As the Iranian government insisted that it protects religious minority rights before the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, two Iranian officials appeared on state television to defend the decision of a court to suspend a Zoroastrian member of the Yazd City Council because of his religion.
Residents of Yazd, a city in central Iran, re-elected Zoroastrian Sepanta Niknam in May. This happened despite the attempt by the Guardian Council, one of Iran’s most influential bodies, to bar non-Muslims from running for city and village council in areas with a majority Muslim population. It’s the council’s position that Niknam should be fired.
But Iran’s parliament, not the Guardian Council, is legally empowered to vet city and village council candidates. And parliament insists that Iranian law allows candidates from recognized religious minorities to run as candidates as they, “believe in and demonstrate their commitment to their own religious principles in practice.”
Only a few religious minorities, including Zoroastrians, are recognized in the constitution. And even the recognized religious minorities have long been discriminated against in Iran. But this is a new low. The Guardian Council, dominated by hardliners and working persistently to expand its reach, is once again acting with determination to take away freedoms explicitly protected in the Iranian constitution.
Niknam was suspended by the Court of Administrative Justice on October 8, after a candidate who ran against him unsuccessfully in the election reportedly filed a complaint. Gholam Ali Sefid, the Yazd council’s chairperson, has refused to carry out the order, and Ali Larijani, the parliament’s speaker, has called the suspension illegal, stating that Iran’s parliament would request to establish a panel to resolve the matter. President Hassan Rouhani’s interior ministry sided with the parliament during the elections, keeping Niknam’s name on the ballot. However, Rouhani, who legally oversees the implementation of the constitution, is yet to react to the most recent pushback.
This is a test for all Iranian officials to protect rights. The Guardian Council’s attempt to suspend Niknam does not just violate his rights, it also denies the people who voted for him – Zoroastrian and Muslim – from choosing their political representatives.
Iranian officials should act now to protect Iran’s own fragile constitution and peoples’ democratic participation.