Forty years ago, the Iranian revolution was reaching its zenith.
1978 had been marked by demonstrations and a massacre of protesters in Tehran’s Jaleh Square in September. By mid-January 1979, the Shah had gone into exile and the Queen’s visit to Iran in the royal yacht, Britannia, had been abruptly cancelled. On 1 February, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France — and a reputed three million people turned out to greet him. Within a year, tens of thousands of Jews had left the country.
This is a common pattern of Jewish behaviour when instability strikes. When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba (1959) or Allende in Chile (1970), the Jewish business community gradually began to leave while the Jewish intelligentsia remained. In Iran in 1978, the revolution had involved many left-wing factions who had been outraged by the Shah’s opulence and the authoritarian nature of his regime. The Association of Jewish Iranian Intellectuals was led by young Marxists and published the periodical Tamuz. They disavowed Zionism and were highly critical of the communal leadership which had aligned itself with the Shah’s regime.
In Cuba, the revolution was never antagonistic towards Jews — even when it turned to the Kremlin — and Israel welcomed Castro, Che Guevara and the young revolutionaries who had overthrown Battista’s rule.
In Iran, it was different. The revolt was led by Islamists who eventually devoured the children of the revolution. During the 1980s, 8,000 critics of Khomeini were executed. The Islamists killed more supporters of the revolution than supporters of the Shah’s reactionary rule.
For many in the Jewish community, it was Khomeini’s theological dislike of Jews — not solely Zionists — that mattered. In 1970, he had written: “Since its inception, the Islamic movement has been afflicted with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and joined its various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to our present day.”
Khomeini viewed the Jews of the 20th century through the same lens as the Jews of the 7th century who were in conflict with the Prophet. In his eyes, Jews were corruptors of Muslim society, mistranslators of the Koran, controllers of the Iranian economy and agents of imperialism.
In power, Khomeini refused to insert the word ‘Democratic’ before ‘Islamic Republic’ because it was “too Western”. As Khomeini’s clergy strengthened its grip on power, secular teachers were pushed out of education, women purged from the judiciary, members of the Bahai faith dismissed from government positions and their places of worship closed. All this unnerved Iranian Jews and hastened the exodus of a community that traced its history back to Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE.
Khomeini often praised the work of a Palestinian pan-Arabist writer, Akram Zu’aytar, which seems to have shaped his views. Originally from Nablus and a member of the nationalist Istiqlal party, Zu’aytar worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Education in the 1930s and was regarded by the British as having pro-Nazi sympathies.
The founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, had allowed the Jews in 1927 to live outside their assigned ghettos, to vote and to own land. Like his son, the Shah, he blew hot and cold regarding the Jews. Yet Iran de facto recognised Israel in 1950, the second Muslim country to do so. Such contacts developed in the years ahead. Turkey and Iran were viewed as the northern tip of “the doctrine of the periphery” — states which were resisting the advance of Nasserism and Soviet influence. While their political and military elites were cosmopolitan, their rural populations, often poverty stricken and illiterate, were devout Muslims.
Yossi Alpher, the author of Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, records that on the eve of the revolution, several thousand Israeli businessmen were living in Iran. There was even an Israeli school in Tehran. Despite Iran’s support for OPEC’s oil embargo after the Yom Kippur War, by 1977, “oil sales were booming”. Despite the turmoil all around, Israel and Iran were busily negotiating a $1.2 billion bilateral arms deal. The project would use Iranian finance for the development of six new Israeli weapon systems and a new generation of Jericho missiles.
In 1978, Mr Alpher had become the Mossad’s chief intelligence analyst on Iran. He comments that no one in the Mossad or the Foreign Ministry actually possessed any deep knowledge about events there.
Mr Alpher recalls in his book a meeting with the head of the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi, on 28 January 1979. Mr Hofi said that Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister, had called in Eliezer Shafrir, the Mossad’s representative in Tehran, and asked the Mossad to assassinate Khomeini in France. Before the astonished Mr Alpher could respond, Mr Hofi said that he thought that Khomeini would never last. “Let him return and the army would deal with him”. Mr Bakhtiar escaped from Tehran, but was subsequently murdered in his home in Suresnes near Paris by Iranian agents in August 1991.
Within a couple of months of Khomeini’s return, the communal leader and philanthropist, Habib Elchanan, was executed as a spy for Israel and opponent of the revolution. Three days later, a chastened communal delegation travelled to meet Khomeini in Qom. Khomeini recognised that “the Iranian Jews are not Zionists and we work together against Zionists”.
However, such a welcome comment belied Khomeini’s past attitudes. While the official line was to make a distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”, reality often intervened to prove otherwise.
The Iranian press spoke of “a Talmudic mentality” and “a kosher brotherhood” while Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, was part of a Zionist conspiracy to destroy Islam. Jewish suffering as depicted in Schindler’s List was no more than an attempt to deflect attention away from the Palestinians. Cartoons in the Iranian media bore an uncanny resemblance to the antisemitic stereotypes depicted in the Soviet press.
Khomeini’s fundamental opposition was not based on where the borders of Israel should be situated but on its existence. Israel was not “a natural phenomenon”, it was a tumour to be excised from Muslim lands. For Khomeini, Islam was not privatised religious practice, but a political power. There was therefore a sacred duty to liberate Palestine.
During the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Iranian cry was that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad”. An elite group of several thousand Revolutionary Guards was established to form the Quds (Jerusalem) Force. Yet Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Defence, perceived that Saddam Hussein’s forces were the greater threat to Israel and ordered that arms should be sent to Khomeini in unmarked aircraft via European airports.
The Iran-Iraq war was one of trench warfare and gas attacks, but it also spawned the rise of the suicide bomber — first used by the precursor of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s and later by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in attacks on Israeli citizens.
In the UK, the brutality of Khomeini’s tenure did not deter Jeremy Corbyn or Ken Livingstone from regular appearances on Iran’s state controlled Press TV. Mr Corbyn sat silently when anti-Jewish remarks were made, his regular presence was a betrayal of the thousands of Iranian socialists killed by Khomeini’s men. Mr Corbyn’s comment during the “English irony” episode was that his detractors “don’t want to study history”. His role as a fellow traveller here is yet another example of his superficial grasp of the complexity of the past.
President Obama was astute enough to remove the nuclear issue from relations with Tehran. However, the determination to attack Israel via Hezbollah and from its bases in Syria remains. Its attitude towards basic human rights and to freedom of expression continues to be a stumbling block to any genuine improvement of relations. Iran today remains marooned in Khomeini’s vision of 40 years ago.
As the great Persian poet and mystic, Rumi, wrote: “Yesterday is gone and its tale told. Today new seeds are growing.”
Jewish Chronicle 27 December 2018