Iran’s Expediency Council votes in favor of non-Muslim city council member, ending his 9-month suspension

Iranian Diplomacy – In historic vote, Council of Expediency Discernment votes for Zoroastrian Sepenta Niknam to return to the City Council of Yazd.

Fifteen months after the Fifth City Council elections, and nine months after Sepanta Niknam was suspended from office, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Council of Expediency Discernment has voted for a bill that returns the Zoroastrian lawyer to his seat in the city council of Yazd.

Photos released from the Saturday meeting of the Expediency Council show that the majority voted ‘aye’ in support of religious monitories being admitted into the city and village councils. The outstanding opponent was the man who initiated the controversy: orthodox conservative Ahmad Jannati, the powerful head of the Guardian Council, the legal apparatus that reviews the compliance of laws and bills with shariah (the Islamic law) and the constitution.

While in Majles, Iran’s parliament, the recognized religious minorities (Armenian Christians, Assyrian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians) are given a single seat, there are no caps on the number of religious minorities who can become a member of the city and council villages according to the 1996 Law of City and Village Councils.

Last year, before the elections, a hardliner nominee in the city of Yazd, Ali-Asghar Bagheri, filed a suit against Sepanta Niknam, a follower of Iran’s ancient Zoroastrian faith, to bar him from running in the competition. The nonagenarian Jannati and the Guardian Council promptly released an order banning religious minorities to run in the council elections, arguing that since the bills passed by the city councils were not bound by the Guardian Council’s compliance check, it should be ascertained that all members of the councils be Muslim.

Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament that was in charge of holding the city and village council elections, vetoed Jannati’s decision and ordered for the 1996 law to be applied. Sepanta received 22 thousand votes from his fellow citizens in Yazd and entered the city council.

However, Ali-Asghar Bagheri filed a successful lawsuit, this time in Court of Administrative Justice, and undid the parliament’s decision. Sepanta was suspended from the council.

The issue was conferred to the Expediency Council, a supreme body whose members are handpicked by Iran’s Supreme Leader and is responsible for settling disputes between the Guardian Council and the parliament. Following a tardy process, the Council finally voted in favor of the parliament on Saturday.

On his Twitter account, Niknam thanked the media, members of the parliament, and governmental officials who defended his case. One day earlier, on Friday, he had asked for Hassan Rouhani’s support. “Mr President!” Niknam twitted. “End your absence in the Expediency Council to defend the right of the [religious] minorities in the city councils.” Rouhani, however, preferred not to. The Council of Expediency Discernment voted in Sepanta’s favor anyway, with two addendums to the 1996 law of city and village councils: 1) religious minorities shall adhere to their own faith (not Islam) and 2) this law shall be enforceable since the day of Fifth City Council election, meaning that Sepanta Niknam could return to his office.

“To put it in one sentence, I truly felt the meaning of ‘united we win’. This afternoon, after 9 months, once again I will attend the city council as a member of the Fifth City Council.”

* This piece was written based on a report published by the Reformist daily Shargh on Sunday, July 22, 2018.