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Iran’s Guardian Council Tries to Exclude Non-Muslims from Running

But Parliament Resists Push to Curtail Election Rights

Authorities in Iran are threatening new restrictions on non-Muslims seeking to run in next month’s local elections.

Just one week before parliament is to approve a list of candidates, a letter published this week by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, declared it is against Sharia (Islamic law) for non-Muslims to be candidates in Shia Muslim-majority areas in city and village council elections. These contests, along with the presidential election, are set for May 19.

Women cast their ballots at a polling station in the city of Qom,120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, December 15, 2006. © 2006 Reuters

Religious minorities, especially members of the Bahai faith, who are not recognized in Iran’s constitution, suffer from serious discrimination. Even religious minorities recognized in the constitution cannot run for the presidency, and their participation in parliament is limited. But the law for city and village councils is clear: article 26 of the 1996 council election law allows candidates from recognized religious minorities to run as candidates in city and village elections so long as they “believe in and demonstrate their commitment to their own religious principles in practice.”

In 2013, for the first time, a Zoroastrian was elected to the city council of Yazd to represent the city’s diverse Muslim and non-Muslim residents. The Guardian Council, an appointed body of 12 Islamic jurists who are in charge of monitoring parliamentary and presidential elections, has long arbitrarily disqualified large numbers of candidates running for office. Now it is seeking to unilaterally amend the 20-year-old council election law.

But it is Iran’s parliament that is legally empowered to vet city and village council candidates – not the Guardian Council – and so far, it appears that the parliament is standing its ground. Today, Esfandiar Ekhtiari, the Zoroastrian member of parliament, called the Council's letter “unconstitutional.” And the head of parliament has requested that parliamentarians overseeing the vetting process act in accordance with the law and not change the procedure.

The real test for Iran’s parliament will come next week when the list of candidates are announced. Then, we will know if these elected representatives have resisted the Guardian Council’s dangerous inroads and kept space open for more Iranians of differing religions to represent their fellow citizens in political office.  

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