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Iran Should Come Clean on Missing Jews

I’ve been traveling in Poland and Romania over the last week or so, without steady access to the Internet and so I was not able immediately to add my two cents to the flurry of discussion over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s alleged Rosh Hashanah greeting. The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari put the reports in context and called out some of the usual suspects in the press who are far more willing to embrace a random tweet than take seriously the pattern of decades of Iranian terrorism and anti-Semitism.

I spent a good deal of time with the Jews in Iran back in the later 1990s, in trips I took during the administrations of Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. While Iran does have a sizeable Jewish community, it is but a shadow of its pre-revolutionary self. To brag that “Iranian Jews have it so good” because they’ve only lost 80 percent of their population isn’t something that any academic, analyst, or journalist should claim with a straight face. Nor is it true that Iranians have always been tolerant toward their Jewish minority. Iran suffered its fair share of pogroms and religious violence; to pretend otherwise is to whitewash history. The best book on more modern Jewish history in Iran is Daniel Tsadik’s Between Foreigners and Shi’is; Habib Levy’s now-outdated Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran is the most comprehensive, though it ends more than a decade ago.

At any rate, Iran’s new foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif eventually took credit for the Twitter stunt. By doing so, he not only seems to guarantee himself an appointment at Princeton or Harvard should he ever end up on the foul side of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but he appears to be pushing a strategy that Rouhani and former Khatami-era spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh once bragged about: Speak softly until the West lowers its guard, and then use the easing of pressure to push forward with Iran’s own special projects.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical, having studied for too long patterns of Iranian deception for a chapter of my forthcoming book. So, it would be nice if those willing to grasp Iran’s outstretched hands would ask Zarif, Rouhani, and the true leadership of Iran—Khamenei and Gen. Qasem Suleimani—to resolve the problem of Iran’s missing Jews.

During the 1990s—the reign of “pragmatist” Rafsanjani and “reformist” Khatami—security forces arrested several Jews who sought to flee Iran into Pakistan. Several were spotted subsequently in Iranian prisons. Here is the Simon Wiesenthal Center action alert from several years ago:

Between 1994 and 1997, 11 Jews, at the time ranging from 15 years of age to 57, were detained while attempting to cross the border from Iran into Pakistan seeking to be reunited with their families and in hopes of finding a secure future and a life of freedom. In addition, in February 1997, a Jewish businessman living in Tehran disappeared while visiting a provincial capital and has not been heard from since. The families of the disappeared have been virtually unable to get any information from the authorities as to the whereabouts of their loved ones. Several eyewitnesses (former Iranian intelligence officials who are now living in the West) claim they have seen some of the missing in Iranian jails and others in a detention center, but to date nothing has been substantiated. Several years ago, two credible Iranian officials privately assured a family member in Iran that the men were alive and had been transported to a prison in Tehran.

The appeal was delivered to Zarif while he was still Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. While it’s all well and good to applaud Zarif’s tweet, perhaps those who are seeking to draw broad conclusions from it might consider demanding the new government put its money where its tweets are, and come clean about what they have done to the missing Jews.



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