How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran
The complex tale of how the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great—the world’s “first” Zionist—metamorphosed into the Israel-Hating nation we know today.
Abdol Hossein Sardari didn’t look like a hero. But when Paris fell to Hitler in June 1940, the 30-year-old Muslim—a dapper man with a receding hairline—took it upon himself to save Jews trapped inside Nazi-occupied France. Sardari, a junior official at the Iranian Embassy, had been left behind to look after the building when the Iranian ambassador and his staff abandoned Paris to establish residence in Vichy, the new home of France’s pro-Nazi government. Once the Nazis began rounding up Jews, Sardari, without authorization from his government, made liberal use of the embassy’s supply of blank Iranian passports to assign new, non-Jewish identities to those in need, creating his own version of Schindler’s list.
Ibrahim Morady, who died this past June in Los Angeles at the age of 95, was one of the hundreds of Jews Sardari helped spare from deportation. “My father moved to Paris from Persia when he was six,” recounts his son Fred. Once Morady, a well-to-do rug merchant, had his new identity, he and two colleagues arranged to purchase false papers for about 100 other Jews of Iranian descent. Sardari served as their go-between, passing a bribe to a German official. In return, these Jews were given documents asserting that they were members of “some strange tribe in Iran—Djouguti, or something like that,” Fred Morady explains. “I asked my father: ‘What does this name mean?’ And he said: ‘They just made it up.’”
Sardari was not the only Iranian to protect Jews during World War II. The Iranian government itself kept its 3,000-year-old Jewish community out of Nazi reach. But his heroism is representative of Iran’s civilized and empathetic attitude toward its Jews.
This attitude stands in marked contrast to the vitriolic Islamic Republic of Iran led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that we hear and read about today. The world was stunned when Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, felled an Iranian political giant—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—in the 2005 presidential election. Ahmadinejad, a radically conservative veteran of the Revolutionary Guards, an arm of the country’s Islamic establishment, quickly became a confrontational presence. Standing aside a banner that read “The World Without Zionism,” he whipped up a crowd of 4,000 students at an October 2005 conference in Tehran. “Our dear Imam ordered that the occupying regime in Al Quds be wiped off the face of the earth,” Ahmadinejad declared, referring to the late Ayatollah Khomeini and using the Arabic name for Jerusalem. “Anyone who would recognize this state has put his signature under the defeat of the Islamic world.”
The president also garnered world headlines when he publicly pronounced the Holocaust a “myth.” He has since slightly toned down his rhetoric, questioning why, if the Holocaust happened, the Palestinians should suffer for it. “Under the pretext of protecting some of the survivors of the war, the land of Palestine was occupied through war, aggression and the displacement of millions of its inhabitants,” he told the United Nations General Assembly this September, ignoring the historic presence of Jews in Palestine.
When it comes to the Jews, Abdol Hossein Sardari and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represent the two faces of Iran. This Muslim, but not Arab, country that protected its Jews from the Holocaust now questions whether that genocide ever occurred. Once one of Israel’s closest Muslim allies, Iran now seeks to wipe the “Zionist entity” off the map. Tens of thousands of its Jews have left, yet Iran still retains the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country.
These contradictions have been embedded in the country’s history since ancient times. “In a sense, the story of the Jews of Iran is literally the Bible itself,” says Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. “The Bible says God asked Cyrus the Great [the founder of the Persian Empire] to build the Second Temple and Cyrus did. And Esther, a Jew married to the king of Persia, exposed the anti-Semitic, genocidal plot of Haman [his chief minister], and it was aborted. These two tendencies—the Hamanic anti-Semitic tendency and the tendency to welcome and accept the Jews and the rights that they have—have come all the way to the 21st century.”
The first charter of human rights ever set to paper predates the Magna Carta by some 1,700 years. It was drafted not within the baronial estates of medieval England but in a desert palace in the Middle East. “I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire,” proclaimed Cyrus upon entering the gates of Babylon on the first day of spring in 539 B.C.E., “and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them.”
Cyrus’s reign is warmly remembered as the Persian equivalent of Camelot, the mythical English court ruled by King Arthur. “Iranians take a lot of pride in the old civilization started by Cyrus,” says Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian-American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. “He was extremely tolerant of other beliefs and ideologies; that, too, is an added measure of pride.”
Cyrus is also sometimes referred to as the world’s first Zionist. He righted the wrong done by King Nebuchadnezzar II 58 years earlier when he captured Jerusalem and Judah, and exiled thousands of Jews. “All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah,” Cyrus declared. He offered the Jews the opportunity to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple at Persian taxpayer expense. Many accepted, while others remained in Persia.
Typically depicted as a bearded warrior-king with broad shoulders in a military tunic and helmet, Cyrus was killed in 529 B.C.E. in a battle in northern Persia. The Jews fared less well under his son, Cambyses II, who suspended construction of the Temple. But a few years later, work was resumed under King Darius. According to the Bible, Esther was the beloved wife of Darius’s son. Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus.
Overall, life was good for the Jewish community under the early Persian kings. “From what we know, the Jews were well trusted and tolerated,” says Houman Sarshar, a scholar with the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History who edited an anthology called Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews. He points to the prominence of Jewish prophets in the Persian Empire and notes that Ezra held the respected job of scribe in the royal court. “The Jews weren’t seen as a threat to anyone else’s way of life,” Sarshar says. But with the advent of Islam their world would change.
A battle in 642 C.E., which Arabs hail as the “victory of victories,” brought an end to the golden age of Persian Jews. Some 30,000 battle-hardened Arab Muslims assembled at Nehavend, along the western Persian border, and defeated the 150,000-man Persian army, ending 2,000 years of Persian independence. The caliphate was then controlled from Damascus and Baghdad.
Although Muslims revered Jews as “the people of the Book,” the imposition of Islam led to second-class citizenship for Persia’s minorities—Jews, Zoroastrians, and Armenian and Assyrian Christians. “After the rapid expansion of the Muslim dominion, Muslim leaders were required to find a way of handling non-Muslims, who remained in the majority in many areas,” says Nahid Pirnazar, who teaches Iranian studies at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and is founder and director of the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts Foundation. As a way of both protecting and discriminating against minorities, Islamic leaders came up with the notion of dhimma, or protected minorities. “The dhimmi were required to pay an extra tax but usually were unmolested,” says Pirnazar. “This compares well to the treatment meted out to non-Christians in Christian Europe.”
Over time, the list of hardships and humiliations grew. The Pact of Umar, named after the reigning leader from 634 to 644 C.E., established harsher laws for non-Muslims. Jews were barred from government office and the military, and forbidden to ride on white donkeys, which were seen as symbols of cleanliness. They were forced to wear yellow armbands, while Christians had to don blue ones.
After the Mongols invaded Persia in the second half of the 13th century, the standing of the country’s Jews improved dramatically. “This period was the highlight of the life of Jews in Islamic Iran,” says Pirnazar. “The Mongol rulers at the time were secular, not yet converted to Islam, so Jews had a chance to penetrate into socio-political and cultural levels.”
This didn’t last. Treatment of minorities deteriorated after the Safavids took power in the 1500s, imposing their hard-line brand of Shia Islam and ushering in “the worst era of Persian-Jewish relations,” says political scientist Eliz Sanasarian of the University of Southern California, author of Religious Minorities in Iran.
The Safavids forcibly converted Iran’s Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam and introduced the concept of “ritual pollution,” which further segregated minorities from their neighbors. Because nonbelievers were deemed spiritually and physically contagious, Jews were barred from leaving their houses when it rained, for fear the water would transmit their impurities. A Jew who entered a Muslim home had to sit on a special rug and could not be offered tea, food or a water pipe, since any object touched by a Jew could no longer be used by a Muslim.
Safavid rule came to an end in 1736, but the Muslim perception of Jews as impure remained. Occasional violent outbreaks, reminiscent of the blood libels and pogroms carried out in Europe, punctuated the next two centuries of Qajar Dynasty rule. In one incident in the northeastern town of Mashhad in 1839, an ailing Jewish woman was told to use dogs’ blood to cure a certain malady. A rumor quickly spread that she had tried the cure on a Shia holiday, deliberately insulting the sect. Jews were attacked and some three dozen killed, while the rest of the Jewish community was given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Such bloody outbreaks persisted until the 20th century, when a new breed of shah came to power.
Born in the isolated northern Persian village of Alasht in 1878, Reza Pahlavi was the son of a military officer. Pahlavi was a man of powerful military bearing, most often portrayed with a thick handlebar mustache and a curved knife hanging from his scabbard. In 1925, he deposed the last shah of the Qajar Dynasty, giving himself the title Reza Shah.
For the first time in 1,400 years, an Iranian ruler reached out to his country’s Jews, bowing to the Torah to show his respect during a visit to the Jewish community of Isfahan, banning mass conversions and discouraging the idea that non-Muslims were unclean.
While respectful of Iran’s Jews, Reza Shah was fascinated by Nazi Germany. With German encouragement—and to emphasize that Persians are Aryan, not Arab—he changed the country’s name to Iran—from the old Persian “Arynam” or “of the Aryans.”
Iran, sitting of vast pools of oil, became of great strategic importance during World War II. Hitler coveted the oil, sparking fears of an Iranian-German alliance. As a result, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran in 1941, forcing the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Though the younger Pahlavi was seen as a playboy more interested in fast cars than in governing, he had a bold vision for his nation.
A man of grandiose self-image, the new Shah viewed himself as heir to Cyrus the Great and as such was a friend of the Jews. Under his rule, the community “enjoyed almost total cultural and religious autonomy, experienced unprecedented economic progress and had more or less the same political rights as their Muslim compatriots,” says David Menashri, a Tel Aviv University expert on Iran.
To protect them from the Nazis, Iran assured the Germans that its Jews were fully assimilated Iranians called kalimis—a term derived from the accolade for Moses in Koran. The Nazis, still more interested in Iran’s oil, acquiesced, and also turned a blind eye to the fact that the Shah was providing an escape route for thousands of European Jewish refugees.
Rachel Meer, a Jewish Iranian expatriate who lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, remembers her father telling her the story of how, during World War II, he helped Jews pass through Iran. “He purchased a huge army tent to protect these refugees,” she says. “When he married my mother, the Jews traveling through were invited to the wedding.” Later, when great numbers of Iraqi Jews left their homes for the newly born state of Israel, they too were granted passage, says Shaul Bakhash, a veteran Mideast analyst at George Mason University in Virginia. “Iran was one of the few countries that did not charge the Zionist organization for this permission.”
At first Iran had opposed the partition of Palestine, says Trita Parsi, author of the forthcoming book Treacherous Triangle—The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. “But once it was done, Iran and Israel realized they had common interests and common enemies.” In the 1960s, Iran developed a military relationship with Israel and Israeli technicians assisted Iran with agricultural projects. Both nations, wary of Arab domination of the Middle East, saw value in creating a non-Arab “outer ring,” consisting of Iran, Israel, Turkey and Ethiopia.
With the exception of Turkey, Iran stood virtually alone in the Middle East in its acceptance of the state of Israel. But in doing so, the Shah walked a fine line. As Iran’s covert ties with Israel became public, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a campaign against the Shah. At home, his efforts to westernize Iran faced opposition from mullahs—Iran’s Islamic clerics—on the right and intellectuals on the left, all of whom condemned his government as repressive.
After Israel seized and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Iranian clergy’s antipathy toward Israel increased sharply. “1967 changed many minds,” says Menashri. He recounts the story of the 200-rial banknote to illustrate the Shah’s precarious position.
It was 1974, a time of great tension: Arab oil-producing nations had imposed an oil embargo on the West, but the Shah, wishing to maintain his strategic alliance with Washington and Jerusalem, refused to stop supplying them with oil. The Arabs were incensed. What seemed like routine government business—the replenishment of currency by issuing 10 million new 200-rial notes—quickly grew into a crisis. On the day the new currency was to be distributed to banks, attention fell on a six-pointed star on the back of the bill. Though the star was of a traditional Iranian design, rumors spread that the currency had been printed in Israel. Fearing rebellion, the government withdrew the notes that same day.
Protests against the Shah continued to escalate and the storm clouds of revolution gathered. “The revolution did not have Islamic overtones at first—it was a revolution of the intelligentsia and it was pro-democracy,” recalls Esther’s Children author Sarshar. “But, very quickly, in about two or three months, all the craziness started.” While many Jews were sympathetic to the protestors, the community was seen as an ally to the Shah and part of the ruling establishment—thus an enemy of the revolution.
The most influential of the revolutionaries was a religious leader with a flowing beard who sat brooding in exile in a Parisian suburb: Ayatollah Rohollah Mousavi Khomeini. Born in 1902 near the holy city of Qom, Khomeini had been exiled from Iran in 1964 for condemning the Shah’s modernization policies. After 13 years in Iraq, he moved to France, where he continued to challenge the regime. Via smuggled audiotapes of his sermons, he fanned the swelling protests against the Shah’s regime from afar and inspired Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
By 1978, widespread strikes had led to the collapse of the economy and, on December 12, two million protestors gathered on Tehran’s Azadi Square. On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled Iran into exile. Two weeks later, enormous crowds greeted Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran on a chartered Air France airliner. That November 4, a mob of angry students, spurred on by his denouncement of the United States as an enemy of Islam stormed the American Embassy, taking 66 Americans hostage. The demonstrators included a young rabble-rouser named Ahmadinejad who also advocated seizing the Soviet Embassy. A new age of Islamic fundamentalism for Iran had begun, spelling great uncertainty for its 80,000 Jews.
As a skinny, brainy Tehran teenager in the 1970s, Roya Hakakian was one of many young Jews who supported the Islamic Revolution despite the nervous admonitions of their parents. For them, participation was not only an adventure but affirmation they were fully assimilated Iranians. Hakakian, now a 39-year-old mother in Connecticut, has written a memoir, Journey From the Land of No, that provides a glimpse into the turmoil that followed the Revolution.
Initially, the Islamists were too busy imposing their rules on society at large to worry about the Jews. “People weren’t permitted to laugh on the streets on certain national mourning days; it was a crime to be with a boy you weren’t related to; we had to cover our heads and we couldn’t hold hands,” Hakakian recalls. Women couldn’t appear in public without a veil and garments like the chador that revealed not a clue of femininity. Women also lost the right to divorce, and most engineering and law schools began refusing them admission. People could be arrested—and sometimes executed—for possession of books such as The Communist Manifesto, or music cassettes. “Those were the Khmer Rouge days,” Hakakian says.
Hakakian’s first brush with the new order came when she and a few friends went for a hike in a public park in the Alborz, part of a mountain range outside Tehran. Encountering a sign that said the mountain was “closed,” they giggled and ignored it. As they ascended, some of the girls loosened their mandatory head scarves. Soon, they were stopped by a teenager in army fatigues toting a Kalashnikov, who demanded to know what they were doing. Three other uniformed men joined him and took the group to a detention center. There, a policeman found a Jewish prayerbook in Hakakian’s pocketbook; ironically, that broke the tension. “Jews are cowards,” one of the uniformed men said. “They never get mixed up in politics. And we thought we’d got ourselves a pack of leftists or royalists.” The girls were sent home.
“For once in Jewish history,” says Hakakian wryly, “Jewish stereotypes came to our aid.”
In the evenings, she and her friends would watch the show trials on television. Former leaders of the Shah’s government, stripped of their dignity and wearing cardboard signs with their names around their necks, were charged with offenses like “corruption on earth,” and taken to be shot. In March 1979, the spectacle hit close to home. Habib Elghanian, an industrialist who led the Jewish community council, was accused of corruption, contacts with Israel and Zionism, “friendship with the enemies of God,” “warring with God and his emissaries” and “economic imperialism.” He was tried by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal whose members kept their backs to him, refusing to look a traitor in the face.
Shot by firing squad on May 8, Elghanian was the first private citizen in Iran to be executed by the tribunal. His real crime was that he had failed to follow established custom for Jews and maintain a low profile. He had become a prominent figure under the Shah: While most well-off Iranian Jews were merchants with small businesses, Elghanian, owner of a huge conglomerate with interests in plastics, tile and aluminum, was a mogul. He even built a huge skyscraper in Tehran’s business district.
Within days of his execution, leaders of the Iranian Jewish community selected a delegation to meet with Khomeini. They chose two rabbis and four intellectuals, some of whom had joined the early street demonstrations against the Shah. Early one morning, the six men climbed into a station wagon and drove to Qom, one of them later told Hakakian’s father.
When they arrived, they were surprised to find that Khomeini, still not accustomed to the trappings of power, had cleared his calendar for their visit. As they seated themselves on folded blankets in a reception room, the Ayatollah entered. “Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” one of the rabbis addressed him, invoking the name of God in Arabic in deference.
Khomeini began a long, roundabout discourse on subjects ranging from monotheism to how a man should choose a wife, to how to properly copulate, puzzling his Jewish audience. But when the Ayatollah completed his talk, his meaning became clear. “Moses would have nothing to do with these Pharaoh-like Zionists who run Israel,” he said. “And our Jews, the descendants of Moses, have nothing to do with them, either. We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists.”
When the Jewish delegation returned to Tehran, they spread the word: The Ayatollah had made Iran’s Jews kosher in the eyes of the Revolution. Soon all synagogues were painted with Khomeini’s decree and the Jews of Iran renounced Zionism.
True to its rhetoric, the Islamic Republic severed all official ties with Israel, but a clandestine relationship continued. Though Yasser Arafat was invited to Tehran and spoke of the plight of the mostly Sunni Palestinians, the Shia-Sunni divide and the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization was largely secular meant that Iran’s support for the Palestinians was always lukewarm. Privately, Iran and Israel shared a common fear of the Arab states, especially Iraq. Israel sold Iran arms throughout the eight-year Iraq-Iran war.
In 1985, in the middle of that war, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres helped broker a deal between the Reagan Administration and Iran. The agreement allowed the sale of American arms, including anti-tank missiles, to the Islamic Republic. In exchange, the United States sought Iranian influence to free Western hostages held by Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group supported by Iran. (It also used the Iranian money to fund the anti-Communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.) When news of the deal surfaced, the Reagan Administration was embarrassed and politically damaged—both the United States and Israel had previously denied selling arms to the Islamic Republic.
At the end of the Cold War, Israel had a change of heart and concluded that Iran had become a major threat to its security. With Iraq severely weakened by its defeat in the Gulf War, Israeli strategists focused on Iran’s quest for long-range missiles and nuclear weapons as well as Iranian funding of Hezbollah. At press conferences in Jerusalem and during many visits to Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin began emphasizing his desire to make peace with the Palestinians and with Syria because an even greater danger loomed: a nuclear Iran.
In 1977, Abbas Milani, then a political scientist at Tehran University, was arrested by the Shah’s police and thrown in jail. Considered a dangerous leftist academic, Milani shared a cell with some of the men who would become the leaders of the Islamic Revolution, including one of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Rafsanjani. Recalling his incarceration with the Islamists, he says bluntly, “I couldn’t stand them and they couldn’t stand me.”
Milani, who is not Jewish, left Iran for the United States in 1986, after the first waves of Iranian Jews fled the Revolution. He remembers that he first came to understand the special penalties that Iranian Jews faced under the mullahs when an Iranian friend, a prominent astrophysicist at Cambridge University, was invited to attend a conference in Tehran in 1982. The Iranian authorities had assured the young man he would have no problem returning to Britain, but because he was Jewish, they seized his passport upon his arrival and refused to return it.
“The poor guy had a wife and baby in England and they wouldn’t let him leave,” recalls Milani, who later discovered that the Islamic Republic had an unofficial policy of denying passports to young Iranian Jews to coerce their families into returning home after traveling abroad. They were in effect held hostage. “You can’t be a human being without feeling offended that this is happening in your name in your country,” says Milani.
Since the Islamic Revolution, approximately 75 percent of Iran’s Jews have fled the country. Estimates of the number that remain vary from 13,000 (the U.S. State Department’s 2005 International Religious Freedom Report, based on the most recent Iranian census) to the 25,000 to 30,000 claimed by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a non-profit group based in New Haven, Connecticut. The difference, the Center says, stems from the fact that many Jews in Iran do not wish to call attention to their heritage.
Whatever their number, Jews make up a tiny and vulnerable fraction of Iran’s population of nearly 70 million. “Personally, I am very much concerned about attacks on Iranian Jews,” says George Haroonian, former president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), a group of outspoken Iranian expatriates that advocates for the rights of Iran’s remaining Jews. “It’s my viewpoint that Iranian Jews are in a very precarious situation.”
CIAJO reports that since 1979, 10 Jews in addition to Elghanian have been executed, six have been assassinated by the regime, two have died as a result of being held in custody, eight have died under suspicious circumstances and 12 have disappeared.
The situation has become increasingly worse, says Haroonian. He points to the trial in 2000 of 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan accused of illegal contact with Israel, conspiracy to form an illegal organization and recruiting agents, which provoked vandalism and boycotts of Jewish businesses. “This was the largest wholesale attack against the Jewish community,” Haroonian says. Ten of those charged were found guilty, although espionage charges were dropped and an appeals court overturned all the convictions but those for illegal contacts with Israel. By 2003 all had been released from prison; 10 remain on probation.
Iran has seen a recent wave of anti-Semitic propaganda masquerading as anti-Zionism in print, on television and within the educational system, heavily influencing what Iranians—a quarter of them under 15—learn about their Jewish neighbors. Last February, Iran’s largest newspaper Hamshahri sponsored an international Holocaust cartoon contest that solicited sinister anti-Semitic entries that were widely displayed. In 2000, the Al-Manar television station aired a claymation special in which Jews were turned into apes and pigs. In 2004, the station Sahar 1 aired a weekly series Zahra’s Blue Eyes, also called For You, Palestine, in which the Israeli government is depicted as removing the blue eyes of Palestinian children for implantation into Jewish children. The claymation program “doesn’t say ‘all Jews are cursed,’” notes Yehudit Barsky, director of the Middle East and International Terrorism section of the American Jewish Committee. “It doesn’t say the Jewish person next door is evil. But still, the selection of this story is saying there were Jews who were evil and were punished. It’s a message of an insidious nature, not a direct nature.”
As the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism becomes increasingly blurred, the Jews who remain in Iran continue to stick to the Khomeini formula. “The Iranian Jewish community has gone out of its way to condemn the state of Israel, including the recent war with Hezbollah,” says Nahid Pirnazar. Catholic University law professor Marshall Breger, who visited Tehran and Shiraz in 2003, says that the Iranian Jews he met expressed regard and affection for the people of Israel, but were not political Zionists. “They were creating what I would call Judaism without Israel,” he explains. “It’s not unknown. People would say, ‘it’s no problem to be a Jew’ but the more observant wouldn’t wear a kippah outside because people in Iran know kippahs as a symbol of the Israel Defense Forces.”
While Iranian Jews are loath to speak out in defense of Israel, they do occasionally draw attention to other matters, such as anti-Jewish stereotypes in the media and the government’s campaign denying the Holocaust. Earlier this year, Haroun Yashayaei, chair of the Tehran Jewish community, sent an extremely rare letter of protest to Ahmadinejad, expressing concern about the president’s statements about the Holocaust. His objections were seconded by Maurice Motamed, who holds the one seat allotted to Jews in the country’s 290-member parliament.
“When our president spoke about the Holocaust, I considered it my duty as a Jew to speak about this issue,” Motamed told the British newspaper The Guardian in a June 2006 interview. “The biggest disaster in human history is based on tens of thousands of films and documents. I said these remarks are a big insult to the whole Jewish society in Iran and the whole world.”
Motamed, an engineer, made clear to The Guardian that although he took issue with Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust, he supports the president on other issues, including the standoff with the United States, Europe and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program. “I am an Iranian first and a Jew second,” he stressed. Although he acknowledged that Jews in Iran face problems, he assured readers that “there is no pressure on synagogues, no problems of desecration. I think the problem in Europe is worse than here. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in other countries.”
Similar sentiments can be found on the Jewish Central Committee of Iran’s website, iranjewish.com. “Iran’s Jewish community congratulates the achievement of nuclear fuel to the supreme leader, the Islamic Republic officials and all Iranians,” a May 2006 entry reads. “We celebrate the coincident of this victory with the New Year and the unforgettable days of Passover.”
Generally, Jews who have chosen to stay in Iran say that they are content and have no wish to leave their homeland. Tehran has more than a dozen active synagogues, and large groups of Jews also live in Shiraz and Isfahan. “Jews stay in Iran because they have their jobs, their lives and they love it,” says Shirin Taleh, a family therapist who left Iran in 2001 with her children to join the rest of her family in California and has visited twice since then, including a stay earlier this year.
Taleh believes her children will have more opportunities in the United States but dearly misses the country of her birth. She balks at the notion that Iran discriminates against Jews. “I would say ‘limitation’ rather than ‘discrimination.’ Two words, two meanings. Limitations for everyone, not just the Jewish community. We have some freedoms that the Muslims don’t have. Men and women mix. We are allowed to use alcohol for religious purposes. I don’t claim everything is OK. Everybody in the world abuses the name of the Jews. It’s an old problem between Muslims and Jews.” But, she makes clear, “I don’t know anything about political issues. I don’t want to go there.”
The decision to remain in Iran may not be measurable in rational ways. In 1998, when Manochehr Eliasi, Motamed’s predecessor as the Jewish member of parliament, was asked by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter why Jews don’t leave, he burst into tears. “This is my birthplace,” Eliasi said. “I love its smell.”
In many ways, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the first non-cleric president in 24 years, is an exemplary product of modern Iran. Born to a modest family in a small village, he capitalized on high test scores to enter the civil engineering program at the Iran University of Science and Technology during the reign of the Shah. Later, he received his doctorate in a program funded by the Revolutionary Guards. With 12 percent of voters participating, he won the mayor’s office in 2003.
This 50-year-old newcomer to the world stage shocked analysts during his recent visit to the United Nations, not only by his hardline address to the General Assembly but by his seeming enjoyment of the limelight. He parried questions at a press conference, deftly handled CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a televised interview and spent 90 minutes jousting with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations. He stayed on message: The New York Times reported that Ahmadinejad spent 40 minutes of the session challenging evidence that the Holocaust took place. “I think we should allow more impartial studies to be done on this,” he said after hearing the account of a Jewish member of the Council who saw the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War II. After the meeting, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft described Ahmadinejad to The New York Times as “a master of counterpunch, deception, circumlocution.”
Milani, who has followed Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, believes the Iranian president is truly anti-Semitic and is playing the Israel card to gain international attention and enhance his stature. “Had he not said those comments about the Holocaust and Israel, he would have come to the UN as a two-bit president of a despotic regime. Instead, they gave him a rock star treatment here, and it all translated into more power for him back home.”
“Not even a second-tier player” in Iran before the furor arose over his remarks, now he is world-renowned, says Milani. “The last month and a half, every time I have traveled and taken a cab, if the cab driver is Muslim and they get a whiff that I’m Iranian, they begin talking about Ahmadinejad as the man who is standing up to the Jews, to Israel and to America. It is working for him.”
Still, for all its bombastic rhetoric, Milani says he doesn’t believe the regime poses a direct threat to Iran’s Jews. “Is there a specific danger that Jews face? I don’t think so,” he says. “That kind of eliminationist anti-Semitism has never been part of Iranian history. Iranian anti-Semitism has been more or less limited to verbal pressure, verbal anti-Semitism, forcing Jews to live in ghettos, occasionally forcing them to wear the Star of David. Killings, pogroms—that’s European, not Iranian.”
Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel and the Holocaust may have more to do with political pragmatism than anything else. A man of a secular background, he must show the mullahs that he is as staunch an Islamist as they are; to mix religious metaphors, he has to be more Catholic than the Pope.
His outspokenness has advantages for the mullahs and the Supreme Leader they elect, who holds most of the real power. Seizing the limelight allows non-Arab Iran to pursue its goal of becoming the leader of the mostly Arab Middle East. And Ahmadinejad’s vitriol makes the mullahs seem almost moderate by comparison.
His combativeness has another upside: it serves to shift attention from economic problems at home. Despite a huge rise in oil revenues, there is grumbling in Tehran’s streets about economic conditions, reflecting the gross inefficiency of its bloated bureaucracy and centralized economy. Despite Iran’s oil wealth and bravado, the government fears Western economic sanctions that would force it to spend more to subsidize food and fuel.
Growing speculation about a nuclear showdown in the Middle East is premature, according to Milani. “I don’t see them picking on Israel militarily because they know that they will pay a very heavy price,” he says. “Even in arming Hezbollah, they’ve been very careful. They have allowed Hezbollah to become more of a nuisance, they have given them more staying power, but not any weapon that could seriously change the balance with Israel or make Hezbollah a more lethal threat. I think the war in one sense was a big loss for the Iranians. They won a publicity war but not much else.”
Scholar Trita Parsi agrees. “Israel is a means for Iran, just as Iran is a means for Israel.”
And Parsi doesn’t believe that the Iranian people would support a war against Israel. “I think the larger feeling among the population is that it’s really not Iran’s main problem. People don’t like what Israel is doing [in the occupied territories] but they don’t like Arabs, either. A poll says that 67 percent of Iranians say that Israel does not have right to exist. But does that mean that they think Iran has to do anything about this? I don’t think so.”
Nonetheless, many Iranian expatriates long for regime change. Houman Sarshar doubts the voices calling for change inside Iran will remain silent. “A population of 75 million—with approximately 50 million born after 1978—is being run by a population of mullahs 60 and 70-plus [years old]. If only 60 percent [of the population] wants a completely secular government, then it’s over,” he says.
Milani believes that without $70-per-barrel oil, the regime would not survive long. “The age of pseudo-totalitarian corrupt dictatorships has come to an end,” he says. “The majority of Iranian society doesn’t want it. But tactically this is a very nimble regime, very brutal, and it has a lot of money.”
However, Jerusalem-based Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar, co-author of the forthcoming book The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, believes the chance of regime change is small. “Iranians are suffering from conflict fatigue after the Islamic Revolution, followed by one of the longest wars in modern history. They are tired. And there’s no alternative. Who are they going to revolt for? People don’t want chaos—who is going to give them hope? Who are they going to die for? Don’t expect Tiananmen.”
Iranians are upset that the government has shut down blogs as well as Shargh, the reformist newspaper. “It makes people angry. But go to the streets to revolt?” says Javedanfar. “Only two things would make a revolution overnight. One: Shoot the entire Iranian football team. Two: Ban the sale and eating of Persian rice. Then you will have a revolution on your hands. Until then, as they say in New Jersey, fuggedaboutit.”
As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad commands the world’s attention, Abdol Hossein Sardari, who died in 1981, has been all but forgotten. When the courageous diplomat returned to Iran after the war, he was imprisoned for the unauthorized distribution of passports, says George Hooranian. “After 30 days he was released by the Shah. The Shah said he did a good deed. He saved people’s lives.”
There is no memorial to Sardari in Iran, or until recently, anywhere else, says Haroonian. In 2004, Iranians living in the United States organized two Yom Hashoah events to honor the diplomat. One was at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the other at the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. A cut glass tablet reads: “In memory of and admiration of his humanitarian and courageous efforts that led to the saving of many innocent lives while serving as the Iranian Consul in France during World War II.”
Inspired by Sardari’s deeds, and angry that he has received so little recognition, Hooranian collected hundreds of pages of documents and personally delivered them to Yad Vashem in Israel. He would like for Sardari to be become the first Iranian bestowed with the designation of Righteous Among the Nations, a title awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The public committee that decides who should be given this honor has discussed Sardari’s case twice, and reports that it is “very interesting.” A decision has not yet been made, pending further documentation. But the necessary information is not forthcoming; the Iranian government has refused to cooperate.
“How sad,” says Haroonian, “that Sardari—and what he represents—cannot be honored in Iran.”
Rachel Safier contributed to the reporting of this story