Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was U.S. deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy from 2005 to 2009.
Hope springs eternal when it comes to human rights in Iran. The election in 2013 of President Hassan Rouhani, who replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was supposed to bring improvement. The purported victory of moderates in the recent legislative and Islamic clerics’ Assembly of Experts elections was believed to be a positive development. The Iran nuclear deal was described as a setback for hard-liners that might lead to an opening to the world and some relaxation of conditions in Iran.
But there has been no improvement in human rights, especially for the Bahais — whom the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, called the “most persecuted group in Iran.” Speaking in Geneva in March, Bielefeldt said, “You will find in all areas of life, there is a systematic discrimination against the Bahais. It starts with kindergarten. Kindergarten staff are supposed to spot Bahais so they can be under special surveillance.” Persecution continues in elementary and secondary education, he added, and “it would continue in higher education but Bahais are banned from university, and those Bahais who are discovered are removed.”
This Saturday marks the eighth anniversary of the arrests of the Iranian Bahai leadership, called the Yaran. These were seven men and women who tended to spiritual and practical community needs (plus the group’s secretary, who was arrested March 5, 2008) — and for that “crime” received 20-year prison sentences. The actual charges against them included “espionage for Israel,” “insulting religious sanctities,” “propaganda against the system” and “corruption on earth.”
Sadly, the situation of Iran’s roughly 300,000 Bahais is no better today. In March, a report of the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Iran noted not only the general decline in respect for human rights but also the continued targeting of Bahais. The report is worth quoting at length:
“The Special Rapporteur expresses serious concern at the continuing systematic discrimination, harassment, and targeting that adherents of the Baha’i faith continue to face in the country.
“In January 2016, a revolutionary court in Golestan province reportedly sentenced 24 Baha’is to a total of 193 years in prison in connection with the peaceful exercise of their faith. . . . At least 80 Baha’is were reportedly detained as of 31 December 2015 in connection with the peaceful exercise of their faith. . . .
“In addition to arbitrary arrests, detentions and prosecutions of Baha’is, the Special Rapporteur continues to receive troubling reports that Iranian authorities continue to pursue activities that economically deprive Baha’i’s of their right to work. . . . These policies include restrictions on types of businesses and jobs Baha’i citizens can have, closing down Baha’i-owned businesses, pressure on business owners to dismiss Baha’i employees, and seizures of businesses and property. . . . Actions to close Bahai-owned businesses appeared to follow their voluntary closure by owners in observance of their religious holiday the day before. . . .
“Discrimination against the Baha’i community in Iran is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition of the faith and the absence of legal protections for its adherents. This situation is further perpetuated by open attacks on the community by state officials or individuals close to the state.”
The continuing and, in many ways, worsening persecution of this small and powerless group — less than one-half of 1 percent of Iran’s population — is significant not only as a human rights matter. It is also a sharp reminder of the nature of the Iranian regime. There are of course many other reminders: for example, the two men who ran as reformers in 2009, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, marked their fifth year under house arrest in February. In 2016, Iran remains a repressive theocracy, quick to jail both political opponents and citizens whose religious beliefs the clerics find objectionable.
Last fall the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo — himself a former political prisoner who now lives in Canada — spoke for many optimists in Iran when he wrote that the nuclear deal will “help the country to become more open, transparent and susceptible to international pressure on issues like the death penalty and the imprisonment of civic actors in Iran.” Perhaps Iran’s Bahais shared his hope, but if so, it has been dashed. For the Yaran, now behind bars for eight years for the crime of being Bahai, this is another sad anniversary.