Fact Checks: A Sunni Ambassador & A Major in Kurdish Language and Literature

Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, has claimed that “we have a Sunni ambassador.” Additionally, in his late August 2015 press conference in Kurdistan Province, President Rouhani mentioned that establishing a “major” for “Kurdish language and literature” in Kurdistan province has been among the measures that his government has taken.

In order to fact check these two claims made by Hassan Rouhani, Rouhani Meter has reviewed the regulations related to the appointment of foreign ambassadors in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sunni MPs’ remarks in this regard, as well as the challenges involved in creating a major for Kurdish language and literature during the past three governments.

In response to questions regarding discrimination against Sunni Muslims in Iran, President Rouhani has claimed that Sunnis are part of the Iranian population and are engaged in every aspect of Iran’s public life, be it as governors, deputy governors, public servants, deputy ministers, or ambassadors. Rouhani believes that the participation of Sunnis in all aspects of Iran’s public life is one of the government’s significant achievements.  

Based on Iran’s Constitution and the regulations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, religion is not a criterion under which ambassadors are appointed to serve in foreign countries. Sunni activists in Iran, however, argue that not a single member of their religious minority has been promoted to the highest levels of the Islamic Republic’s embassies outside Iran.   

Based on Article 128 of the Constitution, in the section describing the president’s responsibilities, the “appointment of ambassadors is by nomination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs subject to the President’s approval.”

A short while after the election of President Rouhani, Morteza Bank, the deputy chief of presidential administration, said that “ambassadors to a country are representatives of a nation, too, and shall create a dialogue about the civilization of the nation outside the country.” When describing the criteria for the appointment of ambassadors, Mr. Bank had stated that “they should be educated, experienced, trustworthy, and believe in the principles of the Islamic Republic. They should love Iran and the Iranian people, and convey the message of Iranians, as well as the history and civilization of Iran to the world.”

In the past few years, the Sunnis, their MPs in Majlis, and political activists have complained that in the history of the Islamic Republic not a single Sunni has been appointed as an ambassador.

Rouhani Meter has made numerous contacts with Sunni activists, especially former MPs and government officials, and none of them could confirm that a Sunni ambassador has worked under the Islamic Republic system or, as President Rouhani claimed, had been appointed by the present administration.

Mohammad Ali Toufighi is a journalist, a political activist, and the only Sunni member in the “Revolution Mojaheddin Organization” leadership council.

In reaction to Mr. Rouhani’s claim, Mr. Toufighi said, “unfortunately I have to reject this claim; it is not true, because based on Supreme National Security Council regulations, Sunnis will not be appointed as ambassadors, and not only Sunnis but also some ethnic minorities like Kurds are not allowed to work at any level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and especially not in Iranian embassies in foreign countries.”

According to Mr. Toufighi, such restrictions on Sunnis include their appointment to posts like ambassadors and embassy staff, but also go beyond foreign missions and include Sunnis’ employment in sensitive management positions such as ministerial staff, university chairmanships, educational posts, military, and security.

In response to President Rouhani’s claim about having a Sunni ambassador, Mr. Toufighi says that “instead of altering the truth, [Rouhani] had better point to existing barriers, because on both sides of him [at the press conference in Kurdistan] there were two senior figures [representatives of the leader and the governor], and neither of them were Sunni – nor even from Kurdistan.”    

In light of statements from Sunni MPs and activists to the contrary, we rate as “false” President Rouhani’s claim that his government has appointed a Sunni ambassador to represent Iran abroad.

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Update: Only a few weeks after Hassan Rouhani’s remarks, IRNA, Iran’s official state news agency, reported that Saleh Adibi, chair of the Kurdistan Think Tank Foundation and an alumnus of Kurdistan University – a Sunni Kurd – had been appointed as an ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Which government started to establish a major for Kurdish language and literature?

In his press conference with the journalists in Sanandaj, Hassan Rouhani said that “in a climate in which the subversive forces across the world are focused on creating rifts between Sunni and Shiite followers, all of us, our government and our nation, shall focus our efforts on bringing the government one step closer to unity. You take the initiative and ask ordinary Kurds, Baluchi, Turkmens, and other ethnicities whether they feel that their living conditions, compared with the pre-election period, have improved or not? [The answer to this question] proves that the government has put its utmost efforts and capabilities into improving [these groups’] living conditions. Did you ever imagine that we would establish a major for Kurdish language and literature?”

While there is no way to measure the improvements in the living conditions of the people of Kurdistan – such measurement is not even possible at the national level – the government’s claim that it has created a major for language and literature in Kurdish is something that can be verified and tracked.

A few days before President Rouhani’s remarks about the Kurdish major, the Dean of Kurdistan University and a number of university figures that had pursued this matter had announced that for the first time ever, the university will accept about 40 applicants to study Kurdish language and literature in the next Iranian academic year.

The major has been included in the list of the educational fields that are offered for the university entrance exam.

Bakhtiar Sajjadi, chair of the council responsible for launching the Kurdish major at the University of Kurdistan, has detailed all the basic and advanced educational courses.

Kurdish activists greatly welcomed the execution of the plan; however, they claimed that the major was not “established” by Rouhani’s government.

The bill to establish a major for Kurdish language and literature was approved about 15 years ago and its name was even mentioned in the list of the majors offered by the university in the past, but the whole issue was forgotten when the 10th government came to power and the term of the sixth Majlis ended.

Jalal Jalali, former Sanandaj MP in the 6th Majlis and the Sunni chair of the Kurdish MPs committee, has confirmed that creation of the major was initiated by (6th) Majlis MPs, and at the time President Khatami approved it and the major was supposed to be introduced at the university, but former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad barred the legislation from being implemented when he came to power.

Mohammad Ali Toufighi is a Kurdish Sunni member of the “Revolution Mojahedin Organization” leadership council. Mr. Toufighi confirms that the major was established during the term of the 6th Majlis, and that the Ministry of Education approved the Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Kurdish Literature, with President Khatami announcing the formation of the department during his 2005 trip to Sanandaj. According to Mr. Toufighi, Ahmadinejad’s claims in this regards were fake and he did not fulfill his empty promises. While Toufighi is not very optimistic about the idea of strengthening the Kurdish language and culture, he remains hopeful that President Rouhani will be able to put aside challenges and really execute the plan.

In an interview with Rouhani Meter, Mr. Toufighi expressed hope that Rouhani is the last president that repeats this promise, and that after long delays and numerous barriers, the BA in Kurdish Literature will ultimately be up and running at Kurdistan University.

In his statement about “ethnicities, religions, and faiths,” President Rouhani promised to allow minority mother tongues to be officially taught at schools and universities, and that such an action would in fact constitute full implementation of Article 15 in Iran’s Constitution. He characterized this issue as among the key promises of his election campaign.

The bill regarding the establishment of a Kurdish language and literature major will be a significant improvement in regard to Article 15 of the Constitution, but the “creation” of such a major is not an achievement of the 11th government, as President Rouhani has claimed.  

It is worth mentioning that President Rouhani’s administration has tried to implement this legislation, and that the activists who advocate for the Kurdish language have considered the government’s efforts to be very important.  

If the controversial legislation is fully implemented, it will be the very first time in Iran’s history that the Kurdish language is taught in a university as a major. President Rouhani’s claim about his “creation” of the major is “half-true”, since this issue has faced numerous barriers in the past, but also because this endeavour is among the most important efforts of the government in fulfilling its promise regarding Article 15 of Iran’s Constitution.

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