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Religious Minorities

Lawyer: Persecution of Iran’s Jewish Community Started with Execution of its Leader in 1979

December 6, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
7 min read
Hamid Sabi, a distinguished Iranian-Jewish lawyer, was expelled from Tehran Bar Association in 1983 and forced to emigrate to the UK
Hamid Sabi, a distinguished Iranian-Jewish lawyer, was expelled from Tehran Bar Association in 1983 and forced to emigrate to the UK
Businessman and community leader Habib Elghanian was executed shortly after the revolution despite senior clerics trying to intervene in the case
Businessman and community leader Habib Elghanian was executed shortly after the revolution despite senior clerics trying to intervene in the case

Antisemitism has compelled tens of thousands of Iranian Jews to leave their homes and move abroad over the past 42 years. Those who chose to remain in the Islamic Republic have had to endure continuous hatred, promoted and institutionalized by the state.

Since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, state-owned news agencies and government-affiliated media outlets have produced reams of antisemitic audio-visual content and online propaganda. Articles, films, TV series, and stories rooted in the historical antagonism between Islam and Judaism, anti-Israel sentiment and baseless conspiracy theories have harmed and isolated Jews in Iran. IranWire’s new investigative report, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979, gives a detailed account of how this has content developed and was received over time.

IranWire spoke to Hamid Sabi, a distinguished Iranian-Jewish lawyer who was expelled from Tehran Bar Association in 1983 and forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom, about this report and antisemitism in the Islamic Republic.


“The bid to purge Iranian society of the Jews started with the execution of Habib Elghanian,” Hamid Sabi says. “Haj Habib and his brother Davoud Elghanian were among the popular figures within the Iranian Jewish community. Before the revolution, he’d put a desk and a notary in a corner of his office dedicated to listening to ordinary people, who went there to talk about their problems and ask for help. And Habib Elghanian did his best to help them.

“We did everything we could to prevent Mr. Elghanian’s death sentence from being carried out. We met many people and argued that such an action would have unpleasant consequences for the recent Iranian revolution. At the time, the [1979] revolution had not yet become ‘Islamic’.”

Hamid Sabi knew Habib Elghanian well, alongside many other leaders and representatives of the Jewish community in Iran. In the early days after the revolution, he worked with compatriots to try to ensure the Iranian Jewish community would remain safe and secure. As such, he said, “The execution of Haj Habib gave the message to Jewish representatives, leaders and citizens that they were not safe. He had been arrested on the charge of working with Israel. No matter how hard we tried to convince the gentlemen that Habib Elghanian’s sole investments and relations with Israel had taken place under the Shah, when Iran and Israel had good relations, we didn’t succeed. Due to the antisemitism of the founder of Iranian revolution and also Habib Elghanian’s charismatic character, all attempts at mediation – even by people close to Mr. Khomeini, even Ayatollah Taleghani, proved futile. Sadegh Khalkhali had Habib Elghanian executed by order of Mr. Khomeini.”

Before he was killed Habib Elghanian was also a well-established businessman in Iran. He founded PlascoCar, which went on to become the largest manufacturer of plastic products in the whole of the Middle East, manufacturing everything from household utensils to refrigerators. The firm employed thousands of Iranians in its factories. He also built the 17-story Plasco Building in Tehran, the tallest building in the Iranian capital at the time, and Shimshon Tower, part of Israel’s Diamond Exchange in Tel Aviv. Just before his arrest, Elghanian was the chairman of Tehran Jewish Committee, which made his arrest all the more shocking to the Jewish community.

Hamid Sabi, who was about 30 years old at the time, said: “On the threshold of the revolution’s victory, we had formed a group called the Iranian Jewish Intellectual Community. We sought to emphasize that we were against Zionism. The problem was that the Iranian government did not distinguish between Judaism and Zionism at all. Not only the clergy and religious figures, but even people like Mr. Bazargan [the Islamic Republic’s first prime minister] did not differentiate between the two. The Iranian Jewish Intellectual Community wanted to adjust to the conditions created by the revolution, but the execution of Habib Elghanian proved to all of us that we’d never achieve this goal.”

No-One Able to Stop the Execution

“Besides Mr. Taleghani,” Hamid Sabi recalls, “we also appealed to Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti and Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani. They supported us and wrote letters. We even had Hani al-Hassan, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to Tehran, come to mediate. But nothing worked.

“After Haj Habib’s execution, some leaders of the Jewish community met with Ayatollah Khomeini. In that meeting he himself said that the Jewish minority must not be confused with the Zionists. Since then, the Iranian Jewish community has cited this sentence by Khomeini in response to each and every antisemitic act by the Islamic Republic.”

Sabi believes that the Islamic Republic’s hate-driven actions against its citizens show that this government is an “antihuman” one: “I genuinely believe that the Islamic Republic is an antihuman government, not a religious one. And I can cite one specific example. In 1992 the only government besides Iran that was under the control of a Shia majority was the Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan entered into war with Armenia and the Islamic Republic helped Armenia instead of its Shia brothers. Another example: if you are a Muslim you know you can’t pray in a place that has been ‘usurped’. But the bigshots in this government, who carry titles like ‘Ayatollah’ and ‘Friday Imam’ and have hefty budgets for promoting antisemitic policies, live in houses that were confiscated from rich people.”

When Israel Sold Arms to the Islamic Republic

For more than 40 years, members of the Jewish minority in Iran have been portrayed as potential accessories to and supporters of the state of Israel. Add to this the historical differences and quarrels between Islam and Judaism that the Shia clergy loves to use to prove their faith’s legitimacy, and the result has been the mas semigration of Jews from their homeland, where this community has lived for more than 2,500 years.

Hamid Sabi, however, believes that although Tehran trumpets its “enmity” towards Israel, this is only for the sake of appearances. Both countries, he says, need this exchange of profanities “to advance their policies in the region. By doing this, Israel has succeeded in getting the support of Arab countries, arriving at Abraham Accords and getting enough financial support from the Saudi government to stand against Iran. On the other hand, recent history shows that whenever the Islamic Republic has been in real danger it has purchased arms from Israel and relied on it for intelligence. A clear example of this was what happened during the Iran-Iraq war.”

Sabi also specifically refers to what became known as Iran-Contra Affair. After the US Congress prohibited assistance to Contras who were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Reagan’s administration decided to use Israel as a conduit to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to help anti-Sandinista forces: “At the time [May 1986] Oliver North, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, flew to Tehran accompanied by Robert McFarlane and Amiram Nir, second-in-command of the Israel’s Mossad, to meet with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khomeini. They sold the arms to Iran and used the money to help the contras. Even the son-in-law of Ayatollah Montazeri was executed because he had revealed the secrets about the meeting. The evidence is all there in in the book by Oliver North, so it’s not a secret now. The point is that the only victims of the Islamic Republic’s anti-Zionist policies are Jewish citizens of Iran. Otherwise, governments exchange curses in public, but they have dealings with each other behind the scenes.”

Why should others care about the Islamic Republic’s antisemitic policies? In response, Sabi quotes the poem First They Came by Martin Niemöller. “We must stay awake and be alert to every case. We must believe that every human being is a human being, and nobody’s rights should be violated because they belong to a religious minority, an ethnic minority, a sexual minority, or a minority belief system.”


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Shadi Sadr: Jews Have Been Cut Off from Iranian Public Life

George Haroonian: Antisemitism is Inherent to the Islamic Republic

Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Iran: A Review of State Narratives Since 1979

Habib Elghanian: Remembering a Jewish Leader and Iranian Patriot

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