The head of Iran's judiciary has sided with proponents of banning religious minorities from local elections while the Rouhani government has reiterated their rights as citizens under the Constitution.
In his October 31 remarks, Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani said that the ban was the Guardian Council's prerogative as the country's highest authority in determining legislative compliance with Islamic principles.
"There's nothing wrong with the decision of the Guardian Council's theologians to investigate this issue from the point of view of Islamic law," he said. "That's their job."
The Guardian Council is a body of six clerics and six jurists that vets laws and elections for conformity with Islamic principles.
For weeks, Iranian state officials have been debating the validity of the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, which permits followers of all religions recognized in Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution-Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism-to run as candidates in elections.
The dispute broke out in September 2017 following a ruling by the Administrative Court in the city of Yazd suspending Sepanta Niknam, a follower of the Zoroastrian faith, who was re-elected to the city council in May 2017.
The ruling was in favor of Ali Asghar Bagheri, a Muslim candidate, who lodged a complaint after failing to receive enough votes to win a seat in the council.
The court based its decision on the April 2017 declaration by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative chairman of the Guardian Council, banning non-Muslims from representing Muslim-majority constituencies.
The judiciary chief's decision to back the Guardian Council puts it at odds with Iran's Parliament and government, which have opposed the ban.
"The Zoroastrian faith is one of our country's officially recognized religions in the Constitution," said a spokesman for the government of President Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, on October 31.
"Zoroastrians enjoy the rights of citizenship and our laws allow them to exercise those rights," he told reporters at a press conference.
"We are looking for ways to resolve this issue before it escalates further," he added. "The president has asked the interior minister to look into this matter and hopefully come up with a solution."
On October 18, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, the judiciary chief's brother, condemned Niknam's suspension as illegal and threatened to refer the dispute to the Expediency Discernment Council for arbitration.
"In my talks with Ayatollah [Ahmad] Jannati, the honorable chairman of the Guardian Council, I emphasized that local councils should be handled according to the law," said Larijani in a meeting with a group of city councilors.
"If this matter is not resolved, we have no choice but to refer it to the Expediency Discernment Council for a final resolution," he added.
According to Article 112 of the Constitution, the Expediency Discernment Council can issue final rulings when the Guardian Council and Parliament cannot agree on a piece of legislation.
On October 30, Guardian Council Spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaei said the clerical body maintains the authority to reject any law it considers un-Islamic.
"If legislators have a different point of view, they have to follow legal procedures," he said.
Asked for his reaction to accusations that the council was discriminating against minorities, Kadkhodaei said: "Don't pay attention to such rants."
On October 30, Zoroastrian member of Parliament Esfandiar Ekhtiari said he had discussed the issue with President Rouhani, who promised to find a solution.
A day earlier, Alireza Rahimi, the deputy leader of the Hope reformist faction in Parliament, called on Speaker Larijani and President Rouhani to ensure Niknam's return to the Yazd City Council.
"If it is constitutional for religious minorities to participate in legislating for Muslims on a national scale in parliament, then there should be no legal problem with their membership in local councils," wrote Rahimi in an editorial in the Mardomsarari daily newspaper on October 29.