The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh in Qom. An estimated 90-95% of Iran’s population are Shia Muslims (World Watch Monitor)

Conservative MPs within Iran’s parliament are proposing that Iranians should only be allowed to vote for members of their own religious group.

In Iran, where 90-95% of the population is Shia Muslim, this will essentially mean that it will be impossible for members of religious minorities to be elected.

The move comes on the back of a national debate following the suspension of a Zoroastrian recently re-elected to the city council of Yazd, an historic city in central Iran with many ancient Zoroastrian sites.

Mansour Borji, from the advocacy group Article 18, told World Watch Monitor the move shows “the ruling conservative clerics are concerned about their increasing unpopularity, as they are taking harsher measures to block members of religious minorities from higher office.

“The new move to force voters to only vote for candidates from their own religious background violates everyone’s democratic right to elect and be elected. It not only reduces any chance of candidates from non-majority religious background to get elected, but will also restrict who Muslims vote for.”

Yazd is an historic city with many ancient reminders of its Zoroastrian history (World Watch Monitor)

Borji said it was also a reflection of the margin of victory for the Zoroastrian over the conservative Muslim rival who lodged the initial complaint against the appointment.

“They may have a reason to be concerned,” Borji said, “given that a member of the minority religious group wins the election by popular votes in the 11-seat city council, against their own conservative Muslim candidate who ended up in 45th position.”

Sepanta Niknam, who had already served one four-year term on the council, received over 21,000 votes, three times the number of his Muslim rival, Ali Asghar Bagheri.

If the new measure is passed, Niknam would not be able to win an election because there are only 3,000 Zoroastrians in Yazd.

‘Non-Muslims shouldn’t rule’

In April, Ahmad Jannati, a conservative cleric and senior member of Iran’s Guardian Council, said religious minorities should not be allowed to stand as candidates at all since this violated the wishes of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini.

The image and words of founding father Ayatollah Khomeini are still visible across Iran (World Watch Monitor)

In October 1979, at the very beginning of Iran’s Revolution, Khomeini said candidates should “first of all be Muslims… Second, they should believe in our movement. They should be trustworthy and sincere in their faith”.

Jannati said that, as it was against Khomeini’s wishes for non-Muslims to rule, it was “therefore against the tenets of Sharia [Islamic law]”.

However, journalists, lawyers and even some members of parliament have pointed to the presence of three Christians, a Jew and a Zoroastrian in Iran’s national parliament. Indeed, it is in Iran’s national Constitution that each of the three minority groups is allowed a representative in parliament.

Yet conservatives maintain that there is a difference between parliamentary power, where members only comment on rulings, and councils, where they have more influence, albeit limited to a local level.