May 14 marked the ninth anniversary of Iran’s imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders for the crime of practicing their faith. This grim milestone reflects the Baha’i’s status, in the words of the United Nations, as the country’s “most severely persecuted religious minority.” In Tehran’s eyes, the Baha’i faith constitutes not a religion, but a Western-backed political movement that seeks to overthrow the regime and discredit Islam.
This perspective has roots in the regime’s founding ideology. In his 1970 treatise Islamic Government, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would later become the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader, described hostility to the Baha’i as part of a larger struggle against Western influence. He wrote that in Tehran, “centers of evil propaganda run by the churches, the Zionists, and the Baha’is” seek to make Iranians “abandon the ordinances and teachings of Islam.” Iranians, he contended, have a “duty to destroy these centers.”
In subsequent years, Khomeini would even accuse the Baha’i of serving as Western agents. “Baha’is are not a religious group,” he claimed in 1982. Rather, “they are a party which was previously supported by the British, and now is being supported by the United States. They are spies like them.”
Founded in the 19th century by a Persian nobleman named Baha’u’llah, who deemed himself a new divine messenger, the Baha’i faith embraces a doctrine of progressive revelation that emphasizes the fundamental unity of all religions. Because this theology marks a post-Muhammadian renunciation of Islam as God’s final revelation, Tehran considers the Baha’i faith not merely erroneous, but a perversion of religion itself.
Consequently, the Islamic Republic’s constitution omits the Baha’i from its list of recognized religious minorities, which includes only Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians – faiths the regime regards as divine precursors to Islam. As a result, teaching or practicing the Baha’i religion remains illegal in Iran.
Thus, Iran’s Baha’i face a systematic campaign of repression that the Baha’i International Community describes as “cultural cleansing.” In 1991, the regime issued a memo declaring that Tehran must “confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country,” an apparent reference to alleged Western support for the Baha’i. “The government’s dealings with them,” the document stated, “must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.”
To achieve this goal, Iran not only subjects the Baha’i to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and state-sponsored incitement, but also bans the Baha’i from attending its schools, citing the danger that they will “defile and lead astray the pure minds and thoughts of the innocent students.” In 2013, the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, released a fatwa that calls on Iranians to avoid dealing with the “deviant and misleading sect.”
The continued incarceration of the seven Baha’i leaders represents a further attempt to intimidate and suppress the faith. One of their lawyers recalled that the indictment “was more like a political statement” than a legal document, “full of accusations and humiliations leveled against the Baha’i community of Iran.”
Tehran’s persecution of the Baha’i represents an implicit attack on the United States, the putative hidden hand behind the Baha’i’s perceived heresy. A robust effort to raise the costs for Tehran’s repression can advance U.S. values and interests by combating the anti-Western ideology that guides it.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.