Karmel Melamed is an internationally published award-winning Iranian American journalist based in Southern California. In this article for IranWire, he examines the life and times of a Jewish Iranian entrepreneur and businessman whose contributions to all of Iran were brutally cut short after the Islamic Revolution.
This Sunday, May 9 will mark the 42nd anniversary of the execution of Iranian businessman and Jewish community leader Habib Elghanian by the Islamic Republic.
Both Elghanian’s vast contributions to the Iranian Jewish community and his 20-minute show trial for espionage in 1979 have been widely reported since then. But less well known are the significant contributions Elghanian made to wider Iranian society.
Many of those who worked closely with him in the business realm or philanthropy were either executed by the regime, or have long since passed away. Recently, however, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Nasser Oliaei, an Iranian Muslim businessman and former MP, about his long-time friendship with Elghanian.
Oliaei is now in his late 80s and lives in Newport Beach, California. He worked alongside Elghanian in Iran’s National Chamber of Commerce before the fall of the Shah. Whether it was through encouraging international trade, giving to charitable causes or supporting his thousands of Iranian employees, Oliaei describes Elghanian as nothing short of a remarkable Iranian patriot.
Industrialist Par Excellence
Habib Elghanian began his career importing goods from overseas and selling them in Iran. But his true success came from establishing multiple manufacturing companies inside the country.
“Mr. Elghanian was a true visionary,” Oliaei told me, “because he realized that Iran as a developing nation was in dire need of various goods, and set up manufacturing companies that hired thousands of Iranians to work in his factories.”
The most successful of these companies was PlascoCar, which became the largest manufacturer of plastic products in the whole of the Middle East. The company had 22 stores in Tehran, and also sold its good to others wholesalers throughout the country.
Among the other major firms Elghanian had a stake in, Oliaei says, were North Plastic, North Pipe, General Electric Refrigerator and Profile Aluminum. “The General Electric Refrigerator company was an old, nearly bankrupt business, which he purchased and subsequently turned into the one of only two companies in all of Iran producing refrigerators. The company employed hundreds of Iranians and produced roughly 320 refrigerators a day.”
Likewise, Oliaei says Elghanian was a shareholder in a number of other businesses in Iran – and his partners were all Muslims. In total, he employed roughly 20,000 people across his various ventures. “With all of these companies,” Oliaei said, “thousands of families in Iran benefited greatly and enjoyed a higher quality of life because they worked for Mr. Elghanian.” After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, not one of these companies remained.
Real Estate Visionary
Oliaei says Elghanian and his brothers were also visionaries who wanted to transform the landscape of Tehran in the early 1960s into a modern-looking, successful city. They funded and built Tehran’s first skyscraper, the 17-story Plasco building, in 1962. It was also Iran’s first modern indoor shopping mall and housed offices in the upper storys.
“That building was way ahead of its time in Tehran,” Oliaei recalled, “and it was a symbol of how the country was prospering and modernizing: a source of great pride for all Iranians at that time.”
Later on, Elghanian and his brothers were also behind the construction of Tehran’s second skyscraper, the Aluminum building, in 1962. The iconic Plasco building was eventually sold in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian-Baha’i businessman.
After the revolution, the regime’s newly-formed parastatal conglomerate the Mostazafan Foundation (otherwise known as the Foundation of the Oppressed) confiscated the Plasco building from Yazdani. This supposed non-profit was established with a mandate to expropriate the assets of the Pahlavi dynasty and so-called “infidels” in order to “redistribute” them to the poor and needy in Iran – something which, in the case of the Plasco building and many others, did not happen.
In January 2017, 75 people died after a devastating fire broke out in the Plasco building, causing it to eventually collapse. The fire is widely thought to have been caused by the negligence of the regime officials who controlled the building. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none were ever prosecuted.
Promoting Iran’s International Trade and Commerce
Oliaei worked closely with Elghanian in Iran’s National Chamber of Commerce. “Because of his incredible success in international business and promoting Iran’s trade worldwide,” he said, “he was elected by his peers to serve seven consecutive terms.”
The chamber not only promoted commercial activities and resolved disputes inside Iran, but was a major institution in its own right, made up of influential businessmen and industrialists who also sought to promote international trade.
“Mr. Elghanian was well respected worldwide and did everything he could to get foreign companies to invest in Iran and start new business ventures in Iran,” Oliaei said.
In 1971 Elghanian was one of 15 Iranian Chamber of Commerce members who visited Communist China for the first time in order to initiate trade relations with the Chinese government. Prior to the trip, Iran and China had no economic ties.
“I was with him on that trip,” Oliaei said, “and Mr. Elghanian sat across from Chairman Mao discussing how trade between both Iran and China would be beneficial. He knew the huge potential for the sale of Iranian natural resources and other goods at that time, when China was just opening up to the world.”
A Pioneering Philanthropist
Although Elghanian became a wealthy man through his various businesses, Oliaei said he was equally generous to anyone seeking help for a worthy cause. “I had never seen or heard of anyone who went into his office looking for a donation or help money-wise for a charitable cause, who came out empty-handed.”
In 1958, Elghanian was one of four businessmen in Iran to set up a special privately-funded student loan program for Tehran University’s underprivileged but high-achieving students. According to Oliaei, he personally put 250,000 rials of his own money into the fund – a significant amount of money at that time.
Students who graduated after taking out a loan were asked to pay the money back if they had the means to do so, but exempted if not. This private program was the first of its kind in Iran’s modern history and helped to train thousands of successful Iranian doctors, engineers and other educated professionals.
Elghanian was also one of the first to donate to charitable relief efforts whenever natural disasters struck, Oliaei says. He donated a sizeable amount of money to recovery operations after a number of major earthquakes, including the 1962 quake in Qazvin, which killed 12,000 people and decimated thousands of homes.
Elghanian also donated to hundreds of charitable organizations and individuals in need of help. In 1967, when the builders of the Hosseiniyeh Ershad mosque in Tehran ran short of funds in the middle of the construction project, they turned to Elghanian for aid. He not only donated funds himself but also encouraged dozens of Jewish businessmen in Iran to do the same.
“I can recall at least two to three Islamic clerics coming to his office almost every week seeking donations for a charitable cause, to help feed or clothe the poor, and Mr. Elghanian gave generously to all of them,” said Oliaei.
In the late 1960s, when Tehran’s Koroush Kabir (now known as Ruhollah Sapir) Hospital was in dire need of renovation, Elghanian paid for the work and mobilized his own factories to produce much of the building supplies. Although the hospital had originally been built by Tehran’s Jewish community for underprivileged Jews, it was also utilized by Iranians of all faiths living in the capital. Today 98 percent of the hospital’s patients are Muslims and it only has one or two Jewish staff members. Elghanian is personally credited with having modernized the facility, which has now saved countless lives over more than 80 years.
Today, as we Iranians remember the life of Habib Elghanian, we must also acknowledge his remarkable contributions to changing the lives of his fellow countrymen for the better. As such, we also must not forget the horrific crime the Iranian regime committed by killing this patriot, who left an incredible legacy behind him for the next generation of Iranians to aspire to. When the incumbent regime is removed from power, true Iranian patriots will find a way to properly honor the memory of Habib Elghanian for his countless contributions to modern Iran.