184. Telegram From the Embassy in Iran to the Department of State1

8376. Subj: Human Rights in Iran. Ref: (A) State 178606, (B) Tehran A–56, (C) Tehran 6119, (D) 75 Tehran A–211, (E) 75 Tehran A–47, (F) Tehran A–129, (G) Tehran A–133, (H) Tehran 7952, (I) State 199409, (J) State 193516, (K) Tehran A–122.2

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1. References B through I3 provide basic description of human rights situation in Iran. Comments below supplement the above and are keyed to questions raised in Fraser letter (ref A).4

2. Iranian intelligence organization SAVAK was established in 1957 by national security law. While there does not appear to have been a similar predecessor organization, SAVAK is generally considered to have taken over certain counter-intelligence functions handled by the police, gendarmerie, and military intelligence. Persian rulers have long history of establishment, abolition and recreation of intelligence organizations dating back to Cyrus the Great and Darius. Persian history has amply shown need for this type of protection against foreign threats.

3. Question of political prisoners in Iran greatly resembles shell game. Under Iranian law, membership in the Tudeh (Communist) Party is illegal, as is advocating Marxism/Leninism. Shah recently (ref H)5 said there are between 3400 and 3500 “political” prisoners in Iran, but these clearly include those who have committed acts of violence or have advocated violence. Hard to tell how many of those mentioned fall into Fraser category of “political” prisoners. Several knowledgeable lawyers and academics suggest number between 100 and 150, most of whom are either ex-Tudeh Party members or those who have shouted anti-Shah death threats. While this figure might not stand up in court of law, it is considerably at variance and probably much closer to truth than outlandish estimates bandied about by oppositionist groups6 and [Page 553] occasionally picked up by prominent magazines, including August 16 Time.7

4. Sentences for political prisoners run from two years to life. We are unable to establish relative numbers in each category but life sentences generally reserved for those who have been accessories to terrorists action.

5. As references B, C and E8 suggest, due process is followed fairly scrupulously except in small number of national security cases. Iranian sources estimate 90 percent of judicial cases handled with due process, and Iranian Committee on Human Rights (ICHR) also believes this to be the case. Even in national security matters Iranian law is followed, but provisions are considerably stricter than comparable Western codes. Extensive appeals procedures are used which frequently lead to reduced sentences, even in terrorist cases (ref B).9

6. Royal pardon by the Shah is significant feature of Iranian judicial process. At the Iranian New Year March 21, Shah pardoned 248 civil detainees including many tried by military courts. On forthcoming anniversary of Shah’s return to power, GOI is pardoning 307 more prisoners, all of whom were tried by military courts. Number of these probably fall into Fraser’s category of political prisoners. GOI has also recently begun amnesty programs (ref F)10 for those involved with terrorist groups. GOI has claimed six repentant terrorists have come forward, but [less than 1 line not declassified] believes at most one or two have taken advantage of amnesty so far. Both lawyers and ICHR report ample access to prisoners by lawyers and families except in cases in[Page 554]volving terrorist violence (see Pace interviews, para 6 ref C).11 Common pattern for student demonstrators is for police to detain up to 50 or 60 and release all but a handful within short time. Those who remain incarcerated have little trouble seeing families and lawyers, and university administrators say they have almost organized their assistance to families and friends of student detainees into a routine pattern.

7. Embassy has no hard facts on torture or other forms of mistreatment. In recent months government has taken to displaying captured terrorists on television after interrogation as evidence they have not rpt not been subject to mistreatment. Nevertheless stories abound that prisoners are tortured though these mostly refer to incidents happening more than two or three years ago. Shah himself (ref H) has said Iran “doesn’t need to torture people any more; we are using the same methods that some of very highly developed countries of the world are.” While Embassy suspects terrorists get very harsh going over, this appears to be only area in which other than normal police techniques are used.

8. Arbitrary taking of life also difficult to establish. Both official and unofficial sources agree about 100 terrorists have been executed by GOI since 1968, but all these have been put to death after extensive judicial proceedings including appeals. Within past seven months approximately 30 terrorists have been killed while resisting arrest, usually after prolonged gun battles indicating serious resistance. There have also been instances where suspected terrorists killed themselves when faced with capture. Several police officers and some innocents caught in crossfire have also been killed. GOI has deplored death of innocent victims and police officers, and in at least one stakeout police claim to have delayed attack in order to move innocent citizens away from area.

9. Freedom of opinion and expression: Legal prohibitions exist against threatening government officials and insulting Shah, but Iranian citizenry definitely vocal about all subjects, even peccadillos of monarchy. Student demonstrations occur, whether permitted or not, but are usually controlled.

10. Prior to March 1975, Iran had a multi-party system, not a two-party system as Butler indicated in testimony before Fraser committee (ref J).12 Moreover, as indicated in ref B, despite moving to [Page 555] one-party state, freedom of discussion appears high, especially within individual party chapters and at party boards and council meetings. Several senior party officials have reported their shock at being roughly handled during visits to party chapter meetings. One has indicated two indictments for corruption have resulted from accusations at party meetings. However, party does not indiscriminately criticize government and criticism of Shah by officials occurs only in private among close and trusted friends if at all. Iranians do not enjoy the same freedom of expression as Americans do but, particularly in Middle East context, Iran compares favorably with virtually all of its neighbors. Restraints are subtle and psychological, not (normally) heavy-handed and physical.

11. With exception of prominent National Iranian Radio and Television Service magazine, press is privately owned. Resurgence Party newspaper Rastahkiz is owned by party, which itself receives government subsidy, but criticizes administration on policies. Editors and publishers exercise innate caution but there is no prior censorship. SAVAK reportedly proofs each paper before press runs take place but few articles are cut. Ministry of Information frequently gives guidance, which editors ignore at their peril. For example, prior to Crown Prince’s recent tour to USSR, editors were invited to mute criticism of USSR. Prior to recent Kissinger visit, editorial criticizing Senate arms sales report was at least suggested by GOI. Papers are encouraged to have at least one story on the Royal family somewhere on front page at least every other day, preferably every day. Instinct for survival is finely honed among Persian press men, so formal measures of rebuke and punishment are seldom necessary.

12. Iranian trade unions have made few political noises in recent past, but umbrella organization, Workers Organization of Iran, has participated actively, if quietly, in political life. Moreover, while labor unrest receives little publicity here, Embassy has heard of several strikes and labor demonstrations by individual shop or industrial groups. GOI appears to maintain a guiding hand through Ministry of Labor, but does not exercise rigid control. Unions have been among leaders in support of anti-inflation and price-cutting campaigns. Labor has 13 members in Parliament and two representatives on party Executive Board. GOI regards labor as force to be consulted when shaping policies, but such consultation occurs behind public spotlight.

13. USG has made working level representations to security forces concerning treatment of prisoners (ref B). GOI has listened to Embassy but made no formal responses.

14. Iran does not receive economic assistance, but we understand security assistance budget has been used to fund ARMISH/MAAG positions not paid for by GOI. U.S. funds have been used because we have [Page 556] felt it desirable to stress to Iranians the independence of advice provided by ARMISH/MAAG Chief and his staff. In our view human rights situation in Iran does not rpt not justify application of provisions of Section 502 (B) of FAA to Iran.

15. Additional background on human rights in Iran: Persian Government has continuously been one of most tolerant in Middle East. From time of Zoroaster (approximately 600 BC) religious tolerance has been hallmark of Persian state. Jews and Armenian Christians have played substantial and honorable roles in past Persian dynasties and continue to do so today. Number of Jewish community leaders have told us they feel their well-being and security in Iran is directly attributable to protection afforded by present regime. They are uneasy about condition of Jews in post-Shah Iran. Iran also has always been a relatively mobile society and many Prime Ministers and Kings (including Reza Shah) rose up from very humble origins. On the other hand, Iran has always been threatened by external forces and more recently internal terrorism. For nearly 30 years at least one, and usually two or three, clandestine radios have boomed propaganda at Persia. Radio Pekye Iran, for example, frequently calls for students and workers to “rise up and overthrow the Shah’s fascistic rule.” GOI can be forgiven for assuming this type of programming is aimed at violent overthrow of regime. GOI also believes it has clearly shown connection between local terrorists and foreign radical/guerilla forces (ref K). Strong rulers of country (present Shah certainly fits this category) have frequently overlooked strict Constitutional interpretation of civil rights where they thought it necessary for security of country. Educated Iranians frequently like to needle Americans that GOI behaves no differently than Jefferson and Lincoln administrations in the U.S. did during periods when America was threatened. As terrorist threats have grown in past five to eight years, SAVAK itself has grown. Shah has admitted SAVAK has 3000 members (ref H). This probably does not include people who may receive money on sporadic or even semi-regular basis for information provided in course of other duties.

16. It is interesting to note greater interest in civil rights among Iranian citizenry over past four or five years. ICHR reports its caseload has increased fivefold over past four years. Separate human rights committees exist in seven principal Iranian towns. Bulk of nearly 1200 Iranian complaints under Universal Declaration of Human Rights concern bureaucratic grievences against government ministries. ICHR has adopted a policy of pursuing cases only when interested party has made appeal. It adopted this policy after pursuing several requests from Amnesty International only to discover prisoners had already been free for some time. Committee secretary has indicated ICHR finds one case in five to be solid enough to pursue and almost always gets [Page 557] some redress from government, though Committee officials admit more difficult cases involving security may not be brought to them.

17. ICHR also works with government to try to improve judicial system. Shah himself recently called for more improvements and less time between arrest and trial. Most judicial figures in Iran agree Iranian legal system needs major overhaul, and even existing court system has been major victim of inflation which has forced many judges and legal officials to leave office for much better paying private positions. Recent study indicates between 10,000 and 20,000 cases a year remain untried for lack of personnel. These problems plus rapid urban growth have also led to increased crime rate in many Iranian cities, especially in Tehran. Urban citizenry are beginning to insist on improvements in police effectiveness as well as judicial handling of criminals.

18. Ref C gives Embassy reaction to Butler report. While Embassy does not want to comment in detail on Butler’s testimony, it seems useful to underline that Butler himself appears to understand difficulties in obtaining information on human rights problem (para 3, ref J) and also infers incidence of political arrests is declining. This agrees with Embassy view of unfolding civil rights situation over past year. Embassy disagrees with Butler’s statement that there is “no” freedom of press or freedom to strike. Evidence clearly indicates otherwise. Even if strikes are technically illegal they occur and are normally dealt with by subtler forms of negotiation rather than armed force. On freedom of press question it instructive to note that numerous foreign publications highly critical of regime and Shah circulate freely. Most recent example was Time of August 16 which addressed torture issue in Iran at length.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760316–0945. Confidential.
  2. Reference D, airgram A–211, November 20, 1975, “The Increase of Terrorism in Iran,” is ibid., P750185–0864. Reference G, airgram A–133, July 22, 1976, “The Resurgence Party Moves Forward,” is ibid., P760112–2379. Reference K, airgram A–122, July 1, 1976, “Foreign Support for Iranian Terrorists,” is ibid., P760103–1893. See footnotes below for the other referenced telegrams.
  3. Reference I, telegram 199409 to Tehran, August 11, notified the Embassy of the due date for briefing materials on human rights in Iran for the scheduled appearance of a Department of State representative before a subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee led by Congressman Donald M. Fraser. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760309–1368) See Document 185.
  4. Reference A, telegram 178606 to Tehran, July 19, transmitted a letter from Fraser with specific questions on the number and treatment of political prisoners in Iran, government involvement in arbitrary taking of life, the status of freedom of expression and association, the number of representations by the U.S. Government on these issues, and the amount of security and economic assistance which Iran received from the United States. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760278–0467)
  5. Reference H, telegram 7952 from Tehran, August 7, transmitted the text of the press conference by the Shah and Kissinger on August 6. Pressed on the matter of the violence used by SAVAK, the Shah denied the claim that there were 200,000 members in the secret services and questioned other figures that journalists cited: “You keep on saying that we have several hundred thousand political prisoners and we keep on saying that we have only 3,400 or 3,500 prisoners, but they are not political prisoners, these are Marxists, either terrorists, killers or just people who owe no allegiance to this country.” (Ibid., D760304–1194)
  6. In an October 27 memorandum to Edward Little, David Blee observed that while reporting on terrorism from the Mission in Iran had been good, it remained “dependent on information provided by SAVAK. There is a continuing need for more first hand information about opposition elements. While it is a politically difficult and sensitive matter for Embassy officials to meet with identified opponents of the Shah, the Mission should have the widest possible range of contacts.” A better understanding of SAVAK was also needed, including “questions concerning its methods and the human rights situation in Iran.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Middle East and South Asian Affairs Staff: Convenience Files, Box 6, Iran (14))
  7. An article in the August 16 issue of Time Magazine entitled “Torture as Policy” characterized Iran as one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. In telegram 8720 from Tehran, August 29, Helms criticized Time’s use of what he described as “questionable sources,” citing the case of Reza Baraheni, an exiled Iranian poet who, Helms asserted, might have invented his story of torture in prison to improve his credentials. He urged Sober and Naas to ask Time to “examine more carefully the type of human being with whom they are dealing.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760366–1648) Following Baraheni’s testimony before the Fraser committee on September 8, Helms provided SAVAK’s critical assessment of him in telegrams 10291 and 11126 from Tehran, October 12 and November 8. (Both ibid., D760383–0125 and D760415–0927)
  8. Reference E, airgram A–47 from Tehran, March 10, 1975, “Human Rights in Iran,” is ibid., P750050–2109.
  9. Reference B, airgram A–56 from Tehran, March 25, 1976, “Iranian Observance of Human Rights,” is ibid., P760045–1686.
  10. Reference F, airgram A–129 from Tehran, July 8, 1976, “GOI Offers Amnesty to Some Terrorists,” is ibid., P76104–2395.
  11. Reference C, telegram 6119 from Tehran, was not found. Eric Pace was a New York Times correspondent.
  12. According to reference J, telegram Tosec 20032/193516 to Kissinger in Tehran, August 5, William Butler, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and President of the American Association of the ICJ, testified on human rights in Iran before the Fraser subcommittee on August 3. Butler and Professor Georges Levasseur had recently published a study of human rights and the legal system in Iran for the ICJ. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D760301–0251) George G.B. Griffin’s analysis that the report was “essentially unassailable” is in a memorandum to Naas, June 8. (Ibid., P870050–1693)