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A Synopsis of Law Reform for Iranian NGOs
By Zahra (Sahar) Maranlou*
If we are to conceive of non -governmental organizations (NGOs) as the bedrock of social participation,
we have no choice but to understand the meaning of “participation” before we enter the discussion of
law reform of NGOs. In Iran there are two different understandings of “participation”:
The common understanding of the word participation is that since it includes concepts such as
solidarity, union and unity, it has a long historical background; it is as old as human ity. According to
history in Iran the emphasis of “Doing Good” preached by Zoroaster, and the “Cooperation and Good
Deed” preached by Islam, have caused us to witness a shining record of social participation. Due to
this factor the majority of NGOs in Iran are known as the “New Generation of Charities.  “
On the other hand, some sociologists and thinkers believe that participation must be done with
awareness and volunt arily. Therefore existing evidence in Iran points to forced cooperation in the
past, rather than participation.  This latter argument, although not commonly accepted, stands more true to the point, because
participation “can mean getting involved, meaning passively participating in a process that an
individual is involved in. It is therefore possible for a person to be forced to work and participate
without feeling any responsibilities [for his/her acts]. It is also possible for the individual to participate
in an active and positive way and [to] share the responsibility in a process.”  In today’s literature, “participatory development” means the voluntary and aware involvement of
individuals in the development process. It requires that NGOs be positioned by legal and official
structures to engage in the development activities. This suggests the greater institutionalization of
NGO structures, because the law and the guarantees of law are required for sustained participation by
the citizens in development processes.
2. Raising the issue
NGOs are of the foundations of the people’s offi cial participation. According to the existing situation in
Iran it is widely accepted that individuals are active in NGOs voluntarily and peacefully and pursue
non -profit and non -political objectives. Therefore there are five characteristics of NGOs in g eneral
The formation, establishment, activities and the survival of
NGOs requires appropriate and suitable planning at the
micro level. Good legislation affecting them can attract
people’s participation through NGOs in such an effective
way, and this will lead t o more willing voluntary
participation of individuals in society as a whole. The
attraction and strengthening of people’s participation
through NGOs requires the preparation of a group of laws
that will have a positive impact on what people may
do; this can be accomplished through a process that is
called law reform.
3. The initial question
The right to freedom of association and assembly enshrined
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in
the constitutions of almost all countries is accepted as one
of the most fundamental rights of citizens. In spite of this,
objective of many existing laws is the preservation of state –
dominated conditions, rather than the protection of
individual fre edoms.
Article 26 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran
“The formation of parties, societies, political or professional
associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic
or pertaining to one of the recognized religious mi norities, is
permitted provided they do not violate the principles of
independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam,
or the basis of the Islamic Republic. No one may be
prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups,
or be compell ed to participate in them.” Constitutional law,
like other laws, thus recognizes the existence of associations
without having a specific law stating their right of access to
information, assistance, the elimination of legal obstacles to
their existence, an d rules about tax exemptions.
In this article I will study the situation of NGO laws currently
existing in Iran and describe the necessity for the laws
affecting NGOs to be reformed. In fact, this article is an
attempt to answer the following questions: What is the
necessity of the reformation of the laws affecting NGO in
Iran? And how can this reform result into a positive process
for the blossoming of their establishment and the activities
of these organizations?
4. The method of analysis
The method of analysis of the present conditions and the
legal position of NGOs in Iran was to do research in
libraries, through several opinion -seeking meetings,
discussion groups, interviews and questionnaires. In
addition, after the Consultative Workshop held in Bus her in
1997, we attempted to clarify the legal position of NGOs, in
Iran. One of the objectives of the Workshop was to begin
the process of clarifying what NGOs are doing to empower
people and to carry out work in Iran, and what impediments
they face in d oing so. 
5. The necessity for reforms to NGO laws
If the sensitivity of governments to political participation is
understandable, their attempts to limit social parti cipation in
the framework of social NGOs should be condemned. This is
particularly true in Iran, where NGOs have accepted non –
political, non -profit objectives. In fact, the general
consensus is that the NGOs have primarily a social function,
aimed at sol ving people’s problems.
Despite the existence of important protections and the
recognition of fundamental principles in the Constitution of
the Islamic Republic of Iran, the current sub -constitutional
law has shortfalls and is an obstacle to an encouraging and
facilitating environment for NGOs or social
activities. Governmental organizations have always sought
to accomplish the objective of limiting NGO activities. One
of the impediments has been a proliferation of laws affecting
NGOs. As a result, in an opinion poll conducted in the
context of the Busher Workshop follow -up activities “the
lack of a single plenary law” has been said to be one of the
most significant obstacles in the activities of NGOs in
Iran.  The key fundamental of the above -mentioned
problem is that lawmakers lack an understanding of those
active in NGOs. They are also not aware of the viewpoints of
NGOs leaders. The major issues with the current le gal
environment are as follows: There are several and different
NGO Laws in existence, NGO Laws are contradictory. In
some cases the NGO Laws are in contradiction with the true
nature of NGOs.  6. The legal framework for NGOs in Iran
In Iran laws can be divided into three groups:
Legislation, Regulation and Government Circulars.
These are defined as follows:
Constitutional Law guarantees the system, general powers of the government and the people, and the
key laws of the country.  It sets the limits of the jurisdiction of the three branches of government.
The Parliament does not have the authority to alter or change the Constitution and must always
adhere to its Articles.
Common Law means laws that are ratified by the Islamic Parli ament as a result of general
consultations. International treaties become a part of the common law, when the government or the
Parliament ratifies them.
Legislation, Regulation, and Government Circulars are exercises by the executive branch with regard
to its approval, after determination and deliberation, with respect to the implementation of the
6-1. Constitutional Law
The Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the right of people’s participation.
This right is as a res ult of the right of the people to govern themselves.
Article 56 of the Constitution states:
“Absolute sovereignty over the world and man belongs to God, and it is He who has made man master
of his own social destiny. No one can deprive man of this divine r ight, nor subordinate it to the vested
interests of a particular individual or group. The people are to exercise this divine right in the manner
specified in the following articles.”
Articles 6, 7, 56, 58, 62, 100, 107, 114, 117 of the Constitution detail political, social and legal
participation clearly. The formation of associations for the purpose of pursuing and obtaining
fundamental rights is officially recognized.
6-2. Common Laws
Various laws in Iran have applicability to NGOs. The following sect ion considers them. What it
indicates is that various types of NGOs are permitted to register under various laws, and that various
laws give effect to NGO rights and obligations.
6-2-1. Civil Code
This law was ratified in 1928. Article 9 of the Civil Code states:
“Treaties concluded between the Iranian government and other governments in accordance with the
Constitution shall have the force of law.
One of the international conventions is the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which
the Iranian government has ratified. This Covenant guarantees the right of expression, right to
peaceful assembly and the right to be members of associations for the 140 countries that have signed
it. However, the precise application of the ICCPR in Iran as regards the freedom of association has yet
to be determined.
6-2-2. Commercial Law
The law was ratified in 1932. The Commercial Law Regulations, promulgated pursuant to this law,
paid attention to non -commercial issues for the first time, by recognizing that there are entities called
“non -commercial organizations.” Under this law, all NGOs in Iran can register through the Companies
Registry Office, as set out in the Commercial Law.
The existing faults in the application of the Commercial Law to NGOs are as follows:
1. The Commercial Law only refers “non -commercial organizations.” This term includes
many organizations, and not all non -commercial organizations are NGOs, (e.g., trade
2. The legal rights of NGOs are not discussed in the Commercial Law.
6-2-3. The law on the activities of political parties, societies, political or unionassociations,
Islamicassociations or religious minorities recognizes their rights.
This law presently is the most important law that the NGOs have at their disposal. It was r atified in
1982. The law gives the types of NGOs it describes the right to register through the Ministry of
Unfortunately the law was ratified during the peak of the Iran -Iraq war and it looks at NGOs with
suspicion and concern. To that extent, that it has made forming NGOs very difficult.
6-2-4. Employment and social affairs law
Article 131 of the Employment La w gives employers and employees the right to form trade unions
6-2-5. Cultural institutions
The term “cultural institutions,” according to the 1996 legislation providing for them to be established,
means organizations that have cultural based aims and obje ctives be they for -profit or non -profit. The
Ministry of Culture and Islamic Ershad (correctness) issues permits to cultural NGOs and monitors
them and can dissolve them.
6-2-6. Legislation of the Supreme Administrative Council on the establishment and
act ivities of NGOs
This is special legislation directly dealing with the issue of NGOs and how they are allowed to
founded. The law directs that organizations are to register with a committee in the Provincial
government authority. Unfortunately, this law i s seldom used by the NGOs because it has many
A short glance at the variety of these laws affecting NGOs is enough to show that the legal framework
is full of holes and fails to give satisfactory answers to their needs. . From another point of view , one
could say that the opacity of the law has caused the NGOs to be misunderstood, with respect to the
nature and purpose of their activities. Thus the legislation affecting NGOs limits the capacity of
people’s participation in a truly democratic way.
7. Law reform of NGOs
The emphasis of President Khatami on the “Civil Society” has made the general public aware of the
importance of participation. In addition, it has become clear that the government and the people want
to strengthen and enhance participa tion structures. In fact the government wants find ways to
On the other hand, the variety of contradictory and conflicting laws concerning NGOs has created a
feeling of urgency about drafting a single, comprehensive law for these organizations. Two things
have led to the creation of a new legal framework. On the one hand, the studies carried out by the
non -governmental sector support this move. In addition, the Ministry of Interior was given the duty,
under the Third Socia l, Economic and Cultural Development Plan which governs the Islamic Republic of
Iran, to support and strengthen NGOs. The result was the formation of a committee of legal experts
and researchers and NGO leaders under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Int erior. The duties of the
committee are to draft legislation for NGOs and to take into account the needs expressed by the NGOs
in studies and opinion polls.
Several meetings of the committee resulted in a draft of legislation, under which optimistic lawmak ers
proposed to simplify the formation and registration of NGOs and to eliminate the obstacles in current
laws. For the purpose of receiving public opinion about the draft, the Ministry of Interior published it in
the national newspapers. The Ministry of Interior has reviewed the draft of bill several times, and
presently it is in the hands of the cabinet ministers.
8. The characteristics of a good law
According to studies carried out in Iran a good legal framework for NGOs must have the following
The law in its introduction must emphasize its support for the recognition of NGOs as the
pivotal point for people participation; attention should be given to the vast areas of
activity of NGOs so as to reduce the skepticism of those in power.
Th e definition of NGOs must be clear and comprehensive.
The law must specify that NGOs have non -political and non -profit objectives.
It must emphasize the importance of participatory management of the organizations.
It must emphasize the transparency of NGOs and their duty to provide information about
The legal rights of the organizations must be emphasized.
The position of NGOs in governmental programs must be clarified.
The requirement of confirming the non -political objectives must be rem oved.
NGOs must be monitored by the civil sector.
Economic activities must be permitted.
The dissolution of the organization should be according to the agreement of
the members, and based on the organization’s statute or, alternatively by a competent
9. Main recommendations for the development of civil society in Iran
1. The creation of participation culture.
2. Education and recognition of those in power of the necessity for people participation.
3. The institutionalization of the rights and duties of NGOs via a vis the government and
the rights and duties of the government vis a vis NGOs and the people.
4. Support, encouragement and promotion of people participation by the government.
5. Emphasis on self -spontaneity of NGOs.
6. Avoiding the emphasis on government instrumentalities controlling NGOs and the
situation of people participation being subordinate to the desires of government.
* Zahar Maranlou is Legal Consultant to the Iran NGO Initiative. She can be reached
at email@example.com .
 Parviz, Piran: Presented Article at the Iranian NGOs: Achievements, Challenges and the Futures
Seminar. May, 2001; Tehran -Iran
 Roland, Colin: “Is it Pos sible – and if so, by what methods and means – to institutionalize socio –
economic, political and cultural situations – summary of the discussions of the expert meeting
organized on this topic by UNESCO in Dakar, Senegal, 10 -14 December 1979, p.8. UNESCO Di vision
for the Study of Development, Paris, UNESCO, 1980.
 In February 1997, the Family Planning Association of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FPA) and the
Popul ation Council, supported by the World Health Organization, hosted a ground -breaking meeting of
Iranian NGOs and officials from the Iranian government and international organizations whose work
fell into three clusters:
Health and population;
Women and deve lopment; and
Environmental protection and sustainable development
Encouraged by Iran’s new focus on the development of civil society, the 50 participants discussed the
role NGOs could play in Iran in the coming years, as well as the issues and challenges t hey face. The
Busher Consultation Workshop resulted in the formation of the Iran NGO Initiative, a cooperative
program of activities by all the groups represented at the Workshop to strengthen the role, capacity
and effectiveness of NGOs in Iran. The Initi ative was supported by a Steering Committee nominated at
the meeting and by FPA, which served as the Initiative’s Secretariat.
A recommendation of participants at the Busher Consultation Workshop was “Law Reform.” (Excerpts
from The Iran NGO Initiative Lea flet p. 2 )
 The necessity in the legislation of NGOs Law for a single coordinated law; Maranlou, Zahra
(Sahar). Article prepared for the First Symposium on the Role of NGOs in the Agricultural and Rural
Sector. Ministry of Agriculture; 2001 Tehran -Iran.
 The Synopsis of Law Reform of NGOs. Iran NGOs Initiative, 2002 T ehran -Iran.
 Legal Terminology’s: Langroudi, Mohammad Jaafar. 1973,Tehran -Iran.