Since the triumph of the Iranian Revolution in February 1979, which saw the overthrow of the almost universally hated Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, numerous groups opposed to the current regime have been systematically targeted for harassment, imprisonment, and even execution. Such individuals and groups included members loyal to the Shah’s regime, ethic minorities such as the Kurds, Arabs, and Turks, drug manufacturers and dealers, the Mojahedin, and suspected Iraqi sympathizers after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.
Yet one of the groups that has been the most systematically oppressed from the days of the Revolution to the present (and to varying degrees since the very time it was formed) is one that preaches complete obedience to government and avoidance of political entanglements of any kind: the Bahá'i. Iran's largest religious minority, some 300,000 Bahá'is live in all regions of Iran, where the Bahá'i Faith was founded 150 years ago.
The Bahá'i faith is not recognized as a legitimate religion; the regime regards it as a heresy and conspiracy. As "unprotected infidels" the Bahá'is have no legal rights. Despite its inherantly peaceful and obedient nature, most Iranians view Bahá'is as secret revolutionaries who collude with foreign agencies (particularly Zionism) in a protracted plot to overthrow the government and destroy Islam.
The reasons for this are complicated, but mostly center around the following themes:
1) Bahá'i’s origins in Babism. While the modern Bahá'i movement is one that emphasizes non-violence and obedience to whatever government is in charge of the land you live in, its predecessor, Babism, had a distinctly insurrectionist tone and behavior. Many of the accusations currently leveled at Bahá'is are those that were previously attributed to Babis.
2) Heretical nature. Islam, whether Sunni or Shi’a, abhors religious innovation, which is precisely what the Iranian clergy and laypeople view the Bahá'i faith as being. Indeed, there is much in the Bahá'i doctrine that bears a great deal of similarity to Islam, and the Bahá'is themselves firmly proclaim their Islamic roots. To Iranian authorities, therefore, Bahá'i cannot be viewed as a religion seperate from Islam, but rather as a heresy within the faith.
3) Ties to Western nations and ideals. While the Bahá'i have their origins in Iran and still maintain a substantial presence there, modern Bahá'i is very much a world religion, with the majority of its adherents stretching across from India to Europe to the United States. The fact that so many people foreign to the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly Westerners, are such an integral part of the Bahá'i as a whole leads to not entirely unfounded accusations that the Bahá'i are part of a movement to “Westernize” Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. International Bahá'i programs which have brought Western Bahá'is to interact with their Iranian brethren have frequently brought with them hints of the patronism so common in the colonial mentality, and the Bahá'i emphasis on the importance of women’s equality and the validity of modern science have lead many Iranians to conclude that they are representatives of a Western/Zionist conspiracy.
Accusing the Bahá'i of political conspiracies is difficult, as Bahá'i doctrine clearly prohibits any involvement in partisan politics whatsoever, formally expelling any who may break this policy. The implications of this philosophy are what modern Iranians find particularly troublesome, however, as the ideal form of government to the Bahá'i is that of a monarchical republic, a system far too similar to the one that existed under the Shah for post-Revolution Iranians.
The actual Bahá'i opinion towards the Shah while he was still in power, however, is significantly more complicated. Bahá'is did pledge their loyalty to him without great public hesitation, to be certain. However, this had more to do with the Bahá'i doctrine of complete obedience to whatever government may be in power, as is shown by the Bahá'is’ obedience to the current Iranian government. Numerous leaders of the Revolution accused the Bahá'i of full scale collaboration with the Shah, however, pointing to certain high level Bahá'is within the Shah’s government as proof. These are not entirely fabricated accusations: high level Bahá'is included General Ayadi, the Shah’s personal physician and close friend; Hojjab Yazdani, a financier whose business practices infuriated the public to the extent that sereral of his banks were targeted for arson and looting during the 1978 riots; and Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, while not a Bahá'i himself, was the son of an excommunicated Bahá'i, a difference lost on most Iranian Muslims who do not understand that Bahá'i children are allowed to choose their own faith at age 15.
The Bahá'i response to such accusations is to point out that the Pahlavi regime carried out numerous discriminatory policies towards the Bahá'i. While not being as harsh as those carried out by the Iranian government both before and after the Shah, the Pahlavi government in no way treated the Bahá'i as equal citizens or a protected religion. Under the Shah, Bahá'is were not allowed to have their own schools, distribute religious literature, or even have their marriages recognized as legal. This last point in particular placed Bahá'i families under extreme hardship, as all Bahá'i children were considered illegitimate and all married adults were considered to be engaging in adultery.
The accusation that the Bahá'i are connected to Zionism has been around since the state of Israel was formed, but was heightened to an extremely paranoid degree after the Iranian Revolution. Most of the accusations are based on the fact that the international Bahá'i headquarters, the Bahá'i World Center, is located in Haifa, Israel. The placement of the World Center had occured nearly a century before the state of Israel was formed, of course, and was due entirely to the fact that the Ottoman and Iranian governments had chosen to exile and imprison the founder of the Bahá'i faith, Baha’ullah, and his followers in that place. Nevertheless, regular pilgrimages and a steady flow of money from Iranian Bahá'is to Israel led numerous Iranian leaders to reach the conclusion that the Bahá'i were actively supporting and supplying aid to the Israeli government. Shortly after the Revolution, all fund transfers and traveling from Iran to Israel were banned, and true to fashion, the Iranian Bahá'is complied with what their government ordered them to do. The damage was done, however, and the accusation of Zionist collaberators is still a common one used against Bahá'is.
The extreme difficulty in putting an end to the persecution of the Bahá'i lies in the almost universal loathing held for them at almost all levels of Iranian society, fully endorsed and encouraged by the clerical establishment. What is the most frustrating factor is the almost complete ignorance of most Iranians as to who the Bahá'is actually are and what their religion entails. Until government sanctioned disinformation and distrust of Bahá'is comes to an end and a serious education program begins, most Iranians will see little reason to treat the Bahá'i as anything more than a heretical organization of international spies and sabateurs.