By Kian Sabeti
November 26, 2020
Baha’is in Iran have been banned from entering higher education for forty years, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. This mass state-sanctioned infringement of human rights can be separated into two distinct phases: before and after 2004.
Prior to 2004, Baha’is were simply barred from entering the national university entrance exams in Iran. But in the face of international condemnation of the treatment of Baha’is in the country, Mohammad Khatami’s government found a covert way to reduce mounting pressure on the Islamic government.
Documents obtained by IranWire for this report include a letter from Mohammad Khatami’s personal adviser, pointing out that Baha’is had quoted Khatami during discussions with the international community about civil society and the rights of non-Muslims. During this period, the “reformist” president’s top aide conceded that Baha’is could take part in the exams only if they concealed their true religious beliefs.
The very first national university entrance exam of the Islamic Republic of Iran took place in 1982. The registration form came with a condition: the participant had to either be a Muslim, or a follower of Christianity, or Judaism, or Zoroastrianism: the only minority religions to have been formally recognized in Iran’s new constitution.
This stipulation prevented many would-be students, including Baha’is, from registering and taking part. Initially Baha’i applicants opted to leave the “religion” section blank, or amend it by writing in “Baha’i” in the box instead. Their honesty meant that a full 22 years passed before a single Baha’i was able to take part in the exam.
In 2004, Sanjesh, the body responsible for organizing and overseeing the annual tests, announced that the reason for asking participants to choose a religion was to match them to the appropriate religious studies topic for the exam. From this moment onward, Baha’i participants began selecting Islam on the registration form instead, and were thus finally able to take part.
A collection of letters by Hossein Mehrpour*, a then-adviser to president Mohammad Khatami and head of the Committee to Oversee the Implementation of the Constitution – a watchdog first established by Khatami in 1997 – details how the government’s methods of blocking Baha’is from higher education had changed in the run-up to 2004. Instead of stopping Baha’is from registering outright, the state decided to permit them to do so, but then disqualify them afterwards.
The first letter from Mehrpour, dated September 28, 1998, shows that the Islamic Republic made the change in an attempt to mitigate the international pressure on Iran with regard to Baha’is’ human rights. In this letter to Khatami, Mehrpour writes:
“An issue the Islamic Republic has been dealing with for years and hasn’t done anything to resolve is the matter of social rights for religious minorities. Specifically the disenfranchised group of Baha’is. In 1982, the [United Nations] Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights issued a resolution against the Islamic Republic condemning the treatment of Baha’is. In 1984, the UN on Human Rights passed a resolution to have the UN monitor the human rights situation in Iran and elected a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to survey and report back to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations General Assembly.
“The status quo remains the same. In addition to appealing to the international community, people from the above said religious group have filed complaints with various internal bodies, including the [Iranian] Islamic Human Rights Commission. They have recently sent several complaints to the Committee for Supervising the Execution of the Constitution. They have asked for their social rights, quoting you with regard to a civil society for everyone, and specifically they quote you saying that under an Islamic government, even non-Muslims have rights. They complain about being fired from their jobs, losing their pensions, not receiving any type of permit, being banned from entering universities, etc.”
In another letter dated February 27, 2001, Mehrpour writes to Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the president’s then-chief of staff. He states that the expulsion of one Baha’i student in particular had taken place in accordance with the law, and was based on two decrees issued by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in 1984 and 1990.
“With regard to the expulsion of said student because he was Baha’i,” he writes, “I would like to mention that based on Article 1 of the Participants Ethical Selection Regulations, issued by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in 1984, in addition to passing the entrance exam, a participant should believe in Islam or one of the other heavenly religions [Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism]. Per Article 2, if is proven that the participant does not believe in Islam or the other heaenly religions, they are not allowed to continue their education.
“Moreover, Article 3b of the decree issued by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution dated February 20, 1991, No 1327/2, which has been approved by the Supreme Leader, states: “In universities, if it was understood that a person is Baha’i when entering the university or during their education, they should be expelled from the university.”
In his last letter dated January 3, 2005, Mehrpour, who is also a former member of the Guardian Council, makes reference to a confidential decision taken by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in 1990 before the February 1991 decree was issued. The content was later discovered by Baha’is and caused the Islamic Republic to be accused of human rights violations. Mehrpour describes the government’s workaround as follows:
“In the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution meeting #530 on December 16, 2003, after many complaints and follow-ups on this issue, it was suggested that the question about the participant’s religion be framed differently.
“Rather than asking the participant’s religion, the question now asks that if a participant will not be answering religious questions about Islam, which other religion they choose to answer questions about. The options are Judaism, Christiantiy, and Zoroastrianism. This allows a participant to select a religion to answer questions on without stating their own religion – thus allowing a Baha’i to register without stating their allegiance to any other religion if they don’t say they are Baha’i. This was implemented in 2004 and based on informal reports that 700 to 800 Baha’is had participated in the exam. About 400 to 500 of them were accepted, and some of them might well have attained excellent grades.”
Mehrpour goes on to say that when Sanjesh released its annual results in 2004, the religion of these participants was given as Islam. This was met with protestation by Baha’is, some of whom then refused to enroll at a university despite having passed the exam.
In this 2005 letter, Mehrpour openly concedes that based on the enactments of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and the Supreme Leader, the only way for a Baha’i to continue their higher education is to conceal the fact that they are Baha’i.
“Based on recent changes by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and Sanjesh,” he writes, “the only leniency available to Baha’is is only applicable if they don’t state they are Baha’i. They can participate in the exams, answer questions about Islam or other accepted minority religions, and if they pass, can select a major and study at university.”
Despite this, for the past 16 years, Baha’is have still been prevented from getting higher education. The government’s eventual solution was to let Baha’is take part in the exams, but to use a falsified error message to prevent them from seeing their results or moving any further in the process. Those who did manage to enrol at university were later identified as Baha’i by the Ministry of Intelligence or university security teams and expelled.