After a year of wrangling, on July 21, the Expediency Council reinstated Sepanta Niknam, the Zoroastrian local politician who had been barred from taking up his position after being elected to Yazd City Council in 2017. It was a tactical victory for the members of the parliament and the government of president Hassan Rouhani over the powerful Guardian Council.
The Guardian Council has the power to accept or reject candidates for national elections, but the parliament appoints supervisory boards to qualify candidates for local councils. On May 18, 2017, Iran held both a presidential election and local council elections. The people of Yazd, a Shia-majority city in central Iran, voted for Sepanta Niknam to serve in the city council. It was to be his second term, and he won by 21,000 votes.
But even before his victory, hardliner conservative principlists launched a campaign against his candidacy. Ayatollah Abolghasem Vafi, Yazd’s representative to the Assembly of Experts, wrote a letter to the Guardian Council, asking them to revise Provision 1 of Article 26 of the City and Village Election Law, which specifically refers to recognized religious minorities being able to run for local councils. It states clearly that candidates who follow “their own faith…instead of Islam” are entitled to run. Parliament passed laws governing the election and the duties of local councils and mayors on March 22, 1996, and the Guardian Council — which has the power to rejects laws passed by the parliament — approved the law pertaining to councils. The law was amended twice, in 2007 and 2013, and the Guardian Council also approved these amendments.
What Khomeini Said
But then on April 12, 2017 the Guardian Council announced that permitting religious minorities to run for the local councils in Muslim-majority cities was “against the sharia code.” It based its arguments on statements made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, during a meeting with members of the Iranian parliament on October 4, 1979. “First, the [candidates] must be Muslims,” he said. “Second, they must be believers in the movement [the Islamic Revolution]. They must be honest in their work, must have true faith, must be committed to the decrees of Islam and must not have a criminal record…Of course, those who are non-Muslims can have their own councils.”
On April 15, 2017, Ahmad Jannati, who chairs both the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, issued a directive demanding that non-Muslims be disqualified from running in the forthcoming local elections in places where the majority of the population are Muslim. But members of the Local Councils Election Supervisory Board, made up of members of the parliament, announced that the board had qualified candidates from religious minorities. And Esfandiar Ekhtiari, the Zoroastrian member of the parliament, reported that three Armenians — Andranik Simonian, Armen Nazarian and Ara Shahverdian — and Babak Shahriari, a Zoroastrian, had been confirmed as candidates for local councils.
Members of the parliament argued that they were acting according to the City and Village Election Law, which had already been approved by the Guardian Council. As such, they said, it was up to the parliament to carry it out and interpret the law, not up to the Guardian Council. And member of the parliament Ghaem Mirzaei reported that Speaker Ali Larijani had supported this argument.
Guardian Council Decision Ignored
In the end, the Guardian Council’s directive was ignored, Sepanta Niknam was allowed to run for Yazd City Council and was elected — with many of the votes cast by Shia voters.
But after the election, Ali Asghar Bagheri, an unsuccessful candidate for the Yazd City Council electoral race, lodged a complaint with the Court of Administrative Justice. On September 4, 2014, the court temporarily suspended Sepanta Niknam from the council, citing the directive issued by the Guardian Council.
His statement triggered an immediate — mainly negative — response from around the country. Gholamali Sefid, president of Yazd City Council and a former Governor of Yazd Province, announced that he would not carry out the court’s order and if the ruling was finalized he would resign. Ali Larijani declared that removing Niknam from the council was “unacceptable” and if the disagreement with the Guardian Council was not resolved he would refer the matter to the Supreme Committee for Coordinating and Resolving Differences Among the Three Branches.
Niknam himself reacted in a more moderate fashion and said he would pursue the matter through legal channels.
Any Law, Any Time
Nevertheless, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the Guardian Council’s spokesman, announced that the council’s directive was “binding.” He said the council can declare any law to be against sharia at any time and that such an authority is not “time-limited.” A few months later, Sadegh Larijani, head of the Iranian judiciary — and, as it happens, Speaker Larijani’s brother — echoed Kadkhodaei, saying that the power of the Islamic jurists of the Guardian Council to decide “what violates sharia … is not time-limited.”
Following this, Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the council, announced that, in the opinion of his fellow council members, religious minorities “cannot decide for Muslim-majority people because it violates sharia.” He further justified this view by arguing that the Guardian Council approves bills passed by the parliament, whereas the Guardian Council does not approve local council decisions, implying that local councils could be liable to make decisions that go against sharia.
The Guardian Council also cited Verse 141 of the Koran’s An-Nisa Sura, which proclaims: “Allah will never allow the non-believers to have a way over the believers.” Some religious authorities have interpreted this verse to mean that “non-believers” cannot occupy positions of high responsibility such as being a cabinet minister. And a number of Shia religious authorities have even extended this “rule” to Sunnis. But members of the parliament have argued that this rule does not apply to membership to local councils.
The arguments continued until the parliament added the revision of election law for local councils to its agenda and Mohammad Mahmoudi, a member of the parliament’s Committee on Councils and Internal Affairs, reported that a working group had been formed following Speaker Larijani’s request to revise a provision in Article 26 of the law. At the same time, on November 6, 2017 Ali E'ta, spokesman for Tehran’s City Council, reported that President Rouhani had told the members of the council that he had written a letter to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, explaining the matter to him “in detail.”
On December 12, the parliament voted to change the election law. The change specified that “religious minorities recognized by the constitution who are living in Iranian cities and villages can become candidates for the Islamic councils of those cities and villages.” And, contrary to customary practice, the parliament declared that the new provision of the law was retroactive, meaning that it applied to Sepanta Niknam as well. Out of 290 representatives a considerable number, 201, voted in favor of the change.
Despite this clear expression of the parliament’s commitment to the change, the Guardian Council rejected the new provision and members of the Council said that the number of religious minority members in local councils must be limited. Instead, they stated, quotas must be put in place, in the same way that there are quotas for the parliament.
Parliament Overrides the Veto
But on January 14, 2018, the parliament overrode the Guardian Council’s veto and, as a result, the law was sent to the Expediency Council, which is tasked with resolving differences between the parliament and the Guardian Council. Since then, there have been conflicting reports about whether the law would be enacted. But finally, on Saturday July 21, the Expediency Council voted in favor of the parliament. After nine months, Sepanta Niknam returned to Yazd City Council.
After the Expediency Council decision was announced, Niknam posted a message on social media thanking the Iranian people, the media and the government. People are victorious when they are united, he wrote.
The Expediency Council was clearly aware of how it would look if Iran denied religious minorities the right to be elected to local councils, and that a negative image of Iran might be projected both within the country and to the wider world. The new law, said Mohammad Sadr, a member of the council and a deputy foreign minister under President Mohammad Khatami, said, “would thwart many conspiracies to isolate and pressure Iran, including efforts by the president of the United States.”
Earlier, parliament’s Research Center had warned that “depriving the right of religious minorities to run for city and village councils would have negative political consequences for Iran.”
Now the law allows religious minorities to run for local councils without any restrictions, but there is no guarantee that the Guardian Council or other bodies will not try to use other tactics and other excuses to reverse or override the law in the future.
More on the saga of Sepanta Niknam:
The Ayatollahs vs. A Zoroastrian City Councilor, November 5, 2017
The Shameful Truth, October 30, 2017
Court Places Illegal Ban on Zoroastrian from Yazd City Council, September 26, 2017
Religious Minorities Barred from Running in Local Elections, April 21, 2017