State of the Union address caused anger in Iran across all factions within the clerical leadership. It fueled expectations among parts of public opinion that the U.S. would intervene directly in Iran, as it had in Afghanistan, and change the government. The government and many Iranians resented this implied interference in their affairs.

In July, President Bush issued a subtler statement that, though barely reported in the U.S., sparked much debate in Iran. It came a few days after clashes between students and police in Tehran on the anniversary of the 1999 student demonstrations and the resignation of a prominent cleric, Ayatollah Jalaledine Taheri, who had accused the Iranian authorities of corruption and repression. In his written statement, President Bush expressed solidarity with the students, saying, "their government should listen to their hopes." In a targeted phrase, the president urged Iran's un-elected leaders to abandon policies that denied Iranians the opportunities and rights of people elsewhere. In singling out un-elected leaders for criticism the President appeared to be differentiating between factions within the Iranian power structure. This more measured approach to Iran made the U.S. government's statements an important influence on human rights conditions in the country for the first time in many years.

The U.S. continued to block Iran's access to loans from international financial institutions. For example, in September, the U.S. blocked the private-sector financing arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, from investing U.S.$2 million in an Iranian company. The World Bank had planned to lend Iran hundreds of millions of dollars, but the U.S. effectively blocked the deals.

In March, the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001 called the Iranian government's human rights record "poor" and detailed significant restrictions on citizens' right to change their government. In September, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom identified Iran, together with eleven other states, as countries of particular concern with respect to violations of the rights to freedom of religion.

Iranians worried about U.S. military action in nearby Afghanistan and threatened action in Iraq, but they were also interested in the administration's strong rhetoric supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. The openness of Iranians to the U.S. was seen in September when the state news agency, IRNA, published the results of a public opinion poll showing that 75 percent of Iranians favored a dialogue between Iran and the United States, and almost 50 percent approved of U.S. policy toward the country. The judiciary responded by closing down the institute that conducted the poll and prosecuting the poll's director and the director of the news agency that published it. Some conservative leaders even called for the criminalization of advocating dialogue or normalization with the United States. However, the reformists appeared emboldened by the public mood. President Khatami admonished the critics of dialogue and expressed his own willingness to enter into discussions with the United State without preconditions.