Authorities in Iran are deciding on whether to allow religious minorities to run for local elections in Muslim-majority cities, sparking a constitutional debate.
This debate is tied to the suspension of a Zoroastrian councilman, Sepanta Niknam in 2017.
Niknam was suspended after winning the election in the city of Yazd after a competitor complained about him still being considered for candidacy after the Guardian Council had said that Zoroastrians and other religious minorities are no longer allowed to run as candidates in Muslim majority constituencies.
The Guardian Council's attempted ban defies the Iranian constitution, which recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians as official religious minorities, and allows these minorities to run in city elections. The constitution restricts the total number of parliament members allowed from a recognized religious minority, and says that the president must be Muslim, but includes no laws about local elections.
The Guardian Council is a conservative body of clerics and jurists charged with vetting laws and election candidates to ensure that they are in line with Islamic principles. They said in a statement that they have the right to point out when the constitution is wrong.
Niknam had won by a landslide in Yazd and was suspended just four months after his election, when a rival filed a complaint about him. This added to the controversial constitutional debate.
"My fellow Zoroastrians and I, like other Iranians, have the right to participate in the progress of our country," Niknam wrote in a Twitter post in Farsi. "This right comes from the people's vote… I hope the Expediency Discernment Council takes the votes of the people of Yazd into consideration before the six-month deadline. Taking immediate action in this regard is necessary before it's too late."
After Niknam's suspension, Iran's Parliament passed an amendment to the law reaffirming minorities' right to run in local council elections, but the Guardian Council rejected it. Now, the decision lies in the hands of the Expediency Discernment Council, the body that has the final say when the Guardian Council and the Parliament disagree over legislation. Meanwhile, Niknam is still suspended.
Esfandiar Ekhtiari, a Zoroastrian MP, said the decision is an important one because it would "affect all elections held in the future."
Tara Sepehri Far, the Iran researcher for the Human Rights Watch, said that having minorities run for the city elections would be the most natural way of helping members of the community live together peacefully, and that the Guardian Council is violating their right to do that.
"Not only are they violating the rights of the Zoroastrian community and Niknam, they're also violating the rights of the Muslim community in a city that chose this person to represent them," Sepehri Far said. "If the people of the city trust this person, and they want him to represent them, then what's the business of the government to say, 'no.'"
There has been debate over the Guardian Council's decision to amend constitutional laws. Jasmin Ramsey of the Center for Human Rights in Iran said that most people agree that their action defies the Iranian constitution.
"[The Guardian Council] is seeing Niknam, a Zoroastrian, being popular in a Muslim-majority district as a threat," Ramsey said. "The Islamic Republic is very suspicious of other religions besides Shi'a Islam. There are many cases of religious persecution in the country. They are specifically very sensitive about cases of a religious minority trying to get power."
According to both Ramsey and Sepehri Far, this is not part of a larger trend of discrimination against Zoroastrians in Iran. Zoroastrians have been in Iran since before the advent of Islam and are an integral part of the history of arts and culture in the country.
In late January, Zoroastrian and Iranian American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his wife were sentenced to 27 years in prison under several charges including the illegal distribution of alcohol. Publications framed the incident as religious persecution against the Zoroastrian community. But according to Ramsey, that is not the case.
Vafadari belonged to a wealthy family that had owned land in Iran. After the revolution in 1979, there were many property seizures and, Ramsey said, Vafadari was trying to get his land back.
"It is a very complicated case but this is not a case of religious persecution," she said. "It's a case of officials trying to use whatever they can get their hands on, to imprison this man for whatever reason that they may have, and one of the reasons could be because he tried to get property back from the government."
Setareh Sadeqi, a Ph.D. candidate and U.S.-Iran relations researcher at the University of Tehran, said that she noticed differences in reporting on the Sepanta Niknam story abroad versus within Iran.
"Inside Iran, people were talking about it based on the constitution, in that [the] constitution does not ban any religious minorities to run for any city council elections. But outside it was more directed towards the misconceptions that exist around Iran about how minorities are oppressed and don't have equal rights, which is really not true," Sadeqi said. "They go to the same schools, they have the same civil rights as the majority of Muslims have and they're so well integrated into the society."
Sepehri Far said that Zoroastrians have a representative in the parliament and are recognized in the constitution, unlike the Baha'is who are not recognized and face significant religion-based persecution.
"Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that predates Islam and has originated from a bigger area that is now the country of Iran," Sepehri Far said. "It is one of the few religions that have been mentioned in the Iranian constitution as a religious minority group."
Both Ramsey and Sepehri Far said that tensions will rise if the Guardian Council succeeds in banning minorities from running in local city elections.
"There would be a huge outcry among everyone, not just religious minorities," Ramsey said. "Whether or not this would translate into these big, huge, massive protests, that's debatable, but it certainly wouldn't go unnoticed in Iran, and that's why there has been quiet after there was that big debate."
In contrast, Hamid Reza, a political analyst based in Tehran, said that he does not believe there would be a major response from minorities if the authorities sided with the Guardian Council.
"First of all, this is not a common case. We don't always have religious minorities running in city elections," Reza said, adding that it wouldn't be strange for the Guardian Council to successfully reinterpret constitutional laws, because it has the same power as the Supreme Court in the United States.
Sepehri Far said that deciding with the Guardian Council would send the wrong message to Iran's citizens, especially in the midst of protests across the country.
"In a region where religious tolerance is very needed, it doesn't send a very good message to the religious community, that even when their rights are protected, these bodies are gonna try to take it away from them," Sepehri Far said. "They don't use the lens of religion to define each other as neighbors. But here, the government is trying to force that lens on a community that doesn't necessarily recognize that as a criteria."
Government officials have yet to make a decision on the eligibility of religious minority members to run for local elections for Muslim-majority cities, but if they side with the Guardian Council, it wouldn't be the first time that the council successfully reinterpreted the Iranian constitution.
"Over the past 20 years, the Guardian Council has been trying to expand their control over [the] Iranian legislative system," said Sepehri Far. "They've increasingly tightened their criteria on vetting candidates and they have very strictly disapproved of political dissidents and reformist candidates, who they directly disqualify [from elections.]"
The fallout from such a decision remains to be seen.