Why does Iran ban its Sunni citizens from running for president?

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Prominent Iranian preacher Sheikh Abdul Hameed Ismail Zahi has called on Sunnis to be allowed to run in the country’s presidential elections.

His request contradicts Iran’s strict laws, which would require changing aspects of the constitution – in particular articles 35 and 115, that stipulate candidates should embrace and endorse the official religion of the country - the Shiite sect.

A Sunni imam known as Malawi-Abdul Hamid, who is based in the Balochistan province, has also called for change.

In a speech, the Sunni leader said: “The regime should not differentiate between the Shiites and Sunnis in rights and duties… We believe that articles in the constitution relating to presidential elections must be changed in order to allow the Shiites and Sunnis to run for office without any legal restrictions.”

He added: “The lifting of the restrictions on the Sunnis in terms of running for president would be a wise and logical move since they are an important part of the population of Iran.”

“Division and segregation is not of interest to anyone, and the realization of the demands of the Sunni community and its legitimate rights are within the framework of unity, brotherhood and maintaining security.”

Article 35 of the Iranian constitution contains five conditions, including that the candidate of the presidential elections must be a "religious and political figure, among those who believe in the regime of the Islamic Republic and its official Shiite doctrine."

Article 107 of the constitution automatically prohibits anyone from other religions and sects, including Sunnis, from running for the post Supreme Leader or even to the Assembly of Experts.

Activists say discrimination against Sunnis begins within the Iranian constitution itself, effectively preventing Sunnis from holding several high-ranking government posts by allocating them only to the Shiites, as in Article 61, which prevents Sunni citizens from holding a position in the judiciary.

Article 115, paragraph 5, states that the President of the Republic shall be bound by the official (Shiite) doctrine of the country.

Articles 12 and 13 of the constitution deprive the non-Shiite religions and sects from freedom of worship and rituals, thus preventing the issuance of any license to build Sunni mosques in the capital Tehran or in other Shiite Iranian cities.

Article 2 states that the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on faith in the imamah, the continuous leadership and continuous diligence of the Faqih. Diligence here refers to the Shiite scholars alone, which prevents all sects from taking part in the administration of the country.

Sunni activists accuse the authorities in Iran of practicing sectarian persecution and discrimination, contrary to what the Islamic Republic promotes in its official discourse and media - that it does not discriminate against citizens in race, color, language and religion.

Sunnis in Iran generally complain of “sectarian discrimination” and accuse the authorities of excluding them from politics, disabling them from participating in the administration of the country in addition to preventing them from practicing their religious rituals and duties.

The Tehran municipality, with the support of security forces, demolished the only Sunni mosque in Tehran in July 2015, provoking anger among Sunnis.

In a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Sunni leader Sheikh Abdul Hamid Ismail Zahi protested against the demolition of the mosque.

According to unofficial statistics, the Sunnis account for up to 25 percent of Iran’s 80 million-strong population, that’s up to 17 million people.

The majority of Sunnis live in the governorates of Kurdistan (west), Balochistan (southeast), Cholistan (northeast) and the coastal governorates bordering the Arabian Gulf. While in the provinces of Western Azerbaijan (northwest), Arabistan (Ahwaz - southwest), Khorasan (northeast) and Gilan (north of the region of Talesh), they are a minority.

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