Despite the election last year of Iran’s reform-minded president Hassan Rouhani, there has been no Persian thaw for Iran’s struggling religious minorities. Wide-scale repression of religious freedom continues with utter impunity during Rouhani’s tenure.
According to a highly detailed March UN report on Iran, “Under the law, religious minorities, including recognized Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians also face discrimination in the judicial system, such as hasher punishments.”
While the major world powers (the US , England, France, China, Russia, and Germany) have limited their scope to dismantling key elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear program, many experts advocate ramped up pressure on the human rights front.
There is a missing lever of power, such as a one-two punch to influence a change in Iran’s nuclear and human rights policies. A salient – and frequently overlooked – punitive measure is human rights sanctions.
Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told The Jerusalem Post, “While the United States and other global powers seek a long-term nuclear deal with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States should also follow through with its stated policy of imposing travel bans and asset freezes on Iranian officials responsible for human rights and religious freedom violations. While shining a spotlight on abuses is important, imposing targeted sanctions on violators shows there are consequences, too.”
One of Iran’s Achilles’s heels remains its nervousness about its severe mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities. After all, growing discontent among the complex mosaic of minority groups could generate protests that mirror the 2009 Green Revolution demonstrations for democracy.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, authored the report and conducted interviews with persecuted Iranians.
According to an interview with an Iranian Christian, “Individuals who visit Christian websites have a virus implanted on their computer.”
The ongoing crackdown on religious freedom is an outgrowth of Iran’s strict fundamentalist form of Shi’ite Islam. Dr. Shaheed’s report said,“As of 3 January 2014, at least 307 members of religious minorities were in detention, of whom 136 were Baha’is, 90 Sunni Muslims, 50 Christians, 19 Dervish Muslims (four Dervish human rights lawyers were also reportedly detained), four were Yarasan, two were Zoroastrians, and six were from other groups.”
Frederick J. Streets, former chaplain of Yale University and a visiting professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, told the Post that, “The repression, imprisonment, and other forms of Iran’s oppressive treatment of religious minorities should be a concern of us all. The ongoing discussion by the United States about Iran’s development and possible use of nuclear weapons is perhaps also a context opportunity to raise the world’s interested in how religious minorities are being treated and in some cases persecuted in Iran. “ He added, “There are too many examples in world history when nations have used their technological and chemical resources to further target and destroy people whom that state has deemed unworthy of living.”
The UN report noted that, ”Iranian authorities at the highest levels have designated house churches and evangelical Christians as threats to national security.”
Hassan Rouhani issued in December a Draft Citizen’s Rights Charter, guaranteeing that “Holding and attending religious rituals of the religions identified in the Constitution [Christianity, Jewish, Zoroastrian] is permitted.”
But there is a yawning disconnect between Rouhani’s proclamation and the facts on the ground.
In response to Dr. Shaheed’s report, Mohammed Javad Larajani, the head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, was quoted in Iran’s state-controlled Tehran Times, saying Shaheed’s report is “unjustified.”
He added, ”The enemies’ ploy is a vicious circle, which changes according to the political situation.” Larajani has justified the stoning of women as punishment and called for Israel’s destruction near the Holocaust memorial in Berlin in 2008.
One of the key policy implications from the UN report is there is a largely untapped form of leverage, namely, potent human rights sanctions to change Iran’s recalcitrant behavior.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on religioius minorities in the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.