The Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) nuclear ambitions have been the recent focus of both the popular news media and western foreign policy agendas; however, for a great number of Iranians and sympathizers around the world, human rights violations are of primary concern. Specifically, Iran’s largest religious minority, the Bahá’ís, have been persecuted since the inception of their faith 169 years ago. A number of governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations (2011), Amnesty International (2012), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH; 2010) have voiced their concerns over Iran’s repressive policies towards the Bahá’ís and other minority groups. Numerous petitions, rallies, and non-partisan campaigns such as “United4Iran, “Can You Solve This?” and “Education Under Fire” have been launched all over the world, raising public awareness about the Bahá’í situation. Esteemed individuals and scholars have also spoken out vehemently against Iran’s discriminative policies. For example, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire has described the systematic victimization of Iran’s Bahá’í community as “ideological genocide” (2011); similarly, Wendi Momen illustrates how the Bahá’í situation in Iran is in a state of “suspended genocide” (2005). To this list of voices we can add the names of Nobel Laureates, thousands of highly qualified academics, leading international lawyers, and artists, but one voice that is often ignored is that of the Iranian government. Indeed, the discourse around the Bahá’í situation has been fiercely one-sided as it has placed Bahá’í rights in either the context of cultural liberty or international standards.
In 2011, Kelleher and Klein suggested three alternative ways of interpreting world events: cultural primacy, global primacy, and state primacy. Almost all of the current arguments in support of Iran’s Bahá’í community have been made within the cultural and global primacy domains, i.e., the IRI has violated the cultural rights of its largest religious minority and they are preventing their citizenry from embracing the realities of globalization by failing to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The current analysis will interpret the Bahá’í situation using the third paradigm, state primacy. State primacy posits that the state must decide on what is best for the welfare and unity of its own citizens. Therefore, this paper will consider the Bahá’í community through the lens of Iran’s national interests. However, before launching into this analysis, it is important to have a basic understanding of Iran’s political structure and constitution.
The Theocratic Government of Iran
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution supplanted Iran’s existing monarchy with an Islamic theocracy. Iran’s theocracy resembles, in many ways, western constitutional democracies in that it has a written constitution and three branches of government: An executive, a legislative parliament, and a judiciary. Regular presidential and parliamentary elections are held and the constitution allows for universal suffrage. Where the Iranian system differs, however, is in its theocratic features. Since the Iranian constitution specifies the Twelver Ja’fari school of Islam as the official religion (Ch. 1; Art. 12), all political parties and candidates running for office must be “devout” to the tenets of this denomination (Constitution: Structure of Government in Islam). Further, Iran’s Islamic ideology is enforced by a complex system of appointments and screenings carried out by religious clerics, judges, councils, and a Supreme Leader whose responsibilities include (among other things) delineation of and supervision over the general policies of the IRI, supreme command of the armed forces, the power to declare war and peace, numerous appointment and dismissal powers, and vetting of the elected president (Ch. 1; Art. 110). The power of the Iranian government lies in the clerical classes, and their mission is to bring about the “conditions under which the lofty and worldwide values of Islam will flourish” (Constitution: Structure of Government in Islam).
The Twelver School and Iran’s National Interests
Whenever we talk about Islam in Iran, we are essentially talking about the Twelver school of Shia Islam. The mainstay of Twelver Islam is briefly mentioned in Article 5 of Chapter 1 of the constitution. Basically, the Twelvers believe that the ultimate savior of mankind, the twelfth Imam or the Mahdi, is currently in hiding and will make himself known to humanity when Islam is at its depths. In the meantime, the faqih (Iran’s Supreme Leader) is responsible for preparing a government of God for the Mahdi (Ahdiyyih, 2008). Therefore, Iran’s domestic and foreign national interests include the protection of God’s divinely ordained government from those who would conspire against “Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran” (Ch. 1; Art. 14). Also, although the constitution recognizes Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism as minority religions (Ch. 1; Art. 13), it is fiercely Islam-centric and intends on unifying the “Islamic world” (Ch 1; Art. 11) – a fraternal commitment that is apparent in their foreign policies (Nia, 2010).
The Bahá’í Problem
The problem with the Bahá’í community is that it presents a uniquely disruptive ideology that challenges the national interests of the IRI as described above. Namely, the Bahá’ís believe that their religion was revealed after the passing of Muhammad (the founder of Islam), and fulfills the prophecies regarding the Mahdi’s return. These beliefs are fundamentally antithetical to the Twelver beliefs that 1) Muhammad was the final prophet, and 2) the Mahdi is still in hiding. Therefore, the growth and development of the Bahá’í community poses an ideological problem for the IRI because it threatens the religious monopoly held by the clerical classes and challenges the constitutional reforms of the 1979 Islamic Revolution (Kazemzadeh, 2000). According to the state primacy perspective, the state is duty-bound to “defend itself from internal and external threats” (Kelleher & Klein, 2011), so the challenge for the IRI is in removing the Bahá’í threat while adhering to its own constitutional principles. To accomplish this end, the IRI has classified the Bahá’ís as “unprotected infidels” (Karlberg, 2010), which means that, so far as they claim to be Bahá’ís, they are not protected by the constitution.
Controlling the Bahá’í Problem
For over 160 years the Iranian Bahá’í community has managed to respond to abuse and oppression with constructive, non-violent resilience (Karlberg, 2010). Further, the more aggressively the Iranian government pursues its campaign against the Bahá’ís the stronger the Bahá’í community seems to become (Kazemzadeh, 2000). From the state primacy perspective, the IRI would be justified in creating a systematic plan to hamper the activities of the Bahá’í community, which it regards as a threat to its national security. In 1993, UN special representative Reynaldo Galindo Pohl unearthed such a plan laid out in a memo drawn up by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council (ISRCC), which makes (among others) the following suggestions to the Supreme Leader:
- They can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Bahá’ís.
- Their political (espionage) activities must be dealt with according to appropriate government laws and policies, and their religious and propaganda activities should be answered by giving them religious and cultural responses, as well as propaganda.
- A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.
- To the extent that it does not encourage them to be Bahá’ís, it is permissible to provide them the means for ordinary living…
- Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational sector, etc (FIDH, 2003 for original memo).
Indeed, the document clearly states that the purpose of such a campaign is to “block” their “progress and development.” As previously mentioned, many have called for increased international pressure on the IRI to stop their oppressive policies towards the Bahá’ís. However, state primacy would argue that Iran’s situation is a local matter that cannot be understood by outsiders. In fact, in response to a question posed to him at the National Press Club in New York about the Bahá’í situation, President Ahmadinejad responded, “In our constitution, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism are recognized as the official religions. When we speak of religion we refer to Divine religions in our country and we follow that law, a law that is based on the majority vote of the people.”
Iran’s treatment of the Bahá’ís cannot be understood as simply a political or human rights phenomenon; rather, the IRI’s position is based on theological beliefs that are built into their constitution. From the state primacy perspective, Iran is simply acting on behalf of its national interests as outlined in the regimes constitution. Perhaps the most apt analysis of democratic reformation in Iran is that put forward by Iranian dissident, Mohsen Sazegara (2005), when he said, “No democracy can be made out of Iran’s constitutional law. Iran’s problems are essential to the nature of the regime. And so it must be changed.”
Ahdiyyih, M. (2008). Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi. Middle East Quarterly, 15, 27-36.
Karlberg, M. (2010). Constructive Resilience: The Bahá’í Response to Oppression. Peace & Change, 35, 222-257. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.2009.00627.x
Kazemzadeh, F. (2000). The Bahá’ís in Iran: Twenty Years of Repression. Social Research, 67, 537-558.
Kelleher, A., & Klein, L. (2011). Global perspectives (4th ed.). Canada: Pearson.
Momen, M. (2005). The Babi and Bahá’í community of Iran: A case of “suspended genocide”?. Journal of Genocide Research, 7, 221-241. doi:10.1080/14623520500127431
Nia, M. (2010). Understanding Iran’s Foreign Policy: An Application of Holistic Constructivism. Alternatives: Turkish Journal Of International Relations, 9, 148-180.
Sazegara, M. (2005). Minimal Islam Is the answer for Iran. NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly, 22, 65-68.