The Magazine

"Murder with Impunity"

Iran targets the Baha'i--again.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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The Iranian government is currently intensifying its persecution of its largest religious minority, the Baha'is. This reveals something of the government's nature, and also sheds light on the hotly debated question: Does the regime remain a revolutionary one, or has it become instead a "normal country," one that, despite its fervent rhetoric, aspires only to international acceptance and regional power?

The regime has always persecuted the Baha'is, of whom 300,000 (out of some 5 million worldwide) still live in Iran. The Baha'i religion was founded in Iran in the mid-1800s, and the regime demonizes its adherents as heretics or apostates from Islam, who therefore should have no legal status or protection and who should be eradicated. However, its program in the 1980s of murder and imprisonment drew too much international attention and condemnation. So the government decided to pursue a strategy of slow strangulation.

The current campaign has its specific roots in a confidential Iranian government document sent in 1991 to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by Muhammad Golpaygani, secretary of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council. Following Khamenei's "recent directives," and approved by then-President Rafsanjani, it outlined a plan gradually to choke the Baha'i community. They were not usually to be subject to further arrests or deportations from the country: Henceforth the government was to ensure that "their progress and development are blocked." They could be enrolled in schools but only if they "have not identified themselves as Baha'is." They were to be expelled from universities altogether. They could have jobs only on condition that they not "identify themselves as Baha'is," and, if employed, must have only "a modest livelihood" and be denied "any position of influence." Khamenei added a handwritten note to the directive expressing his approval, thus conferring on it the status of an official decree. (These and other documents have been made available by the Baha'i community--see news.bahai.org.)

The regime continued to persecute the Baha'is, as well as other religious minorities, and parts of this plan were carried out--including their exclusion from universities and many jobs. But now the government's program has entered a more intensive and systematic phase. An October 29, 2005, confidential letter sent on Khamenei's instructions by Major General Hossein Firuzabadi, chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forces, ordered the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Police Force to "acquire a comprehensive and complete report" to identify all Baha'is.

On August 19, 2006, Mohammad-Reza Mavvalizadeh, director of the Ministry of the Interior's Political Office, ordered provincial governors' security officers to monitor Baha'i "social activities" and sent out a questionnaire to collect details of Baha'i incomes and occupations, and even burial locations. At about the same time, referring to the 1991 plan, Asghar Zari'i, director general of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology's Central Security Office, ordered 81 universities to expel any Baha'i students and report back to confirm that they had done so.

On April 9, 2007, the province of Tehran's headquarters for intelligence and security sent a letter from Revolutionary Guard Colonel Husayni to provincial police forces telling them to review any Baha'i-held business licenses and exclude Baha'is from "high earning" and "sensitive" areas. With paranoid scope, "sensitive" areas include not only "newspaper and periodical shops," "publishing and bookselling," and "Internet cafes," but also "jewelry and watch making, coffee shops, gravures, the tourist industry, car rentals, hotel management, and tailoring and training institutes."

Because Baha'is are held, as apostates, to be religiously unclean, they were also to be banned from "catering at reception halls," restaurants and cafes, grocery stores, pastry, coffee, and kebab shops, and ice cream parlors. Finally, for reasons unclear, they must be excluded from "stamp making," "childcare," and "real estate," as well as cultural areas.

Baha'is are under other pressures. They are vilified in the media. Banks are closing their accounts and refusing loans. This summer in Kermanshah, according to an account on news.bahai.org, "a 70-year-old man was sentenced to 70 lashes and a year in prison for 'propagating and spreading Bahaism and the defamation of the pure Imams.' In Mazandaran, a court has once again ruled against three women and a man who are charged with 'propagation on behalf of an organization which is anti-Islamic.'" On September 9 and 10, the government bulldozed one of their cemeteries near Isfahan, while in Yazd in July another was extensively damaged by earth-moving equipment.