Iran’s Discriminatory Nationality Law

February 4, 2015

Semira Nikou

Iran is one of 27 countries that still restrict citizenship rights of women. Citizenship in Iran, codified before the 1979 revolution, is a blood right flowing from fathers to children. But Iranian women cannot automatically pass on their citizenship.
 
The exclusive right of men to pass on citizenship has economically disadvantaged Iran’s most vulnerable populations. Even the Iranian government has recognized that the law is a problem and, at various times, tried to remedy its negative effects – most recently with a 2006 amendment that granted naturalization rights to children with Iranian mothers and foreign fathers.
 
In 2015, there may be a new push to amend the law. In October 2014, the Office of Women’s and Children’s Affairs, a department in the executive branch, prepared a report on creating a task force to amend the law. In January 2015, the vice president for women’s and family affairs, Shanhindokht Molaverdi, said the government was discussing how to solve the citizenship problem of Iranian women married to Afghan men. It is unclear, however, what changes are being discussed.
 
The 2006 Law
 
The last change to Iran’s nationality law occurred in 2006.  The Iranian Parliament (Majles) held extensive debates about amending aspects of the law, including which categories of people could become naturalized citizens. The law currently recognizes seven categories of people as Iranian citizens:
 

1)      Anyone residing in Iran, except those whose foreign nationality is established;

2)      Those whose fathers are Iranian;

3)      Children with unknown parentage;

4)      Children born in Iran to foreign parents, one of whom was born in Iran;

5)      Children born in Iran whose fathers are foreigners and who reside in Iran at least one   year immediately after they turn eighteen years old;

6)      Women of foreign nationality who marry Iranian men; and

7)      Foreign nationals who obtain Iranian citizenship.

Legislators proposed various amendments, including that the fourth category of citizenship be eliminated. But they made only one change, passing a single-clause bill known as the 2006 Law. It clarified that children born in Iran, with Iranian mothers married to foreign national fathers, have a right to naturalization once they turn 18 years old.
 
The right does not extend to children born to Iranian mothers outside Iran. Ironically, this also means that Iranian women still cannot pass on their citizenship automatically, since the fourth category of citizenship was never eliminated. But a foreign woman born in Iran, and married to a foreigner, does pass on that right.
 
Individuals who fall outside the seven citizenship categories and the 2006 Law may still become naturalized citizens through a stringent process subject to the government’s discretion.
 
Complications
 
Parents must have an official marriage certificate for the 2006 Law to benefit their children. It can only be attained through the Ministry of Foreign affairs, but not all couples, particularly the poor, register their marriage. Some refrain from registering due to a lack of understanding of the law, or fear of deportation if the men are illegal immigrants. A government census estimated that there were 32,000 unofficial marriages between Iranian women and Afghans in 2010.
 
The 2006 Law also does not address the status of children born to Iranian women and foreigners before they become citizens—a period of limbo when they are denied social benefits. The lack of benefits hits the poor particularly hard.
 
 Since 2011 there have been more than 30,700 registered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men in Iran,  according to the Organization for Civil Registration. Most  were in Iran’s border provinces. The law could affect all of these families.
 
Thus, in 2012, the conservative eighth Majles took up the citizenship mantle again. Its concern was not equal rights for women, but how to support a particular category of soon-to-be Iranian citizens during the first 18 years of their lives. The Majles ratified an amendment to the 2006 Law that would allow children of Iranian women and foreign nationals born in Iran access to free health services, education, welfare handouts , and permanent residency rights until they qualified for naturalization.
 
But the amendment was never enacted. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body that vets laws ratified by Majles, rejected the amendment because parliament had failed to identify funding .. According the Guardian Council, the amendment would cost the government more than $150 million, which the parliament had not covered in its annual budget.
 
New Push for Change
 
The 2006 Law still stands. But there are signs that the executive branch might push for new change– and it has compelling reasons to do so. The law presents domestic complications, but it also violates Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits discrimination against women and children. The law also violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly obligates states to ensure that children born within their jurisdiction are not discriminated against based on their parents’ national origin.
 
Human rights proponents in Iran and the international community are pressuring Iran over its human rights record. Amending the nationality law, which Iranian officials across the political spectrum agree must happen, would be a relatively easy step in enabling Iran to meet its international human rights obligations.
 
Click here for a more detailed analysis of the law and its social implications by Semira N. Nikou, a Senior Research Associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group and a J.D. candidate at American University Washington College of Law. She previously worked at the United States Institute of Peace as a contributing author to The Iran Primer book and website.