Iran will elect a new president on May 19. But the real event will take place days before, on May 14, and it will offer more insight into the nature of the regime than managed elections ever could provide.
May 14 will mark the ninth anniversary of the arrests of the Iranian Baha’i leadership, known as the Yaran. These seven men and women managed the religious and worldly needs of Iran’s Baha’i, who make up the country’s largest non-Muslim minority. Iranian authorities condemned them to 20-year prison terms for their alleged misdeeds—charges that included “corruption on earth,” “insulting religious sanctities,” “espionage for Israel,” and “propaganda against the system.” The group’s secretary was arrested on March 5, 2008, and was also sentenced to 20 years in prison.
From the Iranian revolution in 1979 to this day, the regime has shown the Baha’i no mercy. The Iranian Baha’i community has faced continued oppression on the economic front and in the denial of educational opportunities. Last November, Iranian authorities shut down more than 100 Baha’i-owned businesses throughout Iran after those businesses were briefly shuttered by their owners to observe the Baha’i holidays. In December and January alone, more than a dozen Baha’i students were kicked out of Iranian universities because of their faith. As one student put it, “This has been going on for 37 years [since the Iranian revolution]. Every year, university security officials identify new Baha’i students and find excuses to throw them out.” Meanwhile, hundreds of students took the national entrance exam for universities, passed, and were denied entry into any university.
The unjust imprisonment of Baha’i continues, with new arrests by the Intelligence Ministry as recently as April. It is estimated that 80 to 90 Baha’is remain imprisoned in Iran solely due to their religious beliefs. The effort to smear the Baha’i and their religion continues as well, with thousands of anti-Baha’i articles running in Iranian media in the last 12 months.
This wretched campaign provoked the UN General Assembly to take note, despite Iranian efforts to stop it. On December 19, 2016, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning general Iranian human rights violations and specifically noting Iran’s maltreatment of religious minorities. In the relevant text, the General Assembly “expresses serious concern about . . . ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, attacks against places of worship and burial and other human rights violations.”
But the assembly has been passing such resolutions since 2000, without much effect. Even this resolution, which merely “expresses concern” and does not condemn Iran’s human rights violations, was passed by a vote of 85 in favor, 35 opposed, and 63 abstaining. In other words, a majority of members would not even support an expression of concern.
The Yaran remain behind bars, and Baha’i in Iran continue to face discrimination and the very real threat of imprisonment simply for practicing their faith. Every year at this time, Baha’i organizations around the world try to draw attention to the plight of the Iranian community in general and especially to the imprisonment of its leadership. Inside Iran, any public demonstration or rally to demand their freedom would only result in more arrests. The hopes that the current president, Hassan Rouhani, would widen religious freedom in Iran and reduce the sentences of the Yaran have proved false, and his term is now ending. The Iranian penal code allows the sentences of the Yaran to be reduced, and there have been reports in past years that this would happen. But it has not, so they face 11 more years in prison.
The bitter truth is that until far more international pressure hits Iran, or until the country’s regime is replaced by one freely chosen by the Iranian people, freedom of religion in Iran will remain a dream.