Treating religious minorities as second-class citizens is nothing new in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But following a recent announcement that non-Muslims may face disqualification in local elections, even politicians loyal to the regime have voiced shock.
On April 18, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who chairs both the powerful Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, issued a directive demanding that non-Muslims be disqualified from running in the forthcoming local elections due to take place on May 19. Without referring to Iran’s constitution, he pointed to statements by Ayatollah Khomeini that proclaimed that the qualification of non-Muslim candidates would be “against Sharia.”
His statement triggered an immediate — mainly negative — response from around the country. Soon after, the Guardian Council’s Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei tried to quell tempers by explaining that Jannati’s directive only applied to towns and villages where the Muslim population is in a majority, but this did little to silence critics.
Officially, the Guardian Council plays no role in qualifying local candidates. Instead, candidates are vetted by supervisory boards composed of the members of parliament that represent the provinces. But on April 20, Kadkhodaei said that although the law allowed religious minorities to run for local council leadership jobs, the Guardian Council has the power to prevent such an appointment if it proved to be incompatible with Sharia law. Such decrees, he said, “are not time-limited” and he announced that the decision was “binding.” He gave the example of the city of Yazd, where a Zoroastrian citizen had served as the president of the city council, something he clearly believed was wrong. “From now on according to the decree issued by the [Islamic] jurists of the Guardian Council, a non-Muslim cannot become a member of the city council if the majority [of people in the city or town] are Muslims.” He added that the Guardian Council’s jurists had come to the decision after receiving a number of reports that suggested some candidacies went against Sharia law.
On April 19, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani rejected [Persian link] Jannati’s directive and ordered the supervisory boards to follow “the letter of the law” — meaning that non-Muslim candidates must not be disqualified solely on the basis of their faith.
In addition to the wave of criticism online and on social media, a number of parliamentary representatives objected to Ayatollah Jannati’s directive and called it unconstitutional. One was Esfandiar Ekhtesari, who represents the Zoroastrian minority community. He wrote to Jannati, appealing to him to adhere to the constitution. Another was Ghasem Mirzaei Nikou, who told a public session of parliament on April 19 that the country’s laws were being violated. The third was Mahmoud Sadeghi, who also said the disqualification of non-Muslim candidates was in direct contravention to the constitution.
Esfandiar Ekhtesari welcomed Larijani’s rejection of the directive, and reported it to the media. But Kurosh Niknam, a former Zoroastrian representative, was skeptical about his successor’s optimism. “We will receive the answers for qualifications within two days,” he told IranWire. “If they [non-Muslim candidates] are all disqualified, then it will be clear that the power of, and the pressure [exerted] by, the Guardian Council is greater [than that of existing law].”
Article 26 of the City and Village Election Law specifically refers to recognized religious minorities being able to run for office. It states clearly that candidates who follow “their own faith...instead of Islam” are entitled to run. Kurosh Niknam said he found it strange that a law passed 20 years ago and amended twice is only now being reinterpreted. “What is in the letter is completely extrajudicial and arbitrary,” he said, “because, according to the law, elections to city and village councils take place outside the approval domain of the Guardian Council. Now the Guardian Council wants to disregard a law that was approved 20 years ago by the Guardian Council itself.”
Parliament passed laws governing the election and the duties of local councils and mayors on March 22, 1966, and the Guardian Council approved them. The law does state that the council has the power to endorse or reject laws by interpreting the constitution and Islamic sharia. The law was amended twice, in 2007 and 2013, and these amendments were also approved by the Guardian Council.
An Ulterior Motive
Ayatollah Abdolhamid Masoumi-Tehrani is a dissident cleric who has been harassed, detained and imprisoned for defending the rights of religious minorities, and especially the Baha’is, a faith that is not recognized by the constitution. Baha’is face widespread and often brutal discrimination in Iran. Masoumi-Tehrani believes that Jannati’s letter inappropriately uses sharia to achieve something sinister and nothing to do with Islamic jurisprudence. “Islamic sharia does not have double standards,” he said. “When sharia allows non-Muslims to be represented in parliament, which is a higher legislative body, then their membership in city councils cannot be curtailed. But unfortunately these gentlemen say whatever they like and label it ‘Islam’ and ‘sharia'". He believes the move is an attempt to expand the powers of the Guardian Council. “They want to expand their power beyond parliament and the presidency to include the elections to the city councils as well,” he said. “Whatever they like to do they attach a ‘sharia’ or an ‘Imam Khomeini’ to it to justify it.”
In his directive barring non-Muslims from majority-Muslim councils, Jannati refers to selected statements made by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. But Niknam said these passages misrepresent what Khomeini originally said. “Imam Khomeini said that things must be according to Islam, but he did not say that non-Muslims cannot be candidates,” he said.
In the 2013 local council elections, Zoroastrian Sepanta Niknam was elected to the 13-member Yazd City Council, attracting a high number of votes. Kurosh Niknam believes this victory is what prompted Jannati. “When a Zoroastrian was elected as a member of Yazd City Council there were some negative reactions,” he said. “They believe that a non-Muslim cannot order Muslims around, whereas the local council is supposed to work for everybody in the city or in the village. Sepanta Niknam was not elected only by Zoroastrian voters — Muslims voted for him as well. This proves that the people of Yazd want individuals who will work for them and it makes no difference what their religion is.”
A Christian Mayor?
Former member of parliament Kurosh Niknam says there is another reason behind Jannati’s letter — it is a response to the increase in religious-minority candidates. “The fact that Sepanta Niknam was elected encouraged others to register as candidates,” he said. “This year there are two Zoroastrian candidates in Kerman, three others in Yazd and three Christian candidates in Tehran. That is why Mr. Jannati has gone back 30-some years to prevent them from entering the race.”
Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani does not approve of the term “religious minority.” He prefers “other religions”. He fundamentally believes that preventing followers of other religions from participating in the country’s affairs is unjust. “When a community pays taxes, serves in the army and gets killed in the war then it is not enough to visit them at Christmas time, eat cake and say ‘how wonderful!’” he said. “They must participate in the affairs of the country as well. Democracy is meaningless without participation. They call England the ‘Old Colonialist’ but even London has elected a Muslim mayor. What is wrong with us having a Christian mayor?”
For him, running the country has nothing to do with religious beliefs. “Which one is better to have in a city council: A capable non-Muslim or a non-capable Muslim?” he asked. “I hope that at the very least the next cabinet will have a Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian or Sunni minister. What is wrong with that?”