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Iran's Nuclear Crisis: Obama Could Play the Human Rights Card

Nina Shea & Jamsheed K. Choksy

Today’s announcement by President Obama and European leaders that Iran is building a secret underground nuclear facility adds fresh urgency to an issue that’s been festering for years. Tensions will now be considerably higher among negotiators at the planned Oct. 1 meeting about Iran’s nuclear program.

Already, there is talk of much-harsher sanctions if Iran does not meet international demands in the next two months. “Everything must be put on the table now,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

One issue that should be put on the table was displayed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week in New York: Iran’s religious minorities.

Iran’s deplorable record on human rights is often treated as separate from the nuclear issue. It’s not. If Iran’s government can’t be trusted to treat its own citizens with basic dignity, how can it be trusted with nuclear technology?

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s theatrics involved including five religious minority parliamentarians in his entourage to the UN General Assembly, this week. This act shows how eager Tehran is to be accepted back into the community of nations. Thus, the human rights card could be considerable leverage for Western powers in coming weeks.

When he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, Ahmadinejad professed concern for “justice, freedom, and human rights.” He apparently thought his five props would help him project a tolerant, peace-loving face. It was a stiff performance.

Iran is one “big and unified family” with full legal rights for religious minorities, he declared when choosing these minority representatives, according to official reports. Yet these people could not refuse.

Not only could they be punished if they resisted, their religious communities would suffer the hard-line regime’s reprisals as well. “Communal welfare is important,” a well-placed Iranian religious leader explained before the New York trip. “So absence will not be possible.”

Iran’s Constitution technically grants all citizens freedom of worship, sanctity for holy sites, equal standing under the law, and access to employment. But the Islamic Republic has destroyed its great cultural patrimony and reduced freedoms to unconvincing, exploitative acts of propaganda.

Under the Constitution, the election of these five representatives is one of the few rights afforded the four “recognized” religious minorities predating Islam in Persia. These minorities live essentially as dhimmis, the protected though subjugated “people of the Book” of medieval times.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they have been barred from high government office. Their religious ceremonies and celebrations are subject to police raids to ensure they abide by “Islamic standards.”

Their synagogues, churches, fire temples, and tombs (including that of the prophet Daniel) are frequently defaced with monumental photos of ayatollahs and other propaganda. Their schools are administered by Iran’s Education Ministry, which imposes a state-approved religious textbook and typically appoints the principals.

Any non-Muslim found guilty of a Muslim’s death faces capital punishment, though the opposite does not hold true. Store owners often are compelled to display prominent signs indicating they are najasa or ritually unclean. Non-Muslims experience high unemployment at more than double the national average of 12.5 percent, especially as they are discriminated against in employment by the large state sector.

Apart from the four heritage religious minorities (Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, and Zoroastrians) that are allotted parliamentary seats, there are other groups who have even fewer rights. Bahais, treated as heretics from Islam, have no constitutional protections. They can be robbed and murdered with impunity since Iranian law declares that their blood is mobah or can be spilt. Major Bahai shrines have been demolished and the people can assemble only in secrecy.

Religious discrimination and persecution were not always the norm in Iran. In the Persian empire of antiquity, Cyrus the Great established a policy of religious tolerance. His attitude of acceptance is sometimes described as the first charter of human rights.

Collectively, Iran’s non-Muslim communities have dwindled from approximately 10 percent of the country’s 70 million people to 1979 to no more than 2 percent today . Under constant pressures because of their religious faiths, they have fled the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution in far greater proportions than Muslim Iranians.

Members of Iran’s religious minorities and other oppressed groups have indicated they expect the US administration to press Ahmadinejad’s regime into ameliorating their situation. They seek viable, lasting, solutions based on implementing the rights that Iran’s Constitution claims all citizens enjoy.

If Ahmadinejad’s regime meets obligations to its fellow Iranians, then it is more likely to fulfill agreements with the international community. Transparency and well-being, rather than secrecy and aggression as reflected yet again by the recently revealed nuclear facility are necessary in Iran’s national and international affairs.

Ultimately, when free to express their beliefs and ideas, Iran’s people will be the best guarantors of their nation’s fidelity in world affairs.

As Britain, China, France, Germany, the US, and Russia sit down with Iran on Oct. 1, they should see Ahmadinejad’s posturing for what it is and use the meeting to address not only the issue of nuclear strategy, but also human rights.

The current Iranian regime’s three-decade-long record of intolerance and violence cannot be ignored.

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