Confused about Iran? So is everyone else! Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new leader, has threatened to wipe Israel off the map in one big nuclear “storm.” Should we take him seriously? What are the chances that this most existential threat yet to Israel’s existence could actually come to pass?
While no one can predict the future, we may be facing the darkest part of the night that comes just before dawn. We could be surprised to discover that all is not as it seems within Iran. Like the machinations leading to the sudden demise of Haman in the Biblical Book of Esther – and like the Soviet “evil empire” in its day – we may dare to hope that that the Iranian theocracy will also experience a swift internal implosion.
Indeed, the similarities between ancient Persia and its reincarnation as modern Iran have perplexed me throughout my days as a student, Foreign Service specialist, and now, professor. The Book of Esther presents a long series of twists, turns, contradictions, and ironies centered on personalities and the hidden divine hand. A benevolent King Cyrus allows the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple, but the wicked King Ahashverosh scuttles his plan. Haman, an evil minister bent on Jewish destruction, holds the reigns of power but is replaced by Mordechai the Jew, who saves his co-religionists.
In recent history, the benevolent Shah is replaced by the anti-Zionist Khomeini. And Iran’s new ruler, a blustering Ahashverosh-like sovereign who (like Ahashverosh) is not of royal descent, seizes power and causes the lot of the Jews in his country to deteriorate.
What’s next? A look at Iranian beginnings might give us a hint.
Modern Iranian history begins in the early 1900s, when intermittent rebellion against the centuries-old rule of the weak Quajar monarchy culminated in the constitutional revolution of 1909. The new constitution provided for a representative parliament, the Maljis, to govern the multiethnic populace, alongside the Shiite clergy and the monarchy. However, as a country lacking strong central authority and consisting of diverse rural tribes, Persia was at the mercy of interventionist powers, particularly Russia and Great Britain.
In 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi (“the Great”), an officer of the country’s only military force, seized power and replaced the Quajar dynasty with his own. Reza Shah aimed to unite the country under a strong central government based in Tehran. To strengthen his power and protect against foreign meddling, he began a modernization program. The impediment to his plan was the country’s dependence on foreign technology. Resistant clerics and ethnic tribal chieftains caused trouble as well. Reza Shah did manage to unite the country through a foreign-developed national communication and transportation system. And although dependent on assistance from foreigners – especially Britain, whose Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was the nation’s chief employer – Reza Shah sustained nominal Persian independence through a divide-and-conquer strategy. Foreign assistance was auctioned off among Britain, Russia, and Germany to preclude any single power from achieving dominance.
Persia Becomes Iran
On the eve of the Second World War, Reza Shah unfortunately favored Nazi Germany in order to counterbalance Russia, its neighbor, and Britain, its economic overseer. As German advisors flooded the country, he changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran, “Land of the Aryans,” in an attempt to be attractive to the Nazis.
During World War II, Britain and the Soviets had enough of Reza Shah’s cozying up to Hitler. Iran served as the sole land bridge connecting these wartime allies, and, fearing German subversion, the Allies occupied the country, arrested Reza Shah, and shipped him off to British-ruled South Africa. The Allied takeover turned Iran into a shipping lane for aiding the Soviet Union fight against the Nazi invasion of its territory.
At the war’s end, the Allies failed to fully restore Iranian independence. Britain continued to run the economy under the AIOC, and the Soviet Union continued its occupation, establishing breakaway puppet communist republics in Iranian Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.
Cold War Struggles
The Cold War brought Iran back on the agenda. Soviet-backed communism threatened Greece, Turkey, and Iran, prompting the U.S. to initiate the Truman Doctrine. Massive U.S. aid was poured into Europe to protect friendly governments from Russian hegemony. When the Soviet Union used a 1921 treaty provision to pressure Iran into accepting continued occupation, Iran took its case to the United Nations (UN). With strong Western backing, Iran succeeded in forcing a powerful Stalin to end the Soviet occupation and allow the return of the breakaway provinces to Iran.
The Soviets continued their influence, however, through the Iranian Communist Tudeh party, which openly operated amidst a power struggle between Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza, who took over in 1941, and the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh, a popular nationalist, moved to end foreign domination by nationalizing the oil industry. This provoked Britain into shutting down the country economically through a trade embargo and boycott. Simultaneously, Mossadegh picked away at the monarchy, forcing the Shah to flee abroad. The power struggle ended with a CIA coup, which restored the Shah and placed Iran back into the Western orbit.
Although beholden to the West, the Shah was no puppet. Like his father, he continued to modernize his still backward rural nation. With the support of the United States, he instituted a program of land reform, literacy, and women’s rights, calling it the White Revolution. The Jews of Iran benefited greatly in the new atmosphere of progress.
Though the Shah was best known as a champion of social reform and economic development and for his desire to transform Iran into a mighty regional power, his personal life also fascinated the world. He divorced his beautiful second wife, Queen Soraya, when nine years of marriage failed to produce a male heir. (He had a daughter from his first wife, the sister of Egyptian King Farouk.) The Shah then married the young Farah Diba, daughter of an Iranian military captain, who gave birth to four children, including his firstborn, Reza Cyrus. The child’s name was a symbol of Mohammad Reza’s desire to position his dynasty as the continuation of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire, founded by the great emperor Cyrus.
After 14 years of escalating progress in developing the country, the Shah felt the time had come to crown himself emperor. The coronation was held in Tehran in 1967. In an elaborate, bejeweled ceremony, the Shah sat on the Peacock Throne and, reminiscent of Napoleon, placed the royal crown on his own head. He then crowned his wife, the first time the Shah’s wife had equal station with her husband. He also changed the constitution to provide that she would be regent of the country in the event of his death until their son was of age.
A Spectacular Celebration
Four years after the coronation, in 1971, the Shah staged an unprecedented party (rivaling that of Ahashverosh in the Book of Esther) to commemorate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire. (In one of the interesting trivia of history, it was Jerusalem’s mayor and chairman of the Israeli Government Tourist Corporation, Teddy Kollek, who formulated the idea, after Iranian Prime Minister Assadollah Alam asked the Israeli government to devise a plan for promoting Iran’s tourist industry.)
Ten years in the planning, the celebration took place at the ruins of Persepolis, the seat of the kings of ancient Persia, in the desert near the present-day city Shiraz. It was an amazing display of extravagance, elegance, and splendor. The Shah and his wife welcomed virtually every monarch and head of state, and succeeded in convincing the world of the resurgence of Iran among the major countries of the world. (For Israel, the celebration provided a sense of regional belonging, as a paper was read describing Jewish-Persian historical ties.) The event included the display of Cyrus’ golden crown, on loan from the British Museum, and a highly symbolic ceremony at the nearby grave of Cyrus himself.
The Shah and Israel
As a U.S. ally during the Cold War, the Shah naturally turned to Israel for internal and external support. Like Iran, Israel was a re-emerging ancient power defending herself against radical Soviet-backed Arabs. These radical Arabs also threatened Iran, challenging its maritime supremacy over the Persian Gulf and its sovereignty over its Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province.
The Arabs scoffed at the biblical-type, Jewish-Persian entente and denounced the Shah for accommodating Zionism and Western imperialism. Hesitant to provoke the wrath of his Moslem brethren, the Shah did not give official diplomatic recognition to Israel. He commented, in 1961, “Iran’s relationship with Israel is like the true love that exists between two people outside of wedlock.” He continued to strengthen Iranian ties with Israel, supplying Israel with 60 percent of its energy needs in exchange for Israeli industrial goods. Despite no official diplomatic relations, an Israeli trade mission and regular El Al flights were tolerated.
Like Cyrus in his day, the Shah backed the Jews’ return to their homeland, allowing Iran to serve as a transit station on the way to Israel for Iraqi and Afghan Jewish refugees fleeing persecution. Israeli advisors participated in the White Revolution’s centerpiece, the transformation of rural Iran to an industrial power. The Shah also used Israeli agricultural know-how in his land reform program based on the kibbutz model.
Unfortunately, the land redistribution to the peasants alienated feudal landlords and the clergy by confiscating their property. The clergy also resented the Shah’s “anti-Islamic” replacement of the Islamic calendar with an “imperial” Persian calendar from ancient days. These measures, along with the Shah’s increasingly arbitrary rule, caused fierce opposition. Religious leaders were afraid of losing their traditional authority, while students and intellectuals wanted more democratic government. Unfortunately, the Shah did not take public opinion into account, and did not allow meaningful political liberties. He suppressed his opponents with the security and intelligence organization, SAVAK, created with the help of both Israeli (the Mossad) and American intelligence services (the CIA).
The U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, along with its dependence on oil, gave the Shah an opportunity to pursue his goal: the resurrection of ancient Persia. The U.S. saw the Shah as its regional policeman to offset growing Soviet influence, especially in the Persian Gulf, the shipping lane for Western oil supplies. The West feared Soviet-backed Arab sabotage of this strategic waterway, which Iran, as a Moslem power, could defend.
The Shah sought to fulfill his policing role through acquiring advanced weaponry, and turned to Israel to supply and train his military. American diplomat to Iran, Robert Bayne, wrote about the Israeli-Iranian military relationship he witnessed: “Every general officer in the Shah’s army has visited Israel, and hundreds of junior officers have undergone Israeli training.”
The 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War brought a changed relationship between Israel and Iran. The Arab oil embargo and OPEC monopolization of energy markets demonstrated just how powerful the oil producing nations could be with an energy-dependent industrial West. (Those who were around in those days remember the hours-long lines at Baltimore gas pumps.) The Shah joined the Arab-dominated oil cartel in raising prices, becoming more accommodating toward the Arabs at Israel’s expense. While maintaining ties to Israel he denounced its control of Moslem holy places, and gave the Arabs support during the war. Simultaneously, the Shah repaired relations with radical Arabs, including Iraq. He joined Saddam Hussein in a border agreement, and they conspired to expel the reactionary Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini from Iraq, who had instigated religious Shiite insurrection against both their regimes.
Revolution and War!
Khomeini’s expulsion to France turned out to be a fatal blunder. Being in the West enabled him greater freedom to rally dissident Shiites against both the Shah and Saddam Hussein. By 1979, Khomeini was challenging the biblical scenario created by the claimed successors of Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, and King David (the Shah, Saddam Hussein, and Menachem Begin) through revolution, war, and Shiite insurrection in Iraq and Lebanon.
In Iran, the Revolution erupted from street protests by the devout, unemployed migrants who had flooded the cities from the countryside. The Shah’s modernization program had dislocated and economically disenfranchised these traditional Iranians. They were led by Islamic clerics opposed to the economic and social changes modernization entailed, which benefited some classes at the expense of others, and increased the gap between the ruling elite and the disaffected populace. There was widespread discontent with the continuing repressiveness of the regime as well. The Shah fled the country amid growing chaos, while the returning Ayatollah Khomeini forged a revolutionary unity under an “Islamic republic” hostile to foreigners.
Feeling victimized by centuries of foreign exploitation, in 1979, the Iranians lashed out against the West in the U.S. embassy takeover and hostage crisis. (Current President Ahmadinejad was one of the ringleaders.) Israel was expelled from Iran, and native Jews as well as followers of the popular, Haifa-based Ba’hai faith were persecuted.
After purging the upper echelons of the Shah’s regime, the Revolution soon turned against its own revolutionary elected leadership, in a manner reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789. The revolution’s president (Bani Sadr) fled the country, a foreign minister (Sadeq Ghobzedeh) was publicly executed for espionage, and a prime minister (Medi Bazargan) resigned in the wake of house arrest. Iran descended into a revolutionary chaos that was ripe for foreign attack.
Indeed, the Revolution’s ousting of the Shah’s Israeli- and American-trained and equipped military whet the appetite of Saddam Hussein, next door. He also wanted to prevent a fundamentalist Shiite revolution in his own country, as Khomeini had declared war not only on the Shah but on Arab Sunni rulers like himself. Saddam believed that the American hostage crisis and the purge of the Shah’s military would give him a quick victory. And Iraq actually penetrated deep inside Iran, with Hussein boasting he would be in Tehran in four days.
The Iran-Contra Affair
This did not come to pass. The Iraqi invasion was repulsed as Iran recalled the Shah’s former military, which embarrassingly turned to Israel for help. Amidst an American hostage crisis and an embargo, the grounded Iranian Air Force asked Israel to refurbish it with American equipment. Risking U.S. disapproval, Israel complied – in exchange for the relaxation of Jewish emigration.
Israel benefited from the deal in that it alleviated an economic recession through military purchases of Israeli weaponry from overseas arms dealers. Despite Khomeini’s anti-Zionist rhetoric, players in the former Iranian-Israeli entente acted in their previous roles to jump-start the relationship they had previously built.
Yakov Nimrodi, the head of the Israeli Mission to Pahlavi Iran, brokered most of the overseas weapons sales to the Islamic Republic, while SAVAK’s General Hussein Fardust and Muncher Ghorbanifar transitioned their intelligence careers from the Shah to Khomeini, under the new intelligence service, Savamma. General Ariel Sharon, after successfully bombing Iraq’s Tammuz 17 nuclear reactor in 1981 with the assistance received from Iranian Air Force aerial photographs, planned his Lebanese campaign in collusion with his Iranian military counterparts. A 1982 Iranian counteroffensive against Iraq succeeded simultaneously with the Israeli offensive against PLO-infested Lebanon.
While cooperating with Israel, however, Khomeini confused many by his duplicity in sending a Revolutionary Guard Force, a counterweight to the Shah’s army, to Lebanon to fight Israel and form Hezbollah. Soon, Lebanese Shiites deserted the popular Israeli-backed, anti-PLO South Lebanon Army (SLA) for the Iranian-backed terrorists.
Attempts to moderate the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary dogma against the West and Israel failed miserably with the publicity surrounding the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration violated a Congressional arms ban in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The Affair peaked in May 1986, when a joint American-Israeli delegation landed in Tehran for a meeting with Iranian parliamentary Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, amidst a power struggle between radical and moderate clerics. The struggle forced Rafsanjani to reject any accommodation with Zionism or the West as the Iraq War and Shiite terrorism escalated, isolating Iran not only from Israel and the West but also from the Arabs.
The Iran-Iraq war eventually ended in stalemate. A disgruntled and mostly Shiite Iraqi army returned home, threatening Saddam Hussein’s Sunni rule, and Iran also intensified fundamentalism at home through political and military purges, Jewish persecution, and mass emigration, and at the same time inciting its new Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist proxies against Israel.
External Success Internal Dissent
The Shiite Hezbollah’s eviction of Israel from Lebanon in 2000, along with the Sunni Hamas-led intifada (1987 – present), has forged an uneasy marriage between Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism. The 1991 Gulf War encroachments into Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace, further unleashed Sunni fundamentalism against the West, in an attempt to replicate Iranian-theocracy globally. Indeed, both Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists successfully evicted Soviet infidels from Afghanistan while fighting Israel.
Internally, however, Iranians were disillusioned by a revolution that ousted modernity and economic prosperity along with perceived foreign dominance. They elected Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, a reform-minded cleric to the presidency. Khatami, a former mosque imam in Germany, represented both the Revolution and globalization. He promised “a dialogue of civilizations,” the relaxing of religious excesses imposed on a resistant Iranian society, and protection of the Jewish community. Under his presidency, a thawing in relations with Israel seemed possible. But radical clerics soon turned Khatami’s reform efforts into an exercise in futility, in which he complained that he had less freedom than the ordinary citizen. Radicals unleashed a terror campaign against the Jewish community, ending a blind-eye policy toward travel and familial ties to Israel. The Islamic Republic arrested 13 Jews and publicly prosecuted them for espionage and Zionism.
Hopes for improved ties failed, as an announced official visit to Iran by Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was rejected by the Islamic Republic. Khatami’s gestures of goodwill were also sabotaged by both internal and external extremists. He angered Arab delegates at a Swiss international conference in 2004 by selecting an Israeli Ma’ariv reporter to question him about recognizing the Jewish State. Sitting beside Israeli President Moshe Katsav at the Pope’s funeral last year, the two devout leaders shook hands and conversed about their mutual birthplace, Yazd. After receiving scorn from his cleric colleagues at home, Khatami denied the encounter, telling his country’s official news agency, “These allegations are false. I have not had any meeting with a personality from the Zionist regime.”
An Unpopular Leader
The “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency, with his call for Israel’s destruction and his quest for nuclearization, has only provoked more confrontation. At home, many Iranians view Ahmadinejad’s presidency as a repeat of his mayoral appointment to Tehran by the shadowy clerical Guardian Council, Iran’s true ruler. That appointment and interference in democratic politics led to Ahmadinejad’s replacing a popularly-elected liberal mayor who was subsequently prosecuted and jailed.
The Guardian Council and Ahmadinejad continue to defy public consensus. Besides offending the international community, they provoke rebellion among their restive subjects. Upon inauguration, Ahmadinejad arrogantly visited Baluchistan, a restive Sunni province, where he barely escaped assassination by sniper attack. The Majlis (parliament) continually rejects his inexperienced presidential appointments, while the Iranian foreign ministry is kept busy extinguishing his public relations fires, including his warmongering nuclear rhetoric against Israel and the West.
While Iran cheers fundamentalist electoral successes in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yesha, a volcano of simmering internal discontent prepares to erupt. As in the wake of communism’s fall, nostalgia for the imperial era intrigues much of the populace born after the Revolution. Their forebears tell them about a time of prosperity and a Persian legacy beyond the clerics’ close-minded obsession with Islam, a religion imposed on Persia through a hated Arab conquest. Many Iranians view their country’s Islamic warmongering under an ethnic Arab defense minister as alien to Persian culture.
Despite internal dissent, however, cleric-led Iran continues to arouse revolutionary fundamentalist Moslem fervor across the region, causing neighboring rulers to feel threatened by their own fundamentalists and/or Shiites turning against them. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lamented, Iran has provoked instability throughout the Middle East Shiite underclass, especially in Iraq: “Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in.” he told the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya television.
As for Iran’s effect beyond the region, the fulfillment of its nuclear ambitions is in sight, if not already achieved, and so, the West and Israel are preparing their defenses.
Iran, which appears unified from without, may, under mounting world pressure against it, surprise everyone with a Book of Esther-like twist of events. The Islamic Republic could implode unexpectedly.
Houchang Nahavandi, a cabinet minister under the Shah, smells revolution in the air, noting that the so-called Islamic Republic exhibits neither traditional Islam nor republican democracy. In a recent Front Page interview, he cited the radical interior ministry’s own statistics showing rising youth suicide (the highest rate in the world) alongside preference for traditional Persian separation of religion and state. Such findings indicate disillusion with theocracy, a form of government alien to a Persian culture founded upon Cyrus’ tolerant legacy. Sentiment to restore this historic Persian legacy, free of Arab religious chauvinism, grips Iranians in this age of globalization. Nahavandi expresses this sentiment:
“Iran and Israel have no real disagreement. The Jews have been in Iran for 2,700 years. Don’t forget, Cyrus was the liberator of the Jews and is referred to in the Old Testament as G-d’s anointed one. Israel-Iran economic, military, and security cooperation was of a high level, and I myself, as University of Tehran rector, launched a cooperation agreement with the Weizmann Institute. The anti-Zionist vociferations of the Islamic regime are disgraceful, and go against our cultural and historical traditions.”
And so, although the Iran grabs headlines, Jews as in the days of the Book of Esther await a Purim-like salvation to usher in final ingathering of the exiles and Redemption.
The author worked in the Foreign Service for the U.S. Department of State at the American Embassy Tel Aviv during the Iran-Iraq War