Iran’s Rouhani Writes to Supreme Leader On Dispute Over Suspended Zoroastrian Council Member
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has condemned the recent suspension of a Zoroastrian member of a city council as “illegal” and asked the supreme leader to intervene in the growing dispute that has highlighted divisions within the state.
In a meeting with members of the Tehran City Council on November 6, 2017, “Mr. Rouhani made some remarks about Sepanta Niknam’s situation and said he had written a letter to the supreme leader stating that the suspension is against the law and national interests and expressed hope that the matter could arrive at a final resolution,” said the council’s spokesman, Ali Eta.
Except for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, most senior Iranian officials have stated their position on Niknam’s suspension from the city council of the city of Yazd in September 2017, for being a member of the Zoroastrian faith.
News of Rouhani’s letter to Khamenei came on the heels of a statement by the spokesman for the Guardian Council reiterating its view that electing non-Muslims to local councils in Muslim-majority constituencies is not only un-Islamic but also against Iran’s “interests.”
The Guardian Council is a body of six clerics and six jurists that vets laws and elections for conformity with Islamic principles.
On October 30, Guardian Council Spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaei said the council maintains the authority to reject any law it considers un-Islamic.
“If legislators have a different point of view, they have to follow legal procedures,” he said.
For weeks, Iranian state officials have been debating the validity of the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, which permits followers of all religions recognized in Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism—to run as candidates in elections.
The ruling was in favor of Ali Asghar Bagheri, a Muslim candidate, who lodged a complaint after failing to receive enough votes to win a seat in the council.
The court based its decision on the April 2017 declaration by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative chairman of the Guardian Council, banning non-Muslims from representing Muslim-majority constituencies.
In Yazd, Akbar Ghafouri, the Guardian Council’s local representative stated on November 4 that if the law had not been declared un-Islamic, “we could reach a point in the future where all members of the city council would be religious minorities.”
He claimed more than two-thirds of the people who voted for Niknam in the May 2017 national elections for local councils were Muslims, adding, “We cannot allow religious minorities to represent Muslims.”
In his October 31 remarks, Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani said that the ban was the Guardian Council’s prerogative as the country’s highest authority in determining legislative compliance with Islamic principles.
“There’s nothing wrong with the decision of the Guardian Council’s theologians to investigate this issue from the point of view of Islamic law,” he said. “That’s their job.”
The Rouhani government has consistently spoken out against the ban.
“The Zoroastrian faith is one of our country’s officially recognized religions in the Constitution,” said spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, on October 31.
“Zoroastrians enjoy the rights of citizenship and our laws allow them to exercise those rights,” he told reporters at a press conference.
“We are looking for ways to resolve this issue before it escalates further,” he added. “The president has asked the interior minister to look into this matter and hopefully come up with a solution.”
On October 18, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, the judiciary chief’s brother, condemned Niknam’s suspension as illegal and threatened to refer the dispute to the Expediency Discernment Council for arbitration.
“In my talks with Ayatollah [Ahmad] Jannati, the honorable chairman of the Guardian Council, I emphasized that local councils should be handled according to the law,” said Larijani in a meeting with a group of city councilors.
“If this matter is not resolved, we have no choice but to refer it to the Expediency Discernment Council for a final resolution,” he added.
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.
Recognized in the Constitution, the Zoroastrian population in Iran had dwindled to about 25,000 as of 2011, according to a national census.
Niknam, 32, is the head of the Zoroastrian Association, which is based in Yazd.
Gholamali Sefid, the chairman of the Yazd city council, has consistently defended Niknam’s right to maintain his position.
“The suspension of the Zoroastrian member of the city council will put Islam in a bad light in the eyes of the people, said Sefid on November 4.
“We don’t want Islam to be harmed.”
“The argument that non-Muslims cannot rule over Muslims does not apply here because members of the councils are representatives of the people, not their rulers,” he added.
“Also, according to many [Shia] religious leaders, local councils are not ruling over people because they only deal with daily municipal affairs,” he said.