Former MP: Guardian Council Has “No Legal Authority” to Exclude Religious Minorities From Elections
The Guardian Council’s attempt to ban religious minorities from running in Iran’s nationwide local council elections on May 19, 2017 is unlawful and infringes on their constitutional rights, a former reformist member of Parliament told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
Ahmad Shirzad, who represented Isfahan in the sixth parliamentary session (2000-04), said the Guardian Council is not constitutionally endowed with the power to stop Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians—officially recognized in the Constitution—from becoming candidates in constituencies where Muslims are the majority.
“I think Mr. [Ahmad] Jannati, and other gentlemen like him, have forgotten their seminary school lessons,” said Shirzad. “In their senile state, they say things others find impossible to defend… I don’t think the Guardian Council’s ruling will change anything. It has no legal foundation.”
“Because of his advanced years (90), Mr. Jannati is not aware of the legal consequences of his actions,” added Shirzad. “It’s time for him to rest at home and hand over the responsibility to those who can do the job in accordance with the law.”
In a letter on behalf of the council published on April 18, ultra-conservative chairman Ahmad Jannati wrote that religious minorities could not stand as candidates because that contradicts the views of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), “and is therefore against the tenants of Sharia (Islamic law).”
The council is arguing that Article 26 of the Law on the Formation, Duties and Election of National Islamic Councils (1996)—which explicitly allows candidates to be followers of any of the religions recognized in Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution: Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism—is against Islam.
However, according to the Constitution’s Article 99, the Guardian Council’s authority is limited to vetting candidates for president, Parliament and the Assembly of Experts—not local councils.
“The qualification of candidates for the council elections has nothing to do with the Guardian Council or its chairman,” Shirzad told CHRI. “The monitoring authority in this case is Parliament.”
He continued: “Mr. Jannati thinks the Guardian Council can impose its will on any election, but whatever powers it claims to have should be within the law. Often the Guardian Council has acted arbitrarily.”
A number of current MPs have also expressed outrage at the council’s attempt to exclude religious minorities, including Esfandiar Ekhtiari, who represents Iran’s Zoroastrian community.
In a letter to Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on April 19, Esfandiari wrote: “If this ruling is implemented and followers of other divine faiths are prevented from participating in the [council] elections, it will be in violation of the Constitution and contrary to basic fairness and equality. Therefore… I expect that as the head of the legislature, you will act in accordance with the Constitution and issue orders as necessary.”
“If this trend continues, our laws will be annulled every day,” added the representative of Iran’s most ancient minority.
Later that day, Ghasem Mirzaie Nikoo, a member of the monitoring committee for council elections, revealed that the committee had received a written directive from Larijani to ignore the Guardian Council’s decision and resume registering all candidates in accordance with the law.
Senior Shia theologian Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei publicly disagreed with the Guardian Council.
However, the controversy is still simmering. On April 20, Guardian Council Spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaie insisted that the ruling was mandatory.
“For instance, the last chairman of the city council in Yazd was a Zoroastrian (Sepanta Niknam),” he said. “But with this ruling issued by the Guardian Council’s theologians, from now on non-Muslims cannot be elected to councils in places where most people are Muslims.”
Despite the Guardian Council’s declaration, religious minorities have registered to run in Iran’s elections for city and village councils on May 19.
Shirzad told CHRI that there is no justification for denying religious minorities their right to run in local elections.
“It makes no logical sense to deny someone from being elected for religious reasons,” he added. “Councils do not decide on religious matters. They discuss local development issues affecting people’s daily lives. Muslims, non-Muslims, it makes no difference.”
He continued: “We have many Armenians in our city. They have been living in Isfahan for hundreds of years. They have very peaceful, brotherly and amicable lives alongside Muslims who in turn have special respect for Armenians. Now, just because Armenians are not the majority, should they not have any representatives in the city council?”
He added: “Other than a few sparsely-populated Armenian Christian villages, religious minorities are dispersed throughout Iran. I don’t understand how Muslims like me could be harmed if an Armenian or some other religious minority becomes a member of our local council. We are all Iranians and religious differences have no bearing on our administrative and professional work.”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Jannati thinks within very narrow parameters. It seems he’s very pleased with himself for graciously allowing others to breath,” he said. “He truly believes that Iran is his private domain and everyone thinks like he does. But the majority in fact do not.”
Shirzad also questioned the Guardian Council for basing its ruling on a speech made by Khomeini on October 4, 1979, less than a year after the country’s revolution.
“First of all, [candidates for council seats] should be Muslims. Second, they should believe in our movement. They should be trustworthy and sincere in their faith. They should be committed to Islamic laws. They should not have a criminal record. Clerics should become candidates, too, as well as bazaar merchants and other professionals. But they should all be Muslims in the real sense of the word. Of course, those who are not Muslims can have their own councils and elections,” Khomeini told members of the Assembly of Experts.
Shirzad, who teaches quantum mechanics at Isfahan University of Technology, commented: “In the best of scenarios, the late Mr. Khomeini was a theologian or an eminent jurist, but you cannot take the views of any theologian or jurist as a source for Sharia law.”
The former legislator continued: “Mr. Khomeini’s speeches are not Islamic rulings. They are his commentaries on political and social issues, which were sometimes contradictory. At one point in time he said one thing and at other times he said completely the opposite.”
“In any case, he was a political leader and naturally he could have expressed different views at different times,” added Shirzad. “But in no way can you rely on a political or religious leader’s speeches as a source of Islamic law.”