The Crisis of Trust in the Islamic Republic of Iran

A series of acid attacks on women in the ancient city of Isfahan in central Iran led to demonstrations not only in that city, but also in many other cities around the country. Government officials, senior clerics, and others strongly condemned the attacks, and called for the most severe punishment for the attackers. Some officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, even said that, in addition to the personal nature of the attacks, they also represent threats against Iran's national security.

Yet, a large majority of the people does not trust the officials, and casts doubts on their sincerity. All types of conspiracy theories have also spread around the nation. The reason is Iran's undemocratic political system and the erosion of public's trust in it. The most important factor in the erosion of trust has been the performance of Iran's judiciary, which has been totally politicized. To see this, consider the followings.

Human Rights Violations and Repression

Iran's judiciary is not trusted by the people because it is not independent and its chief, Sadegh Larijani has said repeatedly that he obeys the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many judges are unqualified and base their judgment on their seminary education. Corruption is rampant. The laws are not fair and are not applied the same way in all cases. The judiciary only allows only those attorneys that it trusts to work and represent the people. Most importantly, instead of being the defender of the people, the judiciary is a tool of repression and systematic violator of people's rights.

Capital Punishment

Murder is a world-wide phenomenon. According to the official statistics, the number of murders in Iran is about 3 for every 100,000 people, which should be compared with 90.4 in Honduras, 53.7 in Venezuela, 44.7 in Brazil, 30.8 in Colombia, 4.7 in the United States. Capital punishment also exists in many nations. Yet, in Iran the people do not trust the judiciary, and cast doubt on whether the condemned was the real murderer. The distrust is so deep that sometimes the executed murderer becomes some sort of a "hero."

Two recent executions best exemplify the distrust. Mohsen Amir Aslani was executed because, according to the judiciary, he had raped many women, whereas the opposition claims that he was hanged because he was apostate. Reyhaneh Jabbari, a 26 years old woman, was executed because according to the judiciary she had committed first-degree murder of a physician, whereas she had stated that she had defended herself against rape by the man. Few people believed the judiciary.

The Large Number of Executions

In his sixth report to the United Nations General Assembly, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, stated that between June 2013 and June 2014 at least 852 people have been executed in Iran. In an interview with CNN, Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of human rights council of Iran's judiciary, claimed that 93 percent of those executed were narcotics traffickers, and that the West benefits from their execution (because, presumably, they had tried to export narcotics from Afghanistan to Europe through Iran). But, the opposition does not trust him and the judiciary. Moreover, given that Islam does not suggest any punishment for narcotics traffickers and executing the traffickers is only a law of the Islamic Republic, and that the executions have not ebbed the flow of narcotics, it would be only prudent to stop the executions and reduce the number of execution by 93 percent, if Larijani's claim is to be believed. But, the judiciary has refused to stop the executions, exacerbating further the public's distrust in its performance and neutrality.


Spying for a foreign power is a punishable offense in every country. Yet, when someone is convicted of spying in Iran, many people do not believe that the convicted was truly a spy, because they do not trust the judiciary, particularly when it comes to political cases.

Acid Attacks

Acid attacks are common around the world, including Iran in which there have been 318 acid attacks since March. But, the number of such attacks in Iran is still much smaller than many other countries. For example, there were 3,000 victims of such attacks in Bangladesh between 1999 and 2009, and 1,000 such attacks in Colombia from 2004-2014 with 80 percent of the victims being women. But, deep distrust of the Islamic Republic led to a crisis after the recent acid attacks.

There were four acid attacks against women in Isfahan from September 6 through October 15. Two of them suffered relatively minor injuries, but the other two were hospitalized. Right from the beginning, the people blamed the state and the hardliners for their efforts to force women to have complete hejab [covers for hair] and for preaching on the virtues of morality. Several demonstrations were held in several cities, and several people were arrested.

While all senior officials strongly condemned the acid attacks, they attributed them to "foreign enemies," including the U.S. and Israel. They called for severe punishment of the culprits, emphasizing that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam or morality. But, not only did such pronouncements not reassure the public, they actually deepened the distrust. Why?

First, as usual, the state attributed the attacks to "agents of foreign powers."

Second, instead of intensifying their efforts to capture the perpetrators, security forces arrested some of the demonstrators.

Third, in the case of many past crimes, the police quickly arrested the offenders; not this time.

Fourth, the state and security/intelligence forces have been involved in the infamous Chain Murders in the 1990s; the assassination attempt in 2000 against Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, the Reformist strategist; murder in detention of Iranian-American photojournalist Dr. Zahra Kazemi in 2003; serial murder of several young people in Kerman, in south-central Iran in 2002; murder of four young people in the infamous Kahrizak detention center on the southern edge of Tehran in 2009 who had been detained there after demonstrating against the apparent fraud in the presidential election of 2009, and most murder of blogger Sattar Beheshti in 2012 while he was under arrest.

Fifth, some senior clerics have advocated use of violence against the people perceived as "immoral," because they oppose their rule. "Justifying" use of violence has motivated some of their followers to take matters in their own hands. For example, one of the perpetrators of the serial murders in Kerman stated during his trial that Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a senior hardline cleric had preached that, "The duty of the people is to tell others about sin and how to avoid committing them. If they did not stop, they should be referred to the judiciary. If they still did not stop committing sins, they can be killed." Mesbah Yazdi denied only that he had issued a fatwa [religious edit] about it. Since the state has supported such hardline clerics, it has contributed to the erosion of trust between the establishment and the people. Even worse, Khamenei has praised Mesbah Yazdi on several occasions.

Sixth, the hard-liners are worried that the Rouhani administration will reach an agreement with the United States regarding Iran's nuclear program. Thus, they are confronting his government in the cultural arena.

Trust in the governments of even the most democratic states is not very deep. In his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam demonstrates that social trust in the United States has been eroding over the last several decades, and that (p. 27) beginning in the late 1960s the traditional forms of political activism and participation have been decreasing. In his recent article, Francis Fukuyama also states that, "There is intense populist distrust of elite institutions in the United States." Recent polls indicate that only about 10 percent of the American people trust Congress to do a good or excellent job of legislating.

If this is the state of affairs in a democratic state like the United States, it is not difficult to imagine the deep distrust of the Iranian people in the Islamic Republic. The difference between the two countries is that in the U.S. people do not hold religion and the government responsible for most common crimes, but the same is not true in Iran because it is a theocracy. Only a truly secular state, one in which religion and governance are decoupled can benefit the people and Islam.

As Putnam put it in his book (page. 19), trust is a social capital, representing "connections among individuals - social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." One important form of social capital is people's trust in their government. Iran's ruling elite will be distrusted by the people until the true perpetrators of the politically-motivated crimes are arrested, and convicted by fair and open trials. It will be only then that the people might become convinced that the state was not behind the acid attacks and similar crimes.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei