The news from Iran seems to get worse every day.
Most recently, the regime announced that it will be trying seven Baha’is for “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” It is presumed that the Baha’is being tried are the imprisoned group of leaders who were arrested and jailed in a raid last year. The spurious charges against this group are not new, and they represent the slippery application of law that passes for justice in Iran. As articles of faith, Baha’is honour Islam as a divine religion and are obedient to their government, and the presence of the Baha’i World Centre in Israel is an historical consequence of Baha’u'llah’s exile to Acre by the Persian and Ottoman Empires.
The legal process in Iran is so opaque that the facts in this case will be obscured if it ends up in court.
The charges against the Baha’i leaders are the latest in a series of escalating steps taking by the Iranian government to implement its official policy of “blocking the progress and development” of the Baha’i community. Most worryingly, lists of Baha’is have been drafted and circulated with the intention of monitoring members of the community. Dozens of Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge, anti-Baha’i campaigns have been carried out by state media, Baha’i cemeteries have been destroyed, and Baha’i homes have been burned down. It is a chilling pattern of state-sponsored action.
The political backdrop to all of this is the instability of the conservative power alignment in Iran. Power is concentrated within the hands of several dozen families, and more specifically within the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei; the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad simply reflects the broader rise of conservatives who espouse a rigid and narrow interpretation of Islam. The historical pattern in Iran (even under the Shah) has been that when the government is unstable or threatened it inflames deep-rooted anti-Baha’i prejudice to mobilize mass support. Recent discussion of Mohammad Khatami’s possible campaign for the presidency (and a broader challenge from reformists) is an indication that the government feels threatened.
The question of diplomacy
This all raises the question of how the international community — most specifically America — should respond to Iran. Diplomacy is urgently needed. Past relations with the US have been afflicted with a lack of trust, related to an underlying suspicion that the US does not accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as Iran’s government. Saber rattling over the nuclear question can be seen in this context: the desire of the Islamic Republic for the world to accept its legitimacy. Iran gets attention every time a nuclear announcement is made — achieving the desired aim, to bolster its perceived standing in the community of nations.
Rather than ignoring the appalling human rights conditions in Iran, western states need to push a broader standard of state sovereignty — one that has been echoing in the halls of the United Nations. This is a notion that states have a sovereign responsibility to uphold the rights of their citizens. The world should not preach to Iran, but states should be clear that their respect for Iran depends upon its treatment of its people.
Upholding this standard requires constant pressure, but it also requires open dialogue and basic respect. Underlying this dialogue must be an acceptance that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate government, and that the respect for civil rights is fully compatible with Shi’a Islam. By negotiating within these terms, America and other nations will win allies within Iran and constrain the room for hostile factions to maneuver.
To start with, however, America and other states need to engage Iran on the treatment of the Baha’is.