The U.S. must speak directly with Iran's religious and ethnic minorities

The figures are hard to measure, as many like Yarsani and Sufi Muslims, hide their faith inside an acceptable version of Islam in Iran. Courtesy of the  U.S. Department of State .

The figures are hard to measure, as many like Yarsani and Sufi Muslims, hide their faith inside an acceptable version of Islam in Iran. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.

“The absence of constitutional and legal recognition for non-recognized minorities entails denials of fundamental human rights for their followers. Left outside the national legal framework, unrecognized minority religious groups such as Baha’is, Christian converts, [and] Sufis...are the targets of discriminatory legislation and practices.”

- United Nations Special Rapporteur on Iran’s human rights situation

(OPINION) About 90% of the Iranian population are Shi’ite Muslims. The rest of the population identify as Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Zoroastrians. Ethnic minorities compose nearly 40 percent of the country, which include Kurds, Azerbaijani, Lors, Turkmen, Arabs, and Balochi, with the rest being ethnically Persian. Since the 1979 revolution, the regime in Tehran targets all who have not submitted to its globalist-Islamist ideology, which aims to export an extreme vision of Islamic revolution beyond its borders. 

Take the Baha’i religious community in Iran which numbers 300,000 and is considered “unofficial” in Iran. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies them as the “most severely persecuted religious minority in Iran, not recognized by the state, and denied their political, economic, cultural and religious rights.”

Since the ‘79 revolution, 200 Baha’is have been executed while just in the past three years, 95 were arrested in 2018, 84 were arrested in 2017, and 81 arrested in 2016. According to the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs, Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated and Baha’is have not been allowed to bury their dead according to their religious teachings. The 2019 International Religious Freedom report states that “Baha’is are not recognized by the state and are denied political, economic, cultural and social rights on this basis.”

Most recently, the Iranian regime’s Minister of Education Mohsen haji Mirzaei said, “if students declare that they are followers of a religion other than the official religions of the country and this action is regarded as promoting (that religion), they are banned from attending school.” In 1991 the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution declared, “once it is confirmed that a student adheres to Baha’ism, whether at the time admission or during their studies, she/he must be deprived of education.” This declaration paved the way to the arrest of 22 Baha’i students this year.

Christians have also been a target for the regime, especially in 2018: 171 Christians were arrested in 2018 compared to 16 in 2017, and arrests often occur before Christmas. USCIRF 2019 reports that Christians “have been sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches and traveling abroad to attend Christian seminars.”

Anti-semitic sentiment also continues to be an issue in Iran. In 2018, the Office of the Presidency accused Jews of manipulating the global economy and exploiting the Holocaust. The regime openly calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that when U.S. officials make speeches that criticize Iran, they “are written by Zionists word for word.”

It doesn’t stop there. Since the revolution, the regime has targeted Kurds for refusing to identify as Persian but also for being Sunni Muslims rather than Shiite. In 2018 alone, the regime executed 53 Kurds while 100 Kurds are currently on death row. Kurdish academic Asso Hassan Zadeh writes:

“The Iranian regime forbids Kurdish children to learn in their mother tongue. It prosecutes, detains, tortures, and executes civil and political activists. The regime has even resumed acts of terror and assassination of its opponents finding refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranian Kurdistan continues to be militarized, and it still suffers discrimination and underdevelopment despite the election promises.”

President Trump announced at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23 that the U.S. would dedicate “$25 million to protect religious freedom, religious sites, and relics.” Trump continued to say that “the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution. Stop the crimes against people of faith. Release prisoners of conscience. Repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief. Protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed." 

The U.S. has led the maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime, based on weakening the country’s economy. This is vital, necessary and must be continued.

However, the U.S. must also be prepared to support ethnic and religious minorities within Iran by leaving its forces in the region to reduce its military influence along with economic sanctions. Unless the U.S. is willing to implement regime change, top U.S. officials must speak directly to ethnic and religious minorities in the country as it does with Iranian Persians, especially the president, Secretary Mike Pompeo and Congress.

Congress has the ability to recognize the atrocities against each individual group in Iran like it did with H. Res. 274, which condemned the regime’s persecution of its Baha’i minority. These minorities must be assured that the U.S. understands their situation, is listening to their grievances and is ready to support them if the opportunity arises.

Diliman Abdulkader is an advisor to Freedom to Believe and the director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, LLC. Follow him on Twitter @D_abdulkader