Bi-partisan report blasts Iran for human rights violations as US continues negotiations

Iran insists it doesn't punish people for their beliefs, but its prison population - and a scathing new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom - say otherwise.

The bipartisan commission's 2015 report on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s incarceration and persecution of Christians, Baha’is, Jews and minority Sunni Muslims prompted key lawmakers to call for new human rights sanctions targeting Iran’s clerical regime, and urged President Obama, whose administration is currently in nuclear negotiations with Tehran, to lead the way.

"If the Obama Administration wants to be serious about holding Iran accountable, it should be working with Congress to reinforce and expand sanctions that target Iran’s ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom and human rights," Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told "But it’s not.”

Kirk, a leading legislative architect of Iranian human rights and nuclear sanctions, added “Iran’s systematic violations of religious freedom ... have gotten worse under the supposedly more ‘moderate’ presidency of Hassan Rouhani.”

The climate of persecution is in spite of Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s recent insistence that “we don’t jail people for their opinions.”

According to the USCIRF report, “Since President Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August 2013, the number of individuals from religious minority communities who are in prison because of their beliefs has increased.”

Rouhani famously pledged to Iranians in 2013: “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice. Long live citizenship rights!”

The religious freedom commission study documented “as of February 2015, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.” Human rights group inside Iran noted a ramped up number of assaults and beatings of Christians in the country’s notorious penitentiary system, according to the report.

Iranian authorities stormed church services, and targeted ferociously Evangelical converts to Christianity.

The case of imprisoned Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini was outlined in the report. Abedini was convicted in 2013 of “threatening the national security of Iran” for practicing his Christian faith as part of the house church movement. He was sentenced to an eight-year prison term.

“While in Evin Prison since September 2012, Pastor Abedini spent several weeks in solitary confinement and was physically and psychologically abused," the report said. "In November 2013, he was transferred to the Rajai ShahrPrison, which is known for its harsh and unsanitary conditions.”

The report noted that, “In March 2014, prison authorities beat Pastor Abedini after which he was hospitalized for nearly two months to receive treatment for the injuries sustained from the beatings. In May 2014, Pastor Abedini was beaten a second time when he was released from the hospital and returned to prison.”

Calls to hold Iran accountable come from both sides of the aisle.

“I’ve always believed that we should hold the Iranian regime responsible for their human rights abuses, including its religious intolerance, and the Administration should use every tool at its disposal to target, expose, and punish those who violate the human rights of the Iranian people,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the House foreign affairs committee, told

The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi,told a U.S radio station last week that the only difference between Rouhani and his wildly anti-American and anti-Semitic predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “Rouhani smiles more.”

Multiple emails and phones calls seeking a comment from Hamid Babaei, a spokesman at the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, were not returned.

The religious freedom report stated “non-Muslim minorities – Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians – face harassment, intimidation, discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment.”

The Bahai community--perhaps the most persecuted group in Iran—was subjected to intense repression on Rouhani’s watch. According to the USCIRF, more than 100 Baha’is are being held in prison solely because of their religious beliefs.

Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East, and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal