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Rouhani Defends Minorities’ Rights

Highlighting the need to have religious minorities, youth, and women in managerial positions, President Hassan Rouhani has declared, “If the rights of religious minorities are not equal to those of the Shi’a, they shouldn’t have duties as the Shi’a do; they should be exempt from paying tax or being conscripted.”

Rouhani stopped short of explaining, however, why his new cabinet includes no Sunnis or women.

According to Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA), Rouhani, said on August 30 that he insists on women, youth, different ethnicities, and religious minorities holding national management positions.

Rouhani emphasized that all high-level managers should not belong to only one denomination.

“Aren’t people of other denominations [non- Shi’a] members of the Iranian nation?” he asked.

In an apparent reference to the the crucial role women, youth, and Sunnis played in his re-election, Rouhani asserted, “Why do we invite everyone to participate in elections but then do not give them managerial positions? If we don’t give them managerial positions, we should only call people of one single denomination to vote.”

In the post-Islamic Revolution era, no government has ever had a Sunni minister.

Before last May’s election, the Sunni faction in parliament had urged Rouhani to consider distinguished members of their community for important positions in his new administration.

Yet, there were no Sunnis among Rouhani’s nominees for ministerial jobs.

Earlier, prominent Kurdish rights activist and former MP Hassel Dasseh had maintained that a number of grand ayatollahs had forced Rouhani to keep Iranian Sunnis out of his new cabinet.

In an interview with the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the reformist former MP had also asserted, “During a gathering with several officials, they told me that [ayatollahs] have called government staff, ordering them to wrap up what they labeled Sunni shenanigans.”

“Rouhani has deeply disappointed his Sunni supporters,” Dasseh said. “Should he and other decision makers not change their approach, many people in (the primarily Sunni-populated) province of Kurdistan might lose their confidence in political participation and totally change the political setting.”

Iranian Sunnis, according to Dasseh, “need sincere conciliation, not lip service.”

Furthermore, Prague-based journalist Farnoush Amirshahi said, “Rouhani’s new cabinet proved that it’s based on a business-as-usual motto, and Shi’ite jurisprudence views count much more than the rule of law to the extent that ayatollahs can easily block women and minorities from entering the cabinet, by a simple telephone call.”

Meanwhile, several MPs were angered about the fact that the most prominent Sunni cleric in Iran, Molavi (Mawlana) Abdol Hamid, was not invited for Rouhani’s swearing-in ceremony.

Sunni leaders have repeatedly complained about official discrimination against members of their community, who are routinely denied high-level government jobs and not even allowed to have a mosque in Tehran, Iran’s capital.

Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews are also denied high-level government positions. Worst off are the Baha’is, who are even denied the right to education.

Nonetheless, during his first campaign for presidency, Rouhani had promised that if elected he would present a bill creating a National Institution for Citizens' Rights within his first 100 days in office.

The bill never materialized. Instead, in December 2015, Rouhani’s administration published a non-binding statement called the Citizens’ Rights Charter.

The charter highlights the need to respect women, minorities, and ethnic rights in Iran. Article 3 also states that citizens' individual and public liberties are "immune" from attacks and that "no citizen should be deprived of these freedoms."

Furthermore, Article 25 asserts that the "inquisition of ideas is prohibited," adding that "no one should be harassed and reprimanded over [his or her] ideas."

The charter led to the widespread criticism by conservatives, including the former head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who branded it as “presidential propaganda” and “unlawful.”

The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, echoed Yazdi’s comments, saying the Citizens’ Rights Charter is “illegal.”

Larijani said the president, through his government’s efforts toward creating a Citizens' Rights Headquarters, is circumventing Iranian law.

“The Citizens’ Rights Headquarters is creating a national institution parallel to the [already existing] High Council for Human Rights, affiliated with the judiciary,” he said on July 2. “This is an unlawful move and it is against sharia (religious law).”

The head of the judiciary called the government to present any proposals they have on the subject to the judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights.

Rouhani has not yet responded to his conservative opponents’ criticism.