For once, let’s talk about Iran without bringing up the elephant in the room, by which obviously I mean the shocking revelation that Iranians seem to regularly have and even enjoy sex. No, wait, I mean the nuclear talks. The nuclear talks. Let’s ignore them for today.
Iran has a serious religious freedom problem. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom lists Iran as a Tier 1 “Country of Particular Concern,” and with pretty damn good reason. If you’re not practicing Iran’s official Imami/”Twelver” variant of Shiʿa Islam then you’re at risk of being targeted by the state — this goes for people practicing other variants of Shiʿism, Sunnis, Sufis of all kinds, Christians, Jews, the Bahaʾi, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and non-believers (atheists and agnostics, and yes I know the difference but just bear with me here). Above all, Iranian law maintains the traditional Islamic death penalty for Muslims who convert to another religion (ask Salman Rushdie about that), which, even if it’s only irregularly applied in practice, is no basis for a tolerant, free society.
Of these, the heavyweight champion in terms of mistreatment by the Iranian state is and has been (pre-dating the 1979 revolution) the Bahaʾi. Iran’s government won’t even acknowledge Bahaʾiyah as a religion. They label it a political organization, because that way its practitioners aren’t covered by any legal protections offered to religious minorities, but at the same time all Bahaʾi are considered apostates (and thus eligible for execution), since Bahaʾiyah is an offshoot of Twelver Shiʿism. The Pahlavi shahs frequently whipped up public resentment toward and suspicion of the Bahaʾi to distract Iranians from the fact that the Pahlavis were petty tyrants and lousy rulers, and they were liberals compared to the clerical government. Bahaʾi are discriminated against in education and for government jobs, they can be arrested and/or have their property seized just because, and if a Bahaʾi is murdered it’s 50/50 whether the authorities will even bother to investigate the crime, let alone actually bring charges against anyone.
Also frequently mistreated are Zoroastrians, who are mostly a diaspora community today as a result, and some kinds of Christians (in particular evangelical Protestants), whose plight is exemplified in the case of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, who was arrested in 2012 while visiting family in Iran (he’s a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen) and sentenced to 8 years in prison for his missionary work. Abedini could have faced the death penalty for apostasy, since he’s a convert from Islam, but that seems not to be a danger at this point. Some of Iran’s religious minorities are protected, to a degree, by virtue of being tied to a sizable ethnic minority; the government has a much harder time really suppressing Iran’s 1.5 million Sunni Balochis, for example, or its 1.5 million Sunni Turkmens. Other minorities are given better treatment because of historical affinities, like Armenian Christians or Jews (though the situation for Jews in Iran is still pretty precarious and getting worse).
So when the U.S. government expresses concern over Iran’s treatment of religious minorities, it’s not without cause, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising that, if there is a nuclear deal (sorry) and sanctions are lifted because of it, some of those sanctions could be reimposed under the guise of punishing Iran for its record in this regard. This would certainly be some shady double-dealing on our part, but I’m not sure you could argue that the justification was unfair.
But here’s where the hypocrisy comes in. You know who else is a classified as a Tier 1 “Country of Particular Concern” by USCIRF? Most of the other countries in Tier 1 are not particularly tight with the U.S., except maybe Pakistan (debatable) and Egypt (which used to be a close U.S. ally but is kind of a frenemy since the Sisi coup). Israel/Palestine doesn’t make the USCIRF report at all; Gazans are constantly dodging Israeli ordinance because of where they live, not how they worship, I guess. Iraq makes the Tier 1 list, but in large measure because of its sectarian violence (not entirely in the government’s control) and because of policies that applied to the Maliki government but may not apply (too early to tell) to the Abadi government.
But there’s one undeniably close U.S. ally on the Tier 1 list for its own official religious repression: our best good friend in the region, Saudi Arabia. You can be charged with blasphemy or apostasy in Saudi Arabia for pretty much any offense against the state, regardless of its real applicability; this turns out to be a pretty efficient way for an absolute monarchy to suppress political dissent. You can’t worship in a Christian church in Saudi Arabia, or a Jewish synagogue, and forget about openly practicing any non-Abrahamic faith. Heck, you’re in danger in Saudi Arabia if you’re not adhering to the right particular flavor of Sunni Islam. But the Saudis are really worried about Shiʿa, who only make up around 10-15% of the kingdom’s population but who are mostly concentrated in the eastern part of Arabia, which happens to house a lot of oil. The conflation of political dissent and blasphemy really comes into play with respect to the Shiʿa minority, since any expression of Shiʿa rights or demand for better treatment can be treated as blasphemy and given a harsh response as a result. Which brings us to the case of Saudi Shiʿa cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, based in the eastern Arabian city of Awamiyah, has been an outspoken critic of the Saudi government for over a decade. He’s never been among the top Saudi Shiʿa leadership, but he is thought to be the most popular religious figure among Saudi Shiʿa youth. He has called for improved treatment of the kingdom’s Shiʿa subjects and has even threatened secession. During the Saudi version of the Arab Spring protests, in July 2012, Saudi police shot Nimr and arrested him, which led to a sizable protest march in Awamiyah that drew a violent response from riot police. Now Nimr’s family is saying that he’s been sentenced to death by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court for “seeking foreign meddling” in Saudi affairs (either because he’s called for international aid for the kingdom’s Shiʿa population or because they’ve decided that he’s an agent of Iran) and for taking up arms against the ruling family (there is no evidence that Nimr has ever even called for armed revolt, let alone taken up arms himself). All for the crime of seeking better treatment for a repressed religious minority.
Now if what Iran is doing to Saeed Abedini is wrong, and I agree that it is, isn’t the impending Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr also wrong? Why is our State Department expressing its concern to Iran over Abedini’s imprisonment while saying nothing about al-Nimr’s death sentence? I grant you that Abedini has U.S. citizenship, so that helps explain the discrepancy, but religious freedom is religious freedom, and if you’re going insist that your geopolitical foes uphold that principle then you can’t very well ignore it when your allies don’t, can you? At least not if the concept of “credibility” is something that concerns you. Admittedly, it seems pretty clear that “credibility” is not something that U.S. policymakers spend a lot of time worrying about, but maybe they ought to give it a thought.