May 11, 2015, 10:00 am
President Obama and his foreign policy team should be commended for trying to solve the difficult problem of Iran’s nuclear program. While most experts agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to global security, Obama is correct to point out that a military solution to this intractable problem is not in the interest of the United States nor for that matter the people of Iran.
Not withstanding the president’s prudent approach to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, members of Congress must also work with the White House to craft a final agreement with Tehran that also includes values that have long underpinned American foreign policy such as religious freedom and human rights.
Today marks the seventh anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of the seven- member ad hoc leadership group of the Baha’is of Iran. The five men and two woman are serving 20 year sentences, the longest of any prisoners of conscience in Iran. Since the Baha’i community has no clergy and governs itself through elected bodies, these seven individuals – collectively known in Farsi as Yaran-e-Iran or Friends of Iran – were informally administering to the affairs of the community.
The fundamental reason why the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is determined to persecute this religious minority – some 300,000 Baha’is live throughout Iran, making them the largest religious minority in the country – is because its core teachings and message are anathema to the clerical regime’s power base.
For example, complete social and economic equality of men and woman is a fundamental tenet of the Baha’i faith. In fact, the Baha’i faith insists that when it comes to education, priority must be given to woman. This is of course diametrically opposed to what is practiced in the Islamic Republic today. When it comes to marriage, divorce and laws on inheritance the rights of woman are secondary to those of men.
Another tenet of the Baha’i faith that irks the rulers of Iran is that one’s relationship with God is direct. In short, in the Baha’i faith there are no clergy. For decades Iranian clergy have inserted themselves into the lives of Iranians to gain power by appointing themselves as the sole interpreters of the Quran. It stands to reason therefore that when a progressive faith comes along and argues that there is no need for someone to interpret the words of God it is a dagger in the heart of clerical power.
Universal compulsory education is another major tenet of the Baha’i faith. They argue that ignorance and lack of education are the true barriers to human advancement. Again, this is diametrically opposed to the Iranian clergy’s history of mounting challenges against any attempts at secular education. Indeed, an ignorant populace where dependency is created on the clergy to interpret every aspect of life suites the regime’s thirst for power. Not surprisingly, Baha’is in Iran have been denied the right to an education at every level; thus taking their thirst for learning underground.
The injunction to observe justice is yet another feature of the Baha’i faith. The importance of justice was on full display a few weeks ago when former Congressmen Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) were honored at a gala sponsored by the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit inspired by the Baha’i faith that works to protect immigrant women and girls seeking justice in the U.S. from gender-based violence. Ironically, Tahirih, the woman who sought justice in 19th century Iran from the discriminatory practices of Iran’s clerics would be proud to see how an organization that bears her name has partnered with the U.S. Congress to seek justice for not only Iranian women but women from around the world.
Obama has been a champion of human dignity and as a community organizer fought for justice for those whose voices were marginalized. He has spoken eloquently of the need to respect human rights; most recently criticizing the harsh tactics of some big city police officers in the U.S. It would appear then that Congress should have an ally in President Obama when it comes to negotiations with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program. If Tehran insists that all sanctions be lifted in exchange for Iran’s acquiescence to slow down its nuclear program, then Congress must also insist that all discrimination against the Baha’is in Iran be lifted. In fact, Congress must also go beyond the plight of the Baha’i community and insist that the regime respect the rights of all of its citizens. Obama’s team is rightfully asking the regime to allow for unannounced inspection of its nuclear sites. There is no reason why Congress cannot insist that visiting prisoners and verifying their conditions should also be part of the deal.
In 1912 during his visit to the U.S., Abdulbaha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith said this prayer for America: “Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the most great peace ….” Members of Congress should work with and not against Obama to include the long-cherished values of religious tolerance into the fabric of any agreement with the clerical regime in Iran.
Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings, a group of companies with international business interests in energy, infrastructure, technology and publishing.