By Tzvi Kahn
Religious freedom conditions in Iran “remained egregiously poor” in 2019, according to an annual report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Tuesday. The report paints a bleak portrait of a nation chafing under the radical Islamist ideology of its authoritarian regime, which systematically denies equal rights to members of other faiths.
According to the report, Tehran has targeted Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Sufis, and women who refuse to wear the mandatory hijab, or headscarf. The regime subjects them to arrest, harassment, and fines, citing a draconian Penal Code that includes ambiguous, catch-all provisions meant to encompass religions other than Shiite Islam.
“Under Iran’s Penal Code,” the report states, “moharebeh (enmity against God) is vaguely defined and often used for political purposes; both this charge and sabb al-nabi (insulting the prophet) are capital crimes. Apostasy is not codified as a crime in the Iranian Penal Code, but detainees are still tried as apostates because the constitution mandates the application of Shari’a to any cases that the law does not explicitly address.”
The report notes a “particular uptick in the persecution of Baha’is and local government officials who supported them.” Without citing any evidence, Tehran blamed the Baha’i for nationwide protests over the past year, and accused them of collaborating with Israel, home of the Baha’i World Centre.
Similarly, states the report, women “who peacefully protested the government’s mandatory religious head covering were summoned, interrogated, and arrested throughout 2019.” In one especially egregious case, the regime sentenced three women to prison for handing out flowers on the Tehran metro to protest the hijab.
The report urges the State Department to redesignate Iran as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) in 2020 pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. IRFA requires the executive branch to designate as CPCs states that engage in “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” which the statute defines as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations” that may include “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In turn, designation as a CPC requires the president to impose sanctions and penalties from a menu of 15 options identified in the legislation. The State Department has designated Iran as a CPC since 1999, but successive administrations have used preexisting sanctions to meet the statutory requirement – a process known as “double hatting.”
USCIRF has criticized this practice. In its 2019 annual report, the commission stated that while “the statute permits it, USCIRF has long expressed concern that using preexisting sanctions or indefinite waivers provides little or no incentive for CPC-designated governments to reduce or halt egregious religious freedom violations.”
Thus, in its 2019 and 2020 reports, USCIRF has also urged the Trump administration to impose “targeted sanctions” on Iranian agencies and officials responsible for religious freedom violations. While the reports do not identify any prospective targets by name, a range of options remains available.
For example, the administration could sanction Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s minister of intelligence, who is responsible for suppressing key religious minorities. It could designate Hossein Ashtari, the commander of Iran’s national police force, and Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the minister of the interior, both of whom have played a key role in suppressing protests by force. Likewise, the administration could target Mansour Gholami, the minister of science, research, and technology, who has prevented the Baha’i from gaining access to Iran’s higher education system.
Such sanctions would send a potent message that Washington, as part of its larger maximum pressure campaign against Iran, regards religious freedom as a foremost priority. For those who oppose the maximum pressure campaign, the sanctions would also send a reminder that Tehran has not altered the malign behavior that makes the campaign necessary.