Iran’s Minorities and Rouhani’s Promises

After more than 250 days of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, two recent events concerning ethnic and religious minorities have brought the President’s electoral promises back to public attention.

The first event was the role of Sunni clerics and Balouch tribal leaders in the release of four hijacked border patrol personnel. Molavi Abdul-Hamid Ismaili Zehi, the Friday prayer leader of Zahedan and senior Sunni cleric, had a special role in the release negotiations. Together with Balouch leaders sent an envoy to negotiate with the hijackers, securing the release of the four guards who were transported back to Iran from Pakistan.

Afterwards in an announcement, President Rouhani offered the victory of the release to the Supreme leader and the army chief and accredited the result to the prudence of the government and the national security authorities.

It was only after this that in an interview with Shargh newspaper, the government’s spokesman, Mohammad Nobakht, thanked “the achievment of the trusted local forces” in the release of the border guards, but did not use the terms “Sunni clerics” or “Balouch tribes”.

The second event that brought attention to Rouhani’s promises was the announcement of his travels to the province of Sistan and Balouchestan on April 16th and 17th.

Compared to the previous administration, there is now more focus directed on Rouhani’s behaviour towards religious and ethnic minorities, since during his presidential campaign he promised to appoint a “deputy from minorities” and  said that “we have to deal with minority issues and the presence of one of them beside the President can make us more familiar with their problems.”

Furthermore, in his third electoral statement published on June 3, 2013, Rouhani promised to “draw up a special legislation to fully implement the principles of the constitution in hope to tackle the discrimination”.

“Public participation in the country’s macroeconomic management irrespective of language and religion and implementation of the principle of meritocracy at all political and administrative levels”, the promise to “remove undue discrimination in all its forms and dimensions”, “abandoning the look towards the ethnicities from the security lens”, “the appointment of qualified local managers in different regions of the country”, and “respecting the rights of the followers of other religions” were all provisions in Rouhani’s election statement to the minorities. Rouhani also promised to “transfer the responsibility of necessary plans and coordination to one of his deputies in order to achieve the nine points in this statement”.

Eight months into Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, the promise to “appoint members of Iran’s minority groups as advisors to the President” has not yet been met and the only action in this regard has been the appointment of Ali Younesi, a Shiite cleric and information minister of President Khatami, as Special Assistant to the President in matters of ethnic and religious minorities.

Despite Article 13 of the constitution identifying Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as “official religious minorities”, these minorities are not present in Rouhani’s administration nor in mid-level government management. Also, despite Rouhani’s campaign promises in Statement No. 3 and the fact that Sunni Muslims make up 15 percent of Iran’s population, there are no Sunnis in the Cabinet or among the President’s deputies.

Overall, Rouhani Meter researchers view the approach of Rouhani’s administration towards the minorities enshrined in the constitution as more positive than that of Ahmadinejad’s government. However, there have been several reports about violations of the rights of Iranians of Baha’i Faith, Yaresan Faith, Gonabadi Dervishes, Christian converts and some ethnic minorities in the past eight months.