Following the dismantling of the sanctions regime, as India prepares to strengthen economic ties with Iran, it must ask itself: As a pluralistic nation, home to persecuted people from all over the world, can it afford to ignore Tehran’s discrimination of the Bahá’í minority community?
With the recent lifting of economic sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear programme, several countries including India are expected to renew and strengthen their strategic and economic cooperation with Iran. Dozens of international corporations and companies are expected to enter into deals worth billions of dollars with the Iranians, which have the potential to vastly improve the livelihood of Iranian citizens.
Following Iran completing its part of the agreement with the P5+1 powers, US President Barack Obama signed executive orders, lifting the sanctions including those called “secondary”, which applied to non-US individuals and entities, such as Indian refineries. The decision has effectively removed sanctions that prevented trading with Iran including with its energy and petrochemical sectors, banking and financial institutions, underwriting services, insurance and re-insurance.
Till 2012, India was Iran’s second largest crude client after China briefly even becoming its top buyer and picking up a whopping 13 per cent. Following subsequent sanctions, India turned to Saudi Arabia and Iraq to make good the shortfall. The US sanctions made it difficult for India to pay for crude purchased from Iran as it was prohibited under the sanctions from dealing with designated Iranian banks. Indian state-owned refineries now owe around $6.5 billion to Tehran.
It is pertinent to mention here that India’s relationship with Iran has been rooted in economic interests and deeply influenced by centuries-old civilisational links. Of late, energy security, access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and equations with Pakistan have been the key factors shaping New Delhi’s policy towards Tehran. The presence of a large Shia population, which has been a bulwark against fundamentalist Wahhabist elements, too has played a decisive role in impacting India’s dealings with Iran.
It may be recalled that not long back, Iran, Russia and India had come together to strengthen the Northern Alliance’s resistance to the anti-Shia and anti-Iran Taliban in Afghanistan. With jihadi forces led by the Islamic State on the rise across the world, the time has come for renewed cooperation among these three countries to combat the menace in South and Central Asia.
For India, Iran’s Chabahar port holds immense significance as a strategic response to Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Apart from providing access to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan, the port can facilitate the import of natural gas from Iran as also the proposed Iran-Oman-India pipeline.
During his visit to Turkmenistan as part of his tour of the five Central Asian republics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that an alternative land-sea route via Iran for transporting Turkmen gas should be considered. Observers saw it as a savvy diplomatic gesture aimed at Beijing’s April 2015 agreement with Islamabad to construct most of Pakistan’s portion of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline.
While India-Iran bilateral relations are set to emerge stronger, following the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, the fact that sanctions related to Iran’s alleged support to international terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and rights abuse remain in place, needs to be highlighted here.
As a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious rainbow nation, which has been a refuge to persecuted people from the world over including Zoroastrians from Persia (Iran), and an epitome of tolerance and diversity, can India afford to ignore the blatant discrimination by the state of Iran against its minorities, including the peace-loving and law-abiding Bahá’í community? This is a million dollar question that cannot be brushed aside.
From building the beautiful Lotus Temple, perhaps independent India’s only major post-1947 landmark in the national capital (the rest were built by the British and Mughals), this small community has been playing a silent but significant role in peace-building and strengthening inter-faith relations. But back home in Iran, it faces unbearable persecution.
Even as the Iranian Government welcomes global business houses, it has kept the doors to Bahá’í business people tightly shut relegating an entire segment of Iranian society to the lowest ranks of the economy. Since 2007, at least 780 incidents of direct economic persecution against Iranian Bahá’ís have been documented by the UN-headquartered Bahá’í International Community, an international non-Governmental organisation representing the members of the Bahá’í faith. These include shop closings, dismissals, the actual or threatened revocation of business licenses, and other actions to suppress the economic activity of Bahá’ís.
The effort to deny young Bahá’ís access to higher education has consigned them to low paying jobs or unemployment. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Bahá’ís have been banned from all forms of employment in the public sector, including any employment in public schools, hospitals, or other Governmental service providers.
Bahá’ís have also been systematically persecuted as a matter of Government policy. During the first decade of this persecution, more than 200 Bahá’í’s were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs, access to education, and other rights all because of religious belief.
Government-led attacks on the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority have re-intensified in the last decade. Since 2005, more than 815 Bahá’ís have been arrested, and the number of Bahá’ís in prison has risen from fewer than five to more than 70. The list of prisoners includes all seven members of a former leadership group serving the Bahá’í community of Iran, who, in 2008, were wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Although they had done nothing more than peacefully practice their religion, they were convicted on serious but baseless charges including “espionage for Israel,” “insulting religious sanctities” and “propaganda against the system.” They have also been charged with ifsad fil-arz or “corruption on earth.”
Despite all this, there is ample evidence that majority of the Iranian people remain unpersuaded by these attacks, and, in fact, are increasingly willing to stand up for their Bahá’í friends and neighbours. In a symbolic and unprecedented move last April, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent Muslim cleric in Iran, announced that he has gifted to the Bahá’ís of the world an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. This move came in the wake of several statements by religious scholars in the Muslim world who have set out alternative interpretations of the teachings of Islam in which tolerance of every religion is upheld by the Quran.
In India, apart from the local Bahá’í community, organisations such as the Human Rights Defense International have been consistently raising the problems faced by the Bahá’ís through seminars and demonstrations. As India and the rest of the world look forward to renew their ties with Iran, it is important that the concerns of the minorities there including Bahá’ís, Christians, and Sunni Muslims are conveyed to the leadership, and the authorities are persuaded to restore to these citizens basic and fundamental human rights that will allow the people to lead a dignified life with self-respect.
(The writer is director, Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony, India)