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.
In May 2006, 54 Baha'is were arrested in Shiraz, the largest roundup since the 1980s. Over the last two years, some 129 have been arrested, released on bail, and are now awaiting trial. In many cases, high bail demands have required Baha'is to hand over business or work licenses and deeds to property. There are also threats from vigilante groups such as the uneuphemistic "Association Hostile to Apostate Baha'is," which has threatened the life of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi for her defense of them.
These events clearly demonstrate that the Iranian regime is vicious even toward gentle, peaceful, and apolitical people. But they also show that the government remains afraid of international opprobrium on this and other points. The 2006 directive ordered security officials to proceed "cautiously and carefully" lest too much notice be taken. There are additional indications that the regime, rather than being proud of what it claims are "Islamic principles," seems determined to hide them.
When asked about Baha'is in his September 24 National Press Club speech, President Ahmadinejad said merely that Iran recognizes only four "divine religions." He declined to mention or defend either the government's recent actions or the regime's longstanding "Laws of Islamic Punishment" under which Baha'is fall in the category of "murder with impunity" so that, if they are murdered, the state will not punish their killers. (At Columbia University, he showed similar shame about his country's draconian penal code in deflecting a question about Iran's intolerance of gays by asserting that there are no homosexuals in Iran. While proclaiming the glories of the Iranian model, he hid the fact that Articles 109 and 110 of its legal code prescribe the death penalty for male homosexual acts, while Articles 129 and 131 specify 100 lashes for women, with death for the fourth offense.)
But Iran's growing systematic campaign against Baha'is suggests something more. These regulations and restrictions are not haphazard but are systematically structured and, as such, are remarkably reminiscent of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws imposed against Jews in the 1930s. They are steps toward the destruction of a religious community, and they require the international condemnation and pressure that the Nuremberg Laws did not receive.
Iran's actions are reminiscent of the Nazis in another way: Even while under great internal and external pressure, the regime is still committed to diverting resources to pursue an ideological and religious campaign that conforms to no realist evaluation of any national interest. The mullahs' Iran is not a normal country.
Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.