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MPs Defend Suspended Zoroastrian City Council Member

Sepanta Niknam, a member of Yazd city council who has been suspended by a highly controversial decision.

As negative reactions to the suspension of a Zoroastrian minority member of Yazd City Council continue, several MPs have also stepped in calling for immediate cancellation of the decision.

In a letter to the speaker of parliament on Saturday, October 14, Yazd MPs demanded ending the suspension of Zoroastrian councilor, Sepanta Niknam, reinstating him in his elected position.

Sepanta Niknam received a temporary suspension verdict from Iran's State Administrative Court of Justice, according to Gholamali Sefid, the head of the council.

"We will try to make sure this verdict does not become finalized, and even if this happens, we will take other measures," Sefid told Iran’s official news agency, IRNA.

The State Administrative Court of Justice has based its verdict on a guideline issued by the conservative chairman of the influential Guardian Council, GC, 90-year old ultra- conservative ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

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 refrring 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."

However, Center for Human Rights in Iran, CHRI, citing a reformist former MP, Ahmad Shirzad, asserts, “Mr. Khomeini’s ‘speeches’ are not ‘Islamic rulings’. They are his commentaries on political and social issues, which were sometimes contradictory. At one point in time he said one thing and at other times he said completely the opposite.”

Niknam was elected for the second time as a member of Yazd City Council in May.

Reiterating the fact that Niknam’s membership in the previous term did not create any problem, the president of Yazd City Council, Gholam-Ali Sefid said, "If a suspension verdict is issued, it will be a big shock to the people and the council.”

“It will have domestic and international political consequences and will harm the harmony between Yazd’s Muslim majority and Zoroastrian minority,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sefid insisted that in no way he will accept the legitimacy of the verdict.

Sefid and a number of his colleagues have threatened to resign from their positions, if Niknam is kept out of the council.

The suspension, so far, has triggered widespread criticism against the Guardian Council and the State Administrative Court of Justice.

The outspoken Tehran’s MP and deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Motahari, criticized the suspension as “illegal”, saying “the verdict was issued only based on the personal opinion of ayatollah Jannati”. It contradicted a law that the Guardian Council had approved years ago, Motahari added, and promised to follow the matter through with the parliament.

Now, all five MPs of the city of Yazd have joined the chorus, defending the suspended Zoroastrian member of their city council.

According to IRNA, six thousand Zoroastrians live in city of Yazd, yet most of the votes Niknam garnered were cast by Muslims.

Guardian Council’s Jannati has argued that Article 26 of the Law on the Formation, Duties and Election of National Islamic Councils (1996)—which explicitly allows candidates to be followers of any of the religions recognized in Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution: Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism—is against Islam.

Ali Motaheri has pointed out that the letter is merely Jannati’s personal interpretation and not the GC’s resolution.

Former MP, Shirzad, has also said the Guardian Council is not constitutionally endowed with the power to stop Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians—officially recognized in the Constitution—from becoming candidates in constituencies where Muslims are the majority.

“I think Mr. [Ahmad] Jannati, and other gentlemen like him, have forgotten their seminary lessons,” said Shirzad, adding “...they say things others find impossible to defend… I don’t think the Guardian Council’s ruling will change anything. It has no legal foundation.”

“Because of his advanced years (90), Mr. Jannati is not aware of the legal consequences of his actions,” added Shirzad. “It’s time for him to rest at home and hand over the responsibility to those who can do the job in accordance with the law.”

The controversy over Niknam’s reinstatement started when his closest competitor in the city council election, conservative candidate Ali Asghar Baqiri, was defeated in last May’s elections and raised a formal complaint against the winner.

In an interview with reformist daily, Etemad, Niknam, while reiterating that people and political personalities unanimously condemn the State Administrative Court of Justice’s verdict, has jovially said, “The truth is, I am the real winner in this event since I have become more popular and famous than before”.

Niknam has also maintained, “People of Yazd, by voting for me, crystalized the friendship, intimacy and sympathy among Muslims and the minority in our city”.