By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Iran is known for having a very spotty record when it comes to human rights. It is only second to China in its yearly executions and its treatment of political prisoners through torture and incarceration without trial.
One of the longer sagas of human rights abuses in Iran has unfortunately not been given enough attention. That is the decades-long persecution of the Baháʼí minority in Iran.
Recently, it was revealed that the persecution of the Baháʼí and other opposition activists to the clerical regime in Iran has an economic aspect to it. A government agency within Iran, Setad, has confiscated property from persecuted minorities and opposition activists, allowing the Iranian regime to create a treasure trove worth an estimated $95 billion.
The Baháʼí Minority Have Faced Continuous Persecution
The Baháʼís are a religious group whose origins are in Iran in the 19th century. The founder of this religion, Mírzá Ḥusayn-ʻAlí Núrí – also known as Baháʼu’lláh (the Gate to God) – was a Persian Shia. He promoted a religious doctrine that reveres all major religious prophets and focused on the harmony of the universe and world peace.
There are Baháʼí communities all over the world, including the United States, where it is estimated they have about 150,000 followers. Ironically, Baháʼís are not welcome in their religion’s birthplace.
Tehran has had a difficult time with this religious minority. Because their Baháʼí ancestors over 100 years ago were most likely Shia Muslims, today’s Baháʼí followers are in a very precarious situation. They are seen as people who have left Islam, an act that Sharia law views as a capital offense.
Over decades, Baháʼís have suffered from false imprisonment, executions, the limitation of their civil rights and economic persecution. Recently, the Iranian organization known as Setad revealed in a report that the Iranian government has been expropriating land in agricultural communities owned by the Baháʼís for decades.
Setad is a clandestine agency that has a petty cash account for its activities. In a report released by the Baháʼí International Community on December 5, it was revealed that Setad took over 13 plots of land in the southwest of Iran.
In the report, Bani Dugal, Principal Representative to the UN for the Baháʼí International Community, noted: “This is yet another example of the Iranian Government’s increasingly callous program of targeted religious persecution against the Baháʼí community. This act inflicts an intolerable and brazen injustice upon an innocent, law-abiding community. Arbitrarily taking farmer’s livelihoods away from them and putting their land up for sale is an act which runs counter to every norm of human decency.”
Setad has been on the horizon of the intelligence community for a while. Reuters reported in 2013 that Setad has amassed billions of dollars: “The organization’s total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts. But Setad’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets total about $95 billion…That estimate is based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran Stock Exchange and company websites, and information from the U.S. Treasury Department.”
The Future of Baháʼís in Iran
What does the future hold for Baháʼís living in Iran? Barring a regime change, the future is bleak. The regime in Tehran has a deep pocket and a far reach.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that exist alongside the military are the tool the regime uses for covert operations inside and outside of Iran, including its nuclear projects. The Revolutionary Guards are in essence a second military force, committed to the regime and the supreme leader.
Setad is a piggy bank that allows Tehran to discreetly funnel money to finance its activities. These activities include:
- Supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and enabling him to withstand civil unrest and civil war
- Supporting to Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon
- Financing terrorist attacks in other locations such as South America, Europe and the Far East
The nuclear talks in Vienna need to take into account the shadow state that the Iranian regime has created. If the Iranians get a sweet deal in these talks, then organizations like Setad need to be closely monitored to make sure the regime stands by its promises.
In a statement before the United Nations General Assembly, the Baháʼí International Community commented on the state-sponsored incitement against the Baháʼí: “In recent months, the government has further developed its coordinated network, which includes state television, radio, news publications, websites, and various social media platforms and accounts to disseminate disinformation, falsehoods, and accusations aimed at Bahá’ís with the intention of fomenting and spreading hate against them. And in a country where the media is controlled by the authorities, there is no doubt that any attack on Bahá’ís in the media has the approval of the Iranian government.”
It seems that the Baháʼís will continue to be forgotten and ignored by the international community as they have been in the past.