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“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” states Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Iran remains a signatory to this Declaration. This means that despite its attempts to distance itself from these principles, the regime is required under international law to be committed not only to the protection, but also the promotion of these inalienable rights for all its citizens.

However, numerous reports by eyewitnesses, NGOs, UN rapporteurs, independent watchdogs and the media[1] point to an irrefutable pattern of policy and practice, which maintains the supremacy of a specific interpretation of a single branch of Islam by a single individual, the Supreme Leader or the Vali-e Faqih, over the rights of an entire nation.[2] This pattern lends itself to a vague set of laws applied inconsistently that are used to suppress dissent and stifle freedom of choice. Furthermore, Iran’s Vali-e Faqih-centred system leaves no room for elements of a just government including citizenship as a birthright, equal rights for all genders, sexualities and ethnicities, plurality of opinion or the progress and development of minorities.[3] Instead, evidence suggests a repetitive cycle of violent aggression against those who demand their rights, justified in the name of a specific interpretation of the Shari’a.

The aim of this first edition of the Foreign Policy Centre’s new publication, Iran Human Rights Review, is to develop public understanding of the fundamental challenge to human rights in general, and the right to religion or belief in particular, posed by the Iranian regime led by the Vali-e Faqih. It seeks to put forward a vision of a future in which Iranians are free to follow the call of their consciences to worship as they wish to do so or not to at all, while laying out some of the steps needed to realise such a vision. It does this by providing a platform for experts with varying viewpoints to put forth their contributions to a specific area of human rights abuse in Iran.

Whether it is decrying the requirement to wear the hijab in Iran or Saudi Arabia or defending the rights of Turkish or French women to wear Islamic dress, a consistent defence of the right to choose and practice one’s religion or beliefs requires an acceptance that it is not the responsibility of the state to manage the citizen’s relationship with whichever god they or their leaders happen to believe in. While states may address the matter of faith in a variety of ways from the American and French separation of church and state to those who have a formally established faith;[4] governments should not seek to impose the practices of the dominant religion on the public or restrict the freedoms of the minorities who do not share that creed.

Where any cleric, of any faith, claims that he or she knows the complete will of God; where they will brook no challenge to their personal interpretation of their faith, the scope of theological debate and discussion is limited. In a free society citizens can choose to reject or accept a particular interpretation. However when one narrow interpretation of a faith becomes the founding principle of a state, it can create a profound challenge for the human rights and freedoms of the citizens it claims to represent.

The history is replete with examples of wars and cycles of violence caused by attempts to impose ideologies or belief systems upon others, perhaps most notably in the upheavals of the twentieth century where the struggles were predominantly political. In the twenty-first century an increasing number of victims lose their lives in the name of religion.[5] While most of these victims may not be from Iran, the fact remains that the Islamic Republic plays a leading role in practising religion-based penal codes and laws, including capital punishment. During the first decade of the new century, Iran has managed to more than quadruple the number of its state executions.[6] Its revolving-door policies on arrests, increasing practice of torture and other forms of cruel treatment as well as draconian codes on women’s family and social rights, and suffocation of its religious and ethnic minorities are but a few examples of how Iran’s theocratic rulers are challenging and defying domestic and international human rights standards, all in the name of religion.

Although Iran is the world’s only Shi’ite theocracy, the marriage of religion and political power is far from exclusive to Islam or Iran: India’s Bharatiya Janata Party use Hinduism as part of their nationalist creed of Hindutva that has led at various points to ethnic violence against sections of India’s Muslim community. Religious interpretations lie at the heart of some strands of more expansionist or exclusionist Zionism in Israel while a Buddhist clerical elite played a major role in pre-Chinese Communist controlled Tibet. The historical relationship between Christianity and political power contains the well-known mix of crusades and cathedrals, the Inquisition and innumerable works of art, literature and the foundations of the modern state. In a current European context it manifests itself as moderate conservative Christian democracy with smaller, more devout and hard-line, parties springing up, particularly in the east.

In Saudi Arabia and parts of the Gulf, Wahhabi Islam forms an important component of the political settlement of the state. While a conservative monarchy allows widespread rights to their particular brand of Islam as part of the social contract used to sustain the traditional elite in control, the promulgation of that belief system is not at the heart of the regime’s raison d’être. Iran by contrast is in a state of permanent revolution where the claim to monopoly on clerical legitimacy is at the heart of the clerics’ temporal power.[7] Iran’s revolutionary state bends all political structures towards the dissemination of its interpretation of faith both within, and increasingly, beyond its borders.

The FPC’s 2008 publication, A Revolution without Rights? Women, Kurds and Bahá’ís searching for equality in Iran, co-authored by Tahirih Danesh, in part explored religious rooted discrimination against Iran’s Bahá’í, Sunni Kurdish and female populations. Building on this research, it was felt that examining the religious roots of the Iranian state was an essential prerequisite for exploring the range of human rights abuses conducted by the regime. Consequently, the right to religion is the first topic for the Iran Human Rights Review.

To this end we have brought together a diverse range of writers who give their own views on this challenging subject. Writing from different religious and political perspectives, they argue that the current nature of its theocracy fundamentally undermines Iran’s ability to uphold international standards of human rights, despite its codes and commitments.

As contributors to this publication explain, in Iran the right to religion or belief is ultimately sabotaged by rules and policies based on the interpretations and assertions of the Vali-e Faqih, the Supreme Leader of the country. Therefore, in reality, he is the sole Iranian who has the right to practice his religion without fear of punishment.

The authorities in Iran, under the leadership of the Vali-e Faqih, misrepresent and misuse religion as a means of unleashing human rights abuses against Iranian citizens. The international community is becoming increasingly aware of Iran’s true application of human rights, as arbitrary limits are imposed on ordinary people by various arms of the Islamic Republic. However, the international community must also note Iran’s misuse of human rights jargon, a tactic used to deflect attention away from the fundamental issue with Iran, that is, the body of policies that block anyone in Iran from accessing the right to expression and practice of any religion or belief system (aside from Twelver Ja’fari Shi’a school of Islam) without fear of the most serious of consequences.

Although previous Iranian regimes placed some restrictions on freedom of religion, in today’s Iran the situation as regards freedom of religion is worse than ever before. Directly or indirectly, all Iranians are not only affected by the overwhelming powers of the Vali-e Faqih and his pronouncements on every aspect of political, social, economic, cultural or gender rights, but they also potentially face the ultimate punishment of execution. This is because none are accorded the right that is the true test of religious freedom, namely, the right to change one’s religion.[8]

Despite appearances, Iran’s tottering economy is in desperate need of a strong relationship with the international community. On the other hand, and as demonstrated time and again, Iran is highly sensitive to international pressure regarding its human rights record. However, its foreign policy machinery is learning to use this known sensitivity to manipulate the international community.[9] Consequently, dichotomous strategies based on economic interest can only strengthen Iran’s brand of governance with impunity within its borders and beyond. Therefore, the gradual strangulation of innocent civilians in the name of Islam can be stopped, only if international policymakers place Iran’s human rights record as the top condition for its engagement with the West and involve their Iranian counterparts in structural changes that can safeguard the rule of law and the promotion of human rights.

It is in light of the above position and the articles by selected experts published in this edition, that the Review offers the following policy recommendations:

  • That Iran’s human rights abuses, both past and present, receive greater attention by international policymakers.

  • That governments around the world (most pertinently to this publication the UK and Canadian governments and the EU) consider the application of targeted sanctions (freezing personal assets or travel bans) to key Iranian officials who are directly responsible for human rights abuses on grounds of religion.

  • That the governments of EU member states and the international community support the call for the appointment of a special UN human rights rapporteur for Iran.

  • That the UK and EU policymakers encourage their Iranian counterparts to fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms and procedures by:

    • Ratifying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment without reservation

    • Upholding the Articles of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

    • Responding to the 1995 report submitted by the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

    • Accepting a request by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit Iran.

  • That policymakers encourage their Iranian counterparts to facilitate structural changes to the Islamic Republic’s Guardian Council to allow the Iranian Majlis (parliament) greater freedom in its functions on behalf of Iranian people and consider amending Article 13 of the Iranian constitution to include all unrecognised religious minorities, including the Bahá’ís.

  • That the international community, in particular officials from other Muslim majority countries, encourage and facilitate dialogue with Iranian policymakers regarding the rights of religious minorities.

  • That governments consider additional measures to promote religious freedom in Iran including strengthening Iranian religious leaders, both in Iran and in the diaspora, who are able to foster an inclusive understanding of their belief system in relation to law and politics. This would mean supporting innovative educational efforts in the diaspora, online and through Farsi language television and radio focused on religious plurality as a fundamental component of human rights and democracy.

[1] A small sample of which can be found in the appendix to the review.

[2] Siyyid Hassan Taheri Khurram Abadi, 1983. Velyat-e Faqih va Hakemiyat-e Mellat. Qum: Daftar-e Entasharat-e Eslami, p. 90.

[3] On 29 September 2010 in a statement published through the official website of Ayatollah Dastgheib, this senior cleric and member of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for the selection of the Vali-e Faqih, criticised the current theory of Absolute Velayat-e Faqih and stated that the domain of the Vali’s duties is confined to that of coordinating “efforts by the three branches of the government and to prevent the violation of citizens’ rights by the three branches.” For the original Farsi version of the statement see: and for an English report see: [Accessed 7 October 2010].

[4] As a UK based think tank the editors are aware of the peculiarity in Britain where the Church of England remains established as the state church, whose leading members are able to sit in the revising chamber of parliament, (the House of Lords) despite having one of the most secular political and cultural environments in the world.

[5] Michael Penn & Aditi Malik, 2010. ‘The Protection and Development of the Human Spirit: An Expanded Focus for Human Rights Discourse’. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3: p. 4.

[6] Annual reports by Amnesty International between 2005 and 2009. Please see [Accessed 10 September 2010].

[7] In an open letter addressed to the President and members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the jailed cleric, Ayatollah Boroujerdi, demanded the investigation of human rights abuses in Iran as a result of intervention of religion into politics. See: [Accessed 6 October 2010]

[8] In Iran the punishment for changing one’s religion, or Apostasy, is death.

[9] In September 2010, just prior to President Ahmadinejad’s trip to the U.S. to attend the UN General Assembly sessions, a number of detainees who had attracted a great deal of attention in Western media and policy circles, including American Sarah Shourd, were released on bail or their sentences were reduced.

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