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Opinion

Iran's nuclear crisis: Obama could play the human rights card

One issue that should be put on the table is what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put on display this week in New York: Iran's religious minorities.

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Any non-Muslim found guilty of a Muslim's death faces capital punishment, though the opposite does not hold true. Store owners often are compelled to display prominent signs indicating they are najasa or ritually unclean. Non-Muslims experience high unemployment at more than double the national average of 12.5 percent, especially as they are discriminated against in employment by the large state sector.

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Apart from the four heritage religious minorities (Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, and Zoroastrians) that are allotted parliamentary seats, there are other groups who have even fewer rights. Bahais, treated as heretics from Islam, have no constitutional protections. They can be robbed and murdered with impunity since Iranian law declares that their blood is mobah or can be spilt. Major Bahai shrines have been demolished and the people can assemble only in secrecy.

Religious discrimination and persecution were not always the norm in Iran. In the Persian empire of antiquity, Cyrus the Great established a policy of religious tolerance. His attitude of acceptance is sometimes described as the first charter of human rights.

Collectively, Iran's non-Muslim communities have dwindled from approximately 10 percent of the country's 70 million people to 1979 to no more than 2 percent today . Under constant pressures because of their religious faiths, they have fled the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution in far greater proportions than Muslim Iranians.

Members of Iran's religious minorities and other oppressed groups have indicated they expect the US administration to press Ahmadinejad's regime into ameliorating their situation. They seek viable, lasting, solutions based on implementing the rights that Iran's Constitution claims all citizens enjoy.

If Ahmadinejad's regime meets obligations to its fellow Iranians, then it is more likely to fulfill agreements with the international community. Transparency and well-being, rather than secrecy and aggression – as reflected yet again by the recently revealed nuclear facility – are necessary in Iran's national and international affairs.

Ultimately, when free to express their beliefs and ideas, Iran's people will be the best guarantors of their nation's fidelity in world affairs.

As Britain, China, France, Germany, the US, and Russia sit down with Iran on Oct. 1, they should see Ahmadinejad's posturing for what it is and use the meeting to address not only the issue of nuclear strategy, but also human rights.

The current Iranian regime's three-decade-long record of intolerance and violence cannot be ignored.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University and serves as a member of the US National Council on the Humanities. Nina Shea directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and serves on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are their own.

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