WASHINGTON (BP)–Basic human rights, including religious freedom, have deteriorated under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, witnesses testified in a Capitol Hill hearing.
Iranian citizens have suffered “systematic oppression by the regime, … denial to freedom of religion, expression, politics and basic human rights,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a U.S. State Department official.
Feltman, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and five other witnesses testified Feb. 21 before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in a hearing on human rights in Iran.
The Iranian regime claims to be based on Shiite Islam and to treat non-Shiite Islam with complete respect, said Paul Marshall, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute. The Iranian constitution “gives formal recognition to Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity [and] Article 19 of the constitution accords legal rights to Iranians irrespective of ethnicity, color, or language, but notably excludes religion,” he noted.
Yet “the Iranian government is one of the world’s worst religious persecutors,” Marshall said. Shiites who dissent from state orthodoxy are punished for thinking, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims are banned from teaching their religion. Followers of Baha’i, Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority, are regarded as “unprotected infidels,” because they are not mentioned in the Iranian constitution, he said.
Dissidents and political reformers continue to be imprisoned under Ahmadinejad, who was elected president in 2005, said USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie.
“U.S. government-level discussions of U.S. policy on Iran focus overwhelmingly on the important nuclear question,” Cromartie said. “As a consequence, it seems sometimes as if we hear very little about the precarious state of human rights, including religious freedom, in that country.”
The State Department has classified Iran as a “country of particular concern” since it began issuing an annual report on international religious freedom in 1999. USCIRF continues to recommend the State Department retain Iran as a “country of particular concern,” a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
“Repression has intensified following President Bush’s  designation of Iran as a member of an ‘axis of evil,'” Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today, told the commission. Bush’s rejection of an Iranian offer for diplomatic talks in 2003 “embarrassed the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, which had cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, in part in hopes that would lead to improved relations with Washington.”
“While Iran’s human rights record during the Khatami presidency was by no means spotless, the record under his successor has been far worse,” said Slavin, who has met with Ahmadinejad several times. “Since Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, and especially in the past year, executions have increased, and so have arrests of students, women activists and labor organizers.”
Ahmadinejad’s “denials of the Holocaust and statements calling for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’ have created a climate of fear among Iran’s 30,000-member Jewish community,” Cromartie said.
Iranian Jews are forbidden from visiting Israel or even traveling together as families, Marshall added.
Slavin, who has visited Iran as recently as 2006, gave suggestions on how to improve the Iranian regime.
“At this late date in the Bush presidency, it is difficult to see a way in which this administration might positively impact the human rights climate in Iran,” Slavin said. “The next U.S. president should certainly continue to affirm support for democracy and human rights, but express confidence in the ability of Iranians to reform their government on their own.
“The most helpful thing the U.S. government and U.S. human rights groups can do is to publicize rights abuses in Iran but stop threatening to change the regime by force,” she said.
Other helpful steps the U.S. administration could take include spending more money on scholarships for Iranians to study in the U.S. and for Americans to study in Iran, Slavin said. She also suggested the U.S. should allow its diplomats in Iran to process visas for Iranians seeking to travel to the U.S. and should accept direct flights between New York and Tehran.
“One starting point could be the extension of United Nations Security Council targeted sanctions against those involved in the nuclear industry to those implicated in serious human rights abuses,” Akhavan told USCIRF. “Travel bans and asset freezes on human rights grounds could contribute to the isolation of elements responsible for international crimes and empower those discouraged by the air of invincibility created by headliners.”
The hearing was designed to see what the United States could do to address deteriorating human rights conditions, Cromartie said. “The U.S. government, at the highest levels, should take every opportunity to call for the release of all religious prisoners in Iran.”
USCIRF was established in 1998 to advise the White House and Congress on global religious freedom issues. The president selects three members of the nine-person panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF vice chairman and is serving his sixth year on the panel.
Katherine Kipp is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.