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Iran Minorities 1: Diverse Religions

Bijan DaBell           

            Iran may be the world’s only modern theocracy, but the Islamic Republic’s constitution actually mandates a political role for three religious minorities. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all have seats in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to their populations:

      Two seats for Armenian Christians,
      • One for Assyrian and Chaldean  Christians,
      • One for Jews,
      • One for Zoroastrians.
      Iran’s constitution is a unique hybrid that blends the concepts in a modern republic—borrowing heavily from French and Belgian law—with Islamic Sharia. Two articles are particularly relevant to the status of Iran’s religious minorities, who make up about two percent of the non-Muslim population.
            Article 13:  Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education. 
            Article 14: In accordance with the sacred verse -- "God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8] -- the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
            The idea is not new in Iran. Some religious minorities were first granted seats after the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 produced Iran’s first legislature--in what was also the first elected parliament in Asia. Neither the 1906 constitution nor the 1979 constitution include all minorities, however. Some Protestants, notably evangelicals, also do not have representation in parliament.
            The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority, numbering up to 350,000. They are not recognized by the constitution, are not protected under the law, and are hindered from practicing their faith.
            Baha’is—an independent world religion—are viewed as apostates by the Iranian government due to the Islamic belief that Mohammed was the final prophet. Bahai’s follow Bahá’u’lláh, who founded the faith in the 19th century.  In July 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a new fatwa against the Baha’is. He warned Iranians to “avoid any kind of association with this misguided and misleading sect,” according to the news website Tasnim.
            Seats in parliament also do not guarantee equal rights for any of the religious minorities. In practice, they face many obstacles in employment, education, and property ownership, according to the U.S. State Department. They are also largely excluded from senior government or military positions.
            For parliament, candidates from religious minorities must meet certain requirements: They have to be Iranian citizens, not have a “notorious reputation,” be in good health between the age of 30 and 75, and support the Islamic republic, the constitution, and the Supreme Leader. The following is a summary of Iran’s recognized religious minorities.
            There are two major types of Iranian Christians: ethnic and non-ethnic Christians. Ethnic Christians include Armenians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians.

      Armenians are the largest Christian group. Their current population has significantly declined—from 300,000 in 1979 to between 40,000 and 80,000 today. They hold two seats in the Majles but also have observer status in the powerful Guardian Council and Expediency Councils, the two oversight bodies.

            Most Armenians live in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Orumiyeh and smaller groups towns, such as Rasht, Bandar Anzali and Arak. The member of parliament from northern Iran is Karen Khanlari, who is serving his first term. The member of parliament from southern Iran is Robert Beglarian. He has served three consecutive terms since 2004.
            The Assyrian population, which has one seat in parliament, reportedly numbers around 20,000. Most Assyrians live in Tehran, with smaller numbers around Orumiyeh in the north. Their current representative, Younatan Betkolia, has been in office since 2000. He also became head of the International Union of Assyrians in 2008, when he moved the headquarters from Chicago to Tehran.
            Christians not associated with an ethnic heritage group do not have Majles representatives. These groups—largely Protestant or evangelical—proselytize their religious beliefs and have been subject to persecution, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. In Sharia law, apostasy—or conversion from Islam to another religion—is considered an offense punishable by death.

            Iran’s Jewish population now numbers about 25,000, down from around 80,000 in 1979. Yet it is the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. Their representative in parliament is Dr. Ciamak Moresadegh. Most Jews live in Tehran, which has active synagogues, a Jewish school and kosher butchers. Smaller numbers live in Esfahan, Shiraz, Hamadan and a few other towns.

      Iranian Jews are allowed to practice their religion, but they have faced periodic prosecution and harassment. In April 2000, 13 Iranian Jews were tried for spying for Israel. Those tried included one rabbi, community members, and a teenager. Their sentences were eventually reduced. They were all released by April 2003. Jews have periodically been accused of supporting Zionism.

            Iran’s Jews have also felt the overspill from the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian newspaper, Yalesarat, published pictures of synagogues that it claimed were in Iran showing people waving Israeli flags. The pictures were actually synagogues outside Iran. But the publication spurred attacks on two synagogues in Iran, according to Maurice Motamed, a former Jewish parliament member.
            Jewish members of parliament have occasionally expressed grievances. In 2005, Motamed challenged President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust. He also complained about the portrayal of Jews in the media. Ironically, Ahmadinejad donated money to Tehran’s Jewish hospital, a sign that the Jewish community has some relevance in Iranian politics. Dr. Moresadegh, the current Jewish member of parliament, heads the hospital and has stated that Iranian Jews were not threatened by Ahmadinejad’s policies.
            Moresadegh has attempted to distance Iranian Jews from Israel. “We are Iranian Jews and are proud of our nationality. No amount of money can encourage us to give up Iran. Our nationality is not up for sale,” he said after 40 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel in December 2007. “There are no specific problems for Jews in this country,” Morsadegh said in a May 2008 interview with Reuters. He has also spoken out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza. 

            About 20,000 Zoroastrians live in Iran, down from around 300,000 in the 1970s. The current Zoroastrian member of parliament is Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari, who is serving his second term. Most Zoroastrians live in Tehran, with other communities in Yazd and Kerman.
            Zoroastrians are the oldest religious community in Iran. The faith was established sometime between 1800 and 1000 B.C. in Iran. It was the dominant faith during the Persian Empire and later became the state religion. It waned after the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century.
            Some of the basic Zoroastrian tenants include concepts of heaven and hell, resurrection, a supreme and universal God, divine creation, the spiritual nature of the world and humans, belief in the afterlife and the basic goodness of humanity. The Iranian new year Nowruz—originally a Zoroastrian tradition—is a state holiday in the Islamic Republic celebrated by all Iranians.

            Iran’s Zoroastrian population faces decline due to emigration, conversion to Islam, harassment and discrimination. The Iranian media has portrayed Zoroastrians as devil worshipers and polytheists. Some Zoroastrians do not identify their religious background, fearing persecution.
            In November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of Guardian Council, referred to Iran’s religious minorities as, “sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.” Kourosh Niknam—the Zoroastrian member of parliament at the time—protested Jannati’s comments. Niknam faced a revolutionary court and was threatened with execution. He was released with a warning. Niknam was succeeded by Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari in the 2008 Majles elections.
            In recent years, some Iranians have adopted Zoroastrian symbols and traditions to celebrate Iranian culture that pre-dates Islam. In January 2013, some 2,000 people – reportedly including Muslims -- attended a Zoroastrian winter festival called Sadeh. One Muslim who attended the festival explained that it should not be seen only as a religious festival. “Sadeh is an ancient celebration that symbolizes Iran's rich cultural heritage. There is no reason why Iranian Muslims shouldn't observe the event,” he reportedly said.

Bijan DaBell is a former Iran specialist at Freedom House.
Photo credits: Faravahar by Sodacan, vector image was created with Inkscape. [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Entrance of Church of Saint George in Isfahan by Bontenbal via Wikimedia Commons
Menorah by Alex Milad via Flickr
MP Moresadegh via Majlis.ir
Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, Iran by A. Davey via Flickr
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Iran Officials Warn Against Syria Strike

      Iran’s political and military leaders have condemned calls for Western military intervention following reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. Military action would drag the Middle East into “the abyss of violence and conflict,” warned Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 27. Some leaders have outlined potentially dangerous repercussions for the United States. “Syria will turn into a field of slaughter and a fiasco much more dangerous than Vietnam,” said Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
      But President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials have also taken strong stances against the general use of chemical weapons, remembering the repeated use by Iraq during the 1980-1988 war. The following are excerpted remarks by top Iranian diplomats, military officials, politicians and clerics on Syria.

Military Officials
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, Revolutionary Guards commander
            “The U.S. opinion about its ability to limit a military intervention to Syria is nothing more than an illusion. The reactions will go beyond Syrian borders.
“Just as U.S. meddling in the Muslim world has led to the spread of extremism, violence and terrorism, attacking Syria will intensify the spread of extremism.”
Aug. 31, 2013 to the press
            “Despite numerous bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans, in case of a military measure against Syria, will complete the domino effect of their failure and will experience the most shameful historical defeat. Syria will turn into a field of slaughter and a fiasco much more dangerous than Vietnam…
            “The world’s people, especially regional Muslims, have not forgotten America’s false excuse for [its] military attack against Iraq.”
Aug. 28, 2013 in an interview with Tasnim Student Agency
Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, defense minister
            “Sowing the seeds of warmongering and violence has never resulted in lasting peace and security. [The United States wants to launch strikes] to rebuild the shattered morale of terrorists, weaken the operational capability of the Syrian armed forces and change the balance of operation in the favor of takfiris [Islamic extremists].”
Sept. 2, 2013 to the press
Brig. Gen. Esmail Kowsari, member of parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission
            “America does not [have the courage] nor the capability to attack Syria. Although, perhaps, it may be able to begin a war in a limited fashion, and this possibility is also unlikely. It will certainly not be the decision-maker of the war’s end.”
“Any measures based on attacking Syria will bring the occupying Zionist regime and Western-supported Arab countries to their deaths more quickly, so they do not commit such acts easily.” 
            August 30, 2013 in remarks to journalists
Hassan Rouhani, president
            “We completely and strongly condemn use of chemical weapons in Syria because [the] Islamic Republic of Iran is itself victim of chemical weapons.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in a tweet via @HassanRouhani
“Any action on the Syrian crisis should be based on international law, lead to more stability in region and reduce terrorism. The Middle East doesn’t need another war.”
            Aug. 28, 2013 in a tweet via @HassanRouhani
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader
            “U.S. intervention in Syria or any other country will turn into a disaster for the region. The region has turned into a gunpowder stock. The United States’ intervention means nothing but warmongering and acts like a spark in a stockpile of gunpowder.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet
Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker
            “The Americans do not see the wave of popular hatred of their warmongering policies and still pursue military action against Syria.
            “They say they have evidence of the use of chemical weapons so why are they not presenting this evidence to the Security Council?”
            Sept. 1, 2013 in an address to parliament
            “It is impossible for the Americans to prepare themselves in a span of a few days for military operations in Syria. They began their work several months ago and this measure was designed earlier, just like the 33-day war [2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah].”
            Aug. 30, 2013 in remarks to journalists
Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Expediency Council chairman and former president
            “It seems that the main target of U.S. adventurism in the region is not restricted to Syria, but it involves the entire Middle East region… their dangerous warmongering game could engulf the entire region.”
            Sept. 1, 2013 during an Expediency Council meeting
Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, Assembly of Experts member
            “If a war begins in Syria, this country will turn into a graveyard for American and Israeli forces.
            “America seeks war to preserve the Zionist regime, but before any action it [should] know that in case of invading Syria, Tel Aviv and the Zionist regime [are finished].”
            Aug. 30, 2013 in a sermon
Mohammad Javad Zarif, foreign minister
            “Iran, as a victim of chemical weapons, cannot in any way tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Iran is also not prepared to tolerate a group of countries… invading the region under an excuse… and drag it into the abyss of violence and conflict.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in an interview with Iranian state television
            “Only the U.N. Security Council, under special circumstances, can authorize a collective action… Mr. Obama cannot interpret and change the international law based on his own wish… warmongering is not in the interest of anyone.
            “Using force has very dangerous consequences… which are not within the control of the initiator.
            Sept. 1, 2013 in a phone conversation with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias José Jaua Milano
             “In that memo [sent via the Swiss embassy to the United States in late 2012 or early 2013], we warned that extremist groups may use the chemical agents. The Americans never replied to the memo.”
            Sept. 1, 2013 in an interview with Iranian weekly Aseman
Marziyeh Afkham, foreign ministry spokesperson
            “The Arab League [adopting this] position [calling for action] before the official announcement of the United Nations inspectors’ report shows that it is politically-motivated and a pre-determined judgment.
            “The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that remarks and measures must focus on preventing the spread of the crisis and the region from entering into a phase for which no end is imaginable.”
            Sept. 2, 2013 to the press

Foreign Minister’s Facebook Essay on Chemical Weapons

      On August 30, Iran's new foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif posted an essay on his personal Facebook page strongly condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But he also challenged the international response -- and hypocrisy -- in light of the world's lack of action in the 1980s when Iraq's Saddam Hussein repeatedly used chemical weapons against Iran.

Greetings to all friends,
The recent abhorrent developments in Syria once again highlight the fundamental legal, political and moral question on the utility and effectiveness of the use or threat of force to advance humanitarian causes or even national policies. This has been a constant intellectual and practical concern for me over the past three decades. A few thoughts on the current issue and wider implications:
1- Any use of chemical weapons must be condemned, regardless of its victims or culprits. This is Iran's unambiguous position as a victim of chemical warfare. But has it always been the position of those who are now talking about punishing their presumed culprit? How did they react when civilians in Iran and Iraq were victims of independently established massive and systematic use of advanced chemical weapons by their then-friend Saddam Hussein? So, it is prudent to take their assertions at face value now, particularly since the circumstances and available evidence indicate the likelihood of the use of chemical agents by extremist groups.
2- Violence, repression, killing and extremism are repugnant crimes and every actor with influence in Syria must compel the parties to come to the negotiating table. But is a threat to use force the solution? Or does it represent the paradigm and the mentality that have helped to create this humanitarian tragedy and political catastrophe?
3- Are all options really on the table as the US president repeatedly declares? Is every nation with military might allowed to resort to war or constantly threaten to do so against one or another adversary? Isn't the inadmissibility of resort to force or threat of force a peremptory norm of international law? Is there any place for international law and the UN Charter at least in words if not deeds?
4- Can one violate a peremptory norm of international law in order to punish - taking the claim at face value - a violation of law or even a crime?
5- Why in fact has the UN Charter -- and other sources of international law dating back to the 1928 Paris Accord - have prohibited the use or threat of force? Is this a wishful idealism of a bunch of lawyers? Or is it in fact a legal reflection of a political reality? In other words, is war a useful instrument to advance foreign policy or humanitarian responsibilities in the 20th and 21st centuries? Or have war and the use of force been prohibited because they lost their practical utility?
6- Have those who maintain "all options on the table" noticed what these options have brought them and others in the past 100 years? Have they examined empirical evidence of the outcome of wars in the 20th and 21st century, all of which were initiated by those who were assured that their military might will lead to "shock and awe" and a quick victory? Have they not examined the fact that initiators of wars were totally annihilated or failed to achieve their objectives in 85% of the cases?
and ...
Let us hope that we can avert another catastrophic adventurism


Khamenei Google+ : On Iran’s Lazy Youth

            On August 29, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office announced the launch of his English language Google Plus account. One of the first postings bemoaned the laziness of Iran’s youth and included a picture of Khamenei walking up a mountain road. Tehran has periodically blocked some Google services, including YouTube. But Google Plus remains one of the only Western social media sites accessible in Iran. Khamenei’s office opened his Farsi language Google Plus account in March 2012.



Rouhani Tweets: Women, Egypt, Econ & Sport

      During his first month in office, President Hassan Rouhani’s office tweeted extensively on women’s rights, job creation and foreign policy. He promised to take decisive action to fix the economy within 100 days. But Rouhani also warned, “I'm no miracle maker” in one tweet. “National unity, building bridges not walls, hard work, #dedication, #prudence and #hope however might lead to miracles,” he added. The following is a rundown of Rouhani’s tweets on key issues in August.

On Women
            Rouhani argued for increased women’s participation in society during the presidential campaign. In August, he went further by linking domestic security to women gaining equal opportunities. Rouhani also welcomed the appointment of the Foreign Ministry’s first female spokesperson, Marzieh Afkham.
On the Economy
            Rouhani pledged to take quick and decisive action on the economy within his first 100 days in office. One tweet indicated that his administration will share the results of new policies with the public. Rouhani previously claimed that job growth under Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s administration was exaggerated.
On Egypt
            Rouhani warned Egypt’s army to not “suppress” its own people, alluding to violent crackdowns on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
On Foreign Policy
            Rouhani’s tweets emphasized Iran’s desire to improve its relations with other Middle Eastern countries. His account posted a picture of him with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, the first foreign head of state to visit Tehran since Rouhani’s inauguration.
On Sports
            Rouhani’s account has kept close track of Iranian teams competing internationally. @HassanRouhani has posted more than a dozen messages congratulating men’s and women’s teams on their wins. The men’s basketball team was the most recent victor.
On Syria
            Rouhani’s tweets encouraged outside powers to help facilitate dialogue between the regime and the opposition instead of arming the rebels.

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