In the late 1970s, while studying at Boston University, my mother confronted a harsh reality: she would likely never go home again. Her nation of origin, Iran, had undergone a revolution that saw a hardline Islamic regime come to power. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, the nation’s largest non-Muslim minority, she was no longer welcome.
My mother now carries an American passport, but her relationship with her country of birth is as complicated as that between the United States and Iran. US economic sanctions brought Iran to the nuclear negotiating table, but they now appear ineffectual in completely halting Iran’s nuclear program. The rise of the Islamic State, an enemy against which the US seeks Iran’s aid, threw askew already slow negotiations. The truth is painfully clear: economics and international politics offer few positive signals of change. Instead, glimmerings of hope have appeared in the rising solidarity among Iranians increasingly aware of and disgusted by unabating human rights abuses.
Nowhere are signs of that solidarity more evident than in the evolving situation of the Baha’is. Though difficult, my mother’s reality following the Islamic Revolution was, in many ways, easier than that of Baha’is living in Iran. From 1979 to 1998, over 150 members of the religious minority were executed because of their beliefs. Currently, about 100 are imprisoned while numerous others suffer continual harassment. Baha’is are second-class citizens, subject to the whims of a regime that views them as a threat to its own stability.
Access to university is one of the myriad rights the government denies Baha’is. In the face of that persecution, Iranian Baha’is founded the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) to promote further study within the marginalized community. Since 1987, it has served thousands of students and been supported by academics across the globe. Four years ago, however, the Iranian regime ransacked over thirty Baha’i homes and arrested dozens of BIHE educators, twelve of whom remain imprisoned today. Despite these tactics, BIHE continues to receive over 1,000 applications yearly and its programs are gaining international recognition.
Recently, pushback against the government’s discriminatory acts highlighted rifts among the nation’s elite. Former President of Tehran University Mohammed Maleki repeated publicly that no one should be denied an education. Two high ranking Shia clerics, the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazari and, more recently, Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani, broke state taboos in demonstrating their support of Baha’is. Perhaps most poignant were the actions of formerly radical Islamist Mohammad Nourizad. In a powerful gesture of submissiveness, Nourizad kissed the feet of and asked forgiveness from a Baha’i boy whose parents, Kamran Rahimian and Faran Hessami, are currently imprisoned for their involvement in BIHE.
The regime’s reaction to the displays of support was severe. Ayatollah Khamenei re-issued an edict banning his followers from interaction with Baha’is and ignored a remarkable, and supposedly uncoordinated, uptick in violence against the Baha’i community. The government justified the attacks by claiming they were “spontaneous acts of anger by Muslims against infidels.”
The severity of the regime’s reaction implicitly acknowledges that the Iranian social landscape is undoubtedly shifting. Widespread internet use and notable advocates for Baha’is, like Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have provided Iranians the opportunity and incentive to assess the Baha’i community for themselves. Importantly, popular films, like Maziar Bahari’s To Light a Candle, and international movements, including the current Education Is Not a Crime campaign, have made the state’s systematic cruelty plainly visible.
Economic and diplomatic initiatives will not be the primary drivers of lasting transformation in Iran. The post-1979 political history of Iran strongly suggests that progress in nuclear negotiations or tepidly cooperative messages are born of political maneuvering, not fundamental shifts in attitude or policy. The real story of change is closer to the ground, where persecuted Iranians are finding support among their increasingly bold countrymen. Transformation will not occur because of US pressure or international sanctions alone; it will be caused, first and foremost, by Iranians thirsting for the justice an inhumane regime has not, thus far, supplied.