Sepanta Niknam, 32, is the first Zoroastrian who has served as a city councilor in Yazd and the only non-Muslim in all city councils in Iran. However, he was suspended after serving a full term and re-elected this year.
The Court of Administrative Justice led by the head of the judiciary, ultra conservative ayatollah Sadiq Amoli Larijani has ordered the Governor of Yazd to suspend the Niknam’s membership.
Nevertheless, the head of Yazd city council, Gholam Ali Sefid and several other members of the council have insisted that they will resign from their posts if the suspension is not revoked.
The conservative court’s decision was prompted by a complaint from a rival, Ali Asghar Bagheri, who was one of Niknam’s opponents in last May’s elections.
Niknam garnered more than 20,000 votes, kept his seat as a city councilor and Bagheri, with only 7707 votes, ranked 45th and was left out of the eleven-member council.
This was the second time someone has challenged Niknam’s election to the Council, by zooming on his minority religion.
Four years ago, in Yazd’s 2013 City Council election, Niknam collected nearly 20,000 votes and defeated a conservative clergyman; Mohammad Mahdi Horrzadeh.
The young conservative cleric also tried to turn the tables on Niknam, by highlighting his religion to block his membership in the Council.
Horrzadeh, argued that according to Shiite Islamic teachings and principles, religious minorities, including Zoroastrians are prohibited from representation in a council where Muslims’ issues are resolved.
The young cleric’s efforts were unsuccessful since most of those who had voted for the Zoroastrian candidate were Muslims. Niknam had collected more than 20,000 votes while according to unofficial statistics, there are only 5,000 Zoroastrians living in Yazd, and not all of them are eligible to vote.
Therefore, Niknam stayed in and proudly completed his term as a Councilman.
His clergy challenger was vanquished by people’s votes and ayatollahs who preferred to ignore Horrzadeh’s demands for issuing fatwas against Niknam’s victory.
Later, the young clergy, Horrzadeh was apparently awarded for his fight against a member of the minority and got appointed to ayatollah ALi Khamenei's representative to Yazd province universities.
However, Niknam’s new challenger looks set to achieve what Horrzadeh failed to do; keeping Niknam out of the council, at least for the time being.
It is worth noting that Bagheri has a friend a fellow Yazdi citizen among the Guards in a very influential position.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Bagheri and IRGC chief commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari fought hand in hand in Sousangerd front, in 1980.
Is this an ace in Bagheri’s sleeve? It is hard to say, since there is no direct evidence that General Jafari is involved in Bagheri’s attempts to oust Niknam.
But in the political environment of Iran, having such a powerful friend can certainly help.
Disregarding that he was ranked 45th for an eleven-member city council, Bagheri did not end his efforts to deprive the seventh ranked Niknam of his seat in the council.
First, he sought the influential Guardian Council’s (GC) help. Soon, he found out that GC has no legal power over city council elections.
In Iran, City Council elections, contrary to presidential and parliamentary elections are not supervised by the influential Guardian Council chaired by the 90-year old ultra conservative ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. It is parliament’s responsibility to supervise city council elections.
By issuing a guideline aimed at Niknam, Ayatollah Jannati tried to disqualify the minority candidate from running in the city council elections.
For his part, Jannati, in a letter published on Tuesday, April 18, noted that religious minorities are not allowed to stand as candidates since it contradicts the views of the founder of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), “and is therefore against the tenets of Sharia (Islamic law).”
Apparently, Jannati was referring to a speech made by Khomeini on October 4, 1979, less than a year after the Islamic Republic was established in Iran.
“First of all, [candidates for council seats] should be Muslims. Second, they should believe in our movement. They should be trustworthy and sincere in their faith."
Nevertheless, the speaker of the parliament, Ali larijani stepped in and asked the election supervisors to stick to the law and not to follow Jannati’s guideline.
Therefore, Ali Asghar Bagheri opened up a new front against Niknam by complaining to the Court of Administrative Justice.
Now with the court order suspending Niknam’s membership in Yazd city council, Bagheri appears to be winning outside the voting arena.
Meanwhile the suspension has triggered an avalanche of criticism in social media and among human rights activists, as well as reformists and President Hassan Rouhani’s supporters.
On October 18, 2017, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani reiterated that suspending Sepanta Niknam from his elected seat for not being a Muslim is illegal.
“If this matter is not resolved, we have no choice other than referring it to the Expediency Discernment Council for a final resolution,” said Ali Larijani in a meeting with a group of city councilors.
According to Article 112 of Iran’s Constitution, the Expediency Discernment Council can issue final rulings when the Guardian Council, the clerical body that vets elections and laws for conformity with Islamic principles, and Parliament cannot agree on a piece of legislation, reports Center for Human Rights in Iran.
“In my talks with Ayatollah [Ahmad] Jannati, the honorable secretary of the Guardian Council, I emphasized that local councils should be handled according to the law,” averred Larijani.