Iran’s Shia-Only Elections Expose Age-Old Intolerance

As Iran prepares for the charade of presidential elections later this month, old and new regime apparatchiks have announced their candidacies. They include former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Ali Reza Afshar and Zohreh Elahian, the first woman to run for president of Iran, as well as more than 70 others. Earlier this month, a short list of six candidates was approved by authorities to run.

But before the final six were announced, former member of Parliament Jalal Jalalizadeh was blocked from running. According to Jalalizadeh, the problem is he is the only Sunni candidate, fighting for equal rights in a majority Shiite nation, where Sunnis comrise an estimated 10 to 15 million out of a population of 90 million.

The Sunni-Shia divide goes back some 14 centuries. Although both sects agree on most tenets of Islam, the disagreement stems from who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic faith. While a vast majority of the world’s Muslim community is Sunni, Shias make up a majority in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain.

Many hardline regime theologues view Sunnis as “followers of Yazid,” the second Umayyad caliph who fought against Imam Hussain, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed and one of the key figures in Shia Islam. Additionally, the Iranian judiciary uses the accusation of “belonging to Salafist groups” — a form of fundamentalist Sunni Islam — to keep Sunnis in line. Such a charge enables the regime to impose death sentences on Sunni activists.

“For 46 years, more than 15 million Iranians have faced discrimination and have been denied the right to run for office,” said Jalalizadeh.

This isn’t the first time Jalalizadeh has faced discrimination, even as he represented the Islamic Republic in the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament. According to Jalalizadeh, when he was nominated to be a member of the influential President’s Committee, religious leader Ayatollah Khorasani threatened, “If Jalalizadeh, a Sunni, sits above a Shia, I will issue a fatwa to delegitimize the Majlis and walk barefoot in protest.”

Discrimination against Sunnis extends much further than Jalalizadeh. Although the Iranian constitution technically respects the right of Sunnis to freely practice their religion, they are treated as second-class citizens. The Iranian regime does not see Sunni Islam as an alternative religion, but rather a security threat, which could be manipulated by such regional Sunni rivals as Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

That is why Iran is constantly cracking down on Sunnis, whether by arresting their activists and leaders, destroying mosques or preventing them from holding senior positions in business or the government. In Shia-dominated cities like Tehran, where an estimated 1 million Sunni live, Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques and are forced to use prayer halls that can be shut down on the whim of the authorities.

Read the rest at The Hill.

Joseph Epstein is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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