Making an International Deal: Iran Should Stop Persecuting Religious Minorities

Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna.  Skeptics remain many:  everything depends on whether the ruling elite, and not just President Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reform.  Iran should demonstrate its commitment by respecting religious liberty.

The most celebrated case of persecution today is Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year for “undermining national security” by the Iranian government.

A Muslim convert to Christianity, his “crime” in Tehran’s view apparently was aiding house churches.  He went to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage, with the government’s approval.  Since then he was abused and tortured while held at two of Iran’s worst prisons. 

Unfortunately, Abedini represents far broader religious repression.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has routinely labeled Tehran as a Country as Particular Concern.  The Commission’s 2013 report concluded:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” 

Tehran’s brutal persecution has been getting worse.  The State Department reported that violations of religious liberty increased again 2012, as Tehran increasingly was “charging religious and ethnic minorities with moharebeh (enmity against God), ‘anti-Islamic propaganda,’ or vague national security crimes for their religious activities.” 

Currently the regime appears to be most concerned about conversions.  Christians traditionally were minorities, especially Armenians and Assyrians, who speak a different language.  However, HRWF reported that charges against those arrested last year included “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.” 

Iran is a theocratic state whose laws are to be based on “Islamic criteria.”  The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are allowed to worship “within the limits of the law.”  Proselytizing and converting are barred, however.  Moreover, according to the State Department, Jews are “regularly vilified” and the government “regularly arrests members of the Zoroastrian and Christian communities for practicing their religion.” 

Worse is the treatment of other groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia.  All are considered to some degree to be apostates.  Explained State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination not faced by members of other religions groups.”  Sunnis face double jeopardy since many are ethnic minorities, such as Arabs and Kurds. 

Government hostility encourages private discrimination as well.  Said State:  “The government’s campaign against non-Shias created an atmosphere of impunity allowing other elements of society to harass religious minorities.” 

The U.S. government has little direct leverage, having already targeted Tehran with economic sanctions over its presumed nuclear ambitions.  However, Washington (and the Europeans) could indicate to Iran that a deal is more likely if it quiets Western skeptics.

In fact, public pressure works.  The UN’s Ahmed Shaheed reported last year that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.”  Encouraging Tehran to respect the freedom of conscience of its citizens might even more effectively come from the most fervent advocates of engagement, who are resisting proposals for new Western sanctions. 

As I conclude my latest article in American Spectator online:  “Tehran should release Rev. Abedini, pardon imprisoned Baha’is, allow Sufis and Sunnis to worship, and more.  ‘The international community is watching,’ observed Dwight Bashir, deputy director of USCIRF.  Iran should act accordingly.”