Iran: a faith on trial

About the author
Bernd Kaussler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at James Madison University and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews. His research focus is on Iranian foreign and security policy as well as political violence and human rights in Iran.

The Bahá'í's in Iran, the country's largest religious minority, have faced intense persecution and discrimination ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  The arrest of seven Bahá'í leaders in 2008 and their impending trial before a Revolutionary Court on charges of espionage is largely representative of the deterioration of human rights under Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Life under Ahmadinejad

After almost a year in prison Tehran's Deputy Prosecutor General, Hassan Haddad, announced in February this year that the trial of the seven Bahá'í leaders would start soon. The charges brought against them are espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic. In line with the usual secrecy surrounding criminal proceedings and trials in Iran's revolutionary courts, evidence substantiating these allegations has not and will not be made public by the prosecution during or after the trial.

The fate of the seven Bahá'ís, who have been denied access to their lawyer, the Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi - who herself has been harassed for taking on this case - ever since they have been arrested last year, reflects the overall appalling human rights situation in Iran. President Ahmadinejad's tenure since 2005 was as much as marked by populism as it was guided by a penchant for repressive authoritarianism, almost similar to the climate found that during the revolutionary years immediately after 1979. Driven largely by Shi'a eschatology, the doctrine of martyrdom and the ambition to substitute Mohammad Khatami's discourse of Islamic democracy with an absolute form of Islamic government, human rights violations intensified dramatically.

Under the new administration, almost all of the reformist newspapers were shut down and numerous editors, intellectuals and web-bloggers arrested or harassed by state-sponsored vigilante groups. Domestic intelligence services efficiently prevented concerted efforts by reform-minded editors and publishing houses to print journals and newspapers under new names. The daily "Kargozaran" was the latest victim of the government's crusade against reformist outlets when it was shut down on 1 January for condemning Hamas' use of human shields during the conflict with Israel. Governing under a stepped up defense posture, the last three years have shown that the regime's biggest fear centered on a perceived "velvet revolution" from within the country. Charges of "endangering national security" have been brought against prominent academics, filmmakers, human rights activists as well as physicians.

Whilst the espionage charges brought against the Bahá'ís may well seem to fit within this pattern, repression of the Bahá'í community has long been disclosed as a concerted government strategy by the U.N. Human Rights Commission when it published a memorandum sent from the Revolutionary Cultural Council in 1991 and signed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.  The document can best be described as the Iranian government's grand strategy of suppression against Bahá'ís as it contains specific orders for security and intelligence services so that "their progress and development are blocked." (For the original memorandum in Persian see http://iran.bahai.us/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/5_theisrccdocument.pdf.)

In 2005, the Chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forces sent a memo to the Ministry of Information, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, the Commander of the Basij Resistance Forces, the Commander of the Police Force and the Deputy of its Intelligence Branch and the Chief Commander of the Army. The directive which is classified "highly confidential" and "urgent/immediate", states that on instructions of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forces "has been given the mission to acquire a comprehensive and complete report of all the activities of members of the Bahá'í Faith [...] for the purpose of identifying all the individuals". The letter asks the recipients "to, in a highly confidential manner, collect any and all information about the above-mentioned activities of these individuals". Following this directive, Bahá'ís have been subject to increased surveillance and harassment by government agencies and paramilitaries. This also coincided with a concerted media campaign by hardline news outlets which was aimed at defaming the basic tenets of the faith as well as incited hatred towards the group.

Silent strangulation

The Bahá'ís claim to be "the youngest of the world's independent religions" and believe that "humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global peaceful society." Charges of apostasy being brought against them by the Islamic Republic essentially center on the fact that the Bahá'í Faith emerged out of the matrix of Islam, just as Christianity emerged from Judaism. Bahá'ís believe their founder, Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), is "the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad." Bahá'ís faced persecutions since the religion began in then mid-19th century Persia, but it was with Khomeini branding them "apostates" and members of a "political sect" that repression has become government policy.

Considering them as "unprotected infidels", the Islamic Republic systematically targets Bahá'ís in numerous ways. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports published by the UN Special Procedures, human rights violations manifested themselves during recent years as follows:

  • Expulsions from school and prohibition to attend universities. In several primary, middle and high schools in Iran, Bahá'í pupils have increasingly become subject to harassment and vilification. In 2006, a disclosed directive by the Ministry of Science to all universities states that is policy to prevent Bahá'ís from enrolling at higher education institutes and demands their expulsions if identified as such.
  • Violence against Bahá'ís by paramilitary groups, all of which operate within a framework of impunity. The most recent act of violence occurred in February 2007 when two elderly Bahá'í women were brutally murdered by allegedly Basij militia.
  • Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial or charges being brought against Bahá'ís on the basis of their religious belief. When charges are made public before or during court proceedings, they refer to the promotion of anti-government propaganda.
  • Denial or confiscation of businesses and arbitrary dismissal or denial of work and pensions in general. By and large, Bahá'ís are neither protected by Iranian law nor given any rights as citizens under the Iranian constitution. Within this framework,  Bahá'ís have been denied rightful inheritances, had their cemeteries and holy places desecrated and destroyed with impunity and their properties confiscated.
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Does anyone care?

So, whilst the international community seems most alarmed by Iran's nuclear program and President Ahmadinejad's volatile anti-Semitism, the rise of concerted government sponsored anti- Bahá'í campaigns has largely gone unnoticed. Even though the US and the EU continue to condemn human rights violations, the fate of 36 imprisoned believers, counting the seven to face trial, and that of the community at large certainly does not rank high on any European or American agenda. In fact, President Obama's address to Iran on the occasion of the Iranian New Year was the first US presidential address which did not distinguish between the Iranian people and the regime, but rather addressed both. This much anticipated sea change in US foreign policy towards Iran indicates that the Obama administration is ridding itself from "regime change" rhetoric and seeks a gradual détente with Iran.

America's new found pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran will inevitably focus on diplomatic means to solve the stalemate over the nuclear issue and not question the nature of the regime. This is certainly good news for regional stability as, for the first time, the US and Iran could directly address mutual security concerns. However, as far as human security in Iran is concerned, the emerging bilateral diplomatic momentum largely sees issues of "freedom of religion and speech" as strategically inexpedient. Europe has also put human rights on a backburner and focuses solely on resuming nuclear talks.

Campaigns for the presidential elections in June 2009 are well underway. But unlike the 1997 elections, which were dominated by calls for democracy and the reformists' discourse on human rights and the rule of law, contenders of all factions center their bid on economic reform. Both agendas from the two high profile candidates from the reformist faction, former Speaker of the House, Mehdi Karrubi and former Prime Minister Mir-Hoseyn Musavi largely criticize Ahmadinejad's economic policies and management style. Even though both Karrubi and Musavi condemn the current president's perceived penchant for nepotism, corruption and violations of the rule of law, their main focus is economic and foreign policy. Musavi, in particular, made it clear that he dislikes "provoking the entire world for no reason and supports privatization policies". Given the dire state of Iran's economy, it seems that the electorate will react more favorably to reformist challengers abstaining from human rights and democratization rhetoric and instead promising détente with the West which would inherently pave the way for economic progress. Elections in Iran are notoriously hard to predict, but it seems evident whichever candidate succeeds in portraying himself as the crisis manager who could bring the country out of isolation is likely to win in June.

Conclusion: there is hope

Thus neither the West nor like-minded Iranian politicians are likely to put human rights on top of their immediate agendas. Given Iran's stepped up defense posture and unease about foreign funded plots to undermine the government, international democratization or human rights initiatives may well be counterproductive. For Iranian politicians, criticizing human rights violations has become more dangerous than ever before. Bahá'ís, as well as women, activists, journalists and other minorities are paying the ultimate price for this silence.

However, even though the seven Bahá'í leaders will be put on trial in secrecy, unable to defend themselves and are likely to be sentenced because of their religion, some do care: ordinary Iranians.

Shirin Ebadi's decision to defend the group represents a landmark as far as legal representation for Bahá'ís is concerned. Iranian lawyers have normally avoided representing Bahá'ís due to harassment and intimidation. Prior to this, Ayatollah Hassan-Ali Momtazero, the deposed heir apparent of the late Khomeinei, issued a fatwa which may well be the most important edict in support of Bahá'í rights. Responding to a question (estefta) about the legal status of Bahá'ís, Montazeri stated that they are not considered a religious minority in the Constitution; but because they are the residents of this country, they have territorial rights, and thus benefit from the rights of citizenship. Most significantly, on 3 February 2009, a letter called "We are Ashamed! A century and a half of oppression and silence is enough!" and now signed by over 260 Iranian public figures abroad and in Iran, called for an immediate end of the treatment of Bahá'ís.

The prospect of rapprochement between the US and Iran which could also solve the nuclear stalemate is certainly paramount to regional security, but it must not come at the expense of human security in Iran. What is being done to Iran's largest religious minority is too appalling to turn a blind eye to.