CHRI – A photograph of Sepanta Niknam, who was suspended from the Yazd City Council for being a member of the Zoroastrian faith, on the front page of the reformist Bahar newspaper.
Several reformist newspapers in Iran have criticized a senior Muslim Shia theologian for supporting the suspension of a city council member on the grounds that he is Zoroastrian—a religious minority in the Islamic Republic.
On October 3, 2017, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the Guardian Council, which vets laws for conformity with Islamic principles, reiterated the council’s view that non-Muslims should be blocked from running as candidates in elections in Muslim-majority constituencies.
“Those who have made a political issue out of this are spreading propaganda that the ban on the Zoroastrian member of the city council in Yazd is somehow illegal,” Yazdi told the hardline conservative news agency, Tasnim. “No, I state clearly that nobody can reverse this decision,”
“No one can comment on this decision except the Guardian Council’s theologians,” he added. “If they make a ruling that something is against Islamic law, it cannot be implemented unless it is revised.”
Yazdi meant that if the Guardian Council determines a law is un-Islamic, the law itself cannot be implemented until it is changed to conform with Islamic principles.
Yazdi continued: “Frankly, those who are seeking to reverse the council’s ruling are in fact standing against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and, to be sure, the state will stand against them.”
In September 2017, the Administrative Court in Yazd ordered the “temporary suspension” of councilman Sepanta Niknam, a member of the minority Zoroastrian religious faith, in response to a complaint filed by Ali Asghar Bagheri, a Muslim candidate, who did not win a seat in Iran’s May 2017 local council elections.
The ruling was based on a letter issued by Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative chairman of the Guardian Council, a month before the elections, forbidding religious minorities from standing as candidates for seats in Muslim-majority constituencies.
“Whether the Guardian Council’s decision is right or wrong requires a separate discussion, but Ayatollah Yazdi’s statement accusing opponents of the decision of standing against the foundations of the state does not conform with any religious principles or existing laws,” wrote Jafar Mohammadi, editor of the reformist Asre Iran newspaper, in an October 25th editorial.
“The foundations of the state do not rest on whether Zoroastrians can or cannot be elected to local councils, and therefore, taking sides is not a measure of loyalty to the state,” added Mohammadi. “If that were the case, then you would have to include Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani among the opponents of the state as well!”
Describing the councilman’s suspension as illegal, Larijani pledged on October 18 to refer the dispute to the country’s highest arbitration body, the Expediency Council.
The editorial continued: “If the supreme leader has said even he can be criticized, how then can a member of the Guardian Council accuse its critics of undermining the foundations of the state?”
Article 112 of Iran’s Constitution gives the Expediency Discernment Council authority to issue final rulings when the Guardian Council and Parliament cannot agree on a piece of legislation.
Article 26 of the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils permits followers of all the religions recognized in Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism—to run as candidates in elections.
The leader of Yazd’s Zoroastrian Association, Niknam, 32, mentioned his faith during both his successful 2013 and 2017 election campaigns.
Yazd is home to some of the world’s most revered Zoroastrian religious sites. Followers of the ancient pre-Islamic faith have lived in the region for thousands of years, but their population in Iran had dwindled to about 25,000, according to Iran’s 2011 national census.
The day after Yazdi’s comments, the reformist daily Bahar published Niknam’s photo on its front page with the headline, “No Minorities Allowed.”
“The attack by the theologian member of the Guardian Council against opponents of Niknam’s suspension has taken place while the heads of the legislative and executive branches of the state are among the critics,” said an unsigned report in Bahar on October 25. “It seems the issue has reached a dead end.”
In addition to Parliament Speaker Larijani, the top legal adviser to the government of President Hassan Rouhani spoke of the rights of religious minorities in discussing the dispute.
“I have been given the task to prepare a comprehensive report about this case so that the government can take a stand against this decision,” said the vice president for citizens’ rights and affairs, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, on October 25. “We hope we can resolve this in talks with the Guardian Council.”