The eyes of the world have once again turned to Iran as the prospects of renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal appear to have improved with the election of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Read more: Iran's leaders signal interest in new nuclear deal, but U.S. must act soon
In recent months, however, Iran has taken alarming new steps to reinforce a legal framework of persecution that threatens its most vulnerable populations.
Its actions highlight the pressing need to include human rights in any bilateral and multilateral negotiations over the JCPOA. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany need to insist on human rights discussions with Iranian officials.
The Iranian Parliament recently added two new provisions to Iran’s Penal Code that are intended to target a range of marginalized groups with the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention.
One provision takes aim at “anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the Constitution,” saying they can be subjected to harsh punishments. Another says that “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” can lead to a prison sentence of two to five years.
These new measures were first proposed in 2018 and were passed into law this year. They constitute yet another weapon to be wielded by the Iranian state in its campaign of persecution against unrecognized groups, especially Baha’is — Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority whose faith advocates for racial unity, gender equality, universal education and harmony of science and religion — but also Yaresan, Mandaeans, dervishes, Christian converts, atheists and followers of Erfan-e Halgheh.
At odds with legal obligations
ARTICLE 19, a human rights organization dedicated to defending and promoting free expression, has warned that these legal changes contradict Iran’s international legal obligations. They create “an even more expansive set of repressive laws to further choke freedoms and crackdown on the already persecuted individuals and groups solely for exercising their human rights,” said Saloua Ghazouani, director of ARTICLE 19’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
If this weren’t alarming enough, the International Federation for Human Rights recently released the minutes of a “top confidential” government meeting held in September 2020 that indicates a renewed intensification of state efforts to eradicate its Baha’i community.
Read more: Who are the Baha'is and why are they so persecuted?
The high-level government commission, attended by representatives of 19 government security and intelligence organizations, called for new measures “to rigorously control” the movements of Baha’is and dervishes, and “to adopt a detailed plan in regard to cultural and educational institutions.”
An especially chilling aspect of the leaked document is the direction it provides for teachers to “identify and oversee” Baha’i schoolchildren in order to “bring them back” to Islam.
The Iranian state’s ongoing persecution efforts are aimed at isolating, intimidating, impoverishing and destroying the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. Soon after the circulation of this memo, Iranian courts ordered the confiscation of land owned by 27 Baha’i farming families in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran.
In 2016, a similar security directive was issued by the Mazandaran Province Commission on Sects and Religions, which led to the government-enforced mass closure of Baha’i-owned shops. Legal appeals of this decision were eventually denied by the highest levels of the government.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati announced the opinion of the powerful Guardian Council that the directive was consistent with Shariah law.
Looking further back to 2005, the Chairman of Command Headquarters of the Iranian Armed Forces called on all Iranian police and intelligence services to “identify” and “monitor” Baha’is. And in 1991, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signed a memorandum that declared government policy to deal with Baha’is “in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.”
There is growing evidence that the Iranian government, with direction from its highest levels, is constructing an expanding system of surveillance and control over the Baha’i — with the purpose to destroy the community. The disturbing historical precedents for such sinister government actions make it impossible to ignore.
Iran appears to be buoyed by the hope that a new U.S. administration will give it what it so deeply desires: international standing and an end to sanctions. But western democracies must ensure that this opportunity for engagement includes clear demands that Iran dismantles the rapidly expanding legal apparatus it’s creating to oppress and impoverish some of its own citizens.