Coverage of Iran in the news media has tended to highlight the country’s long-running feud with the Western world, the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s notorious nuclear program. Though important to understanding Iran’s foreign policy, this focus obscures a lesser-known reality within the country’s borders: as minority religions have dwindled elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran continues to host the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. Estimates of how many Persian Jews live in Iran range from 9,000 to 20,000.
The territories of Greater Iran have served as a home for Persian Jews for well over 2,000 years. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II ousted Jews from the Levant around 600 BC. Many sought refuge in the Achaemenid Empire, which ruled Persia at the time. While Cyrus the Great permitted his Jewish subjects to return to their places of origin after he conquered Babylonian lands in 538 BC, many Persian Jews chose to stay in Iran.
Cyrus the Great’s legacy has lasted well into the 21st century. His actions turned him into one of the most important historical figures in Jewish folklore in Iran and abroad.
The 1979 constitution describes Iran’s Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as “the only recognized religious minorities.”
The Achaemenids no longer exist, but Persian Jews retain their established position in Iran. The same 1979 constitution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic in the wake of the Iranian Revolution describes Iran’s Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as “the only recognized religious minorities” in the country, promising Persian Jews a designated member of parliament.
Iranian leaders have often voiced their commitment to ensuring that Persian Jews feel welcome in Iran. These public figures include Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Revolution and Iran’s supreme leader from 1979 until his death just a decade later. “Imam Khomeini used to emphasize that religious minorities including Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and followers of all faiths enjoy a great level of social welfare and privileges in Iran,” reads an article on a website dedicated to the late cleric. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has echoed these remarks.
Some of Iran’s prominent Persian Jewish community leaders have given credence to Khomeini and Rouhani’s support for freedom of religion. The Persian Jewish scholar Haroun Yashayaei has claimed that Persian Jews backed the Iranian Revolution, and Homayun Sameyah, the chairman of a Jewish social group in Tehran, has said, “The Islamic Republic has always supported us.”
Iran’s Jewish community benefits from select privileges under the country’s otherwise restrictive political system, foremost among them a religious exemption from Iran’s ban on alcohol.
Iran’s Jewish community benefits from select privileges under the country’s otherwise restrictive political system.
Persian Jews have long played an active role in social life in Iran. The community participates in Jewish and Persian celebrations alike, signaling their pride in their history and their role in Iran’s culture. The minority group has also exercised its constitutional right to engage in politics, voting in Iran’s controversial February parliamentary elections despite the threat of a pandemic that has incapacitated an ever-increasing number of Iranian clerics and politicians.
Siamak Moreh Sedgh, Iran’s sole Jewish parliamentarian, has tried to become the face of Persian Jews in the international community. In 2013, he turned heads by joining Rouhani’s delegation to the United Nations in New York. Since then, Sedgh has captured headlines by criticizing Iran’s adversaries in the Middle East. Earlier this year, he condemned the American operation that led to the death of Iranian spymaster Qassem Soleimani. Sedgh has also put forward the fraught claim that, “generally speaking, the Jews’ condition in Iran has always been better than in Europe.”
Many Persian Jews lack Sedgh’s enthusiasm for Iran’s government. Tens of thousands have left Iran since the minority’s peak in the years preceding the Islamic Revolution, when between 100,000 and 150,000 Persian Jews inhabited the country. Iranian post-revolutionary leaders jumpstarted this trend with the 1979 execution of Persian Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian, whom they accused of defaming Islam. Elghanian fell under suspicion because of his ties to the previous regime.
Some scholars have described the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, the monarch whom Khomeini overthrew, as the “golden age” for Persian Jews. The shah earned the ire of many Iranians for his repressive domestic policies and violent response to opposition, but his microeconomic reforms allowed Persian Jews to prosper. Their current environment has proved more challenging.
However frequent and sincere Iran’s promises of equality, they only go so far in a country with a state religion.
However frequent and sincere Iran’s promises of equality, they only go so far in a country with a state religion. As non-Muslims, Persian Jews can never ascend to the most influential positions in Iran’s government even though they have to serve in the country’s military at the side of their Muslim peers. Some Persian Jews have reported facing pressure to convert to Islam. Others who left Iran have complained that they felt compelled to minimize their religious identity.
Like Khomeini and Rouhani, Iran’s best-known institutions have taken pains to present Persian Jews as an integral component of the country’s sectarian mosaic. Just last year, the IRGC held a ceremony for Jewish veterans of the Iran–Iraq War; Iran built a memorial for its Jewish soldiers in 2014. Still, cracks have sometimes appeared in this display of tolerance.
Charges of anti-Semitism have long haunted Iran’s leaders. The most notorious example came in the late 2000s, when Rouhani’s predecessor as Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not only denied the well-documented horrors of the Holocaust but also declined several opportunities to retract his comments. During Ahmadinejad’s tenure, Iran hosted the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust, which did little to repair the country’s reputation. Rouhani tried to quiet the scandal several years later by recognizing Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust.
Iran has struggled to deliver on its constitutional guarantees of equality for its minorities. Iranian Arabs and Kurds face discrimination and repression, and Baháʼís, whose faith Iranian authorities refuse to recognize, encounter more persecution than any other group. Even Sunni Muslims, who form a majority in the Middle East but a minority in Iran, lack the rights of their Shia peers.
Iran has struggled to deliver on its constitutional guarantees of equality for its minorities.
Despite this reality, Iran has done a better job retaining its Jewish minority than other Persianate societies. Fewer than 50 Bukharin Jews remain in Tajikistan. Afghanistan, meanwhile, has just one, and the faltering peace process between Afghan officials and their Taliban counterparts has left his future in peril.
While shrinking, Iran’s Jewish population dwarfs others in the region. For the time being, the minority appears set to retain its often-precarious but age-old role in Iranian society. The constant pressures confronting the community suggest a difficult road ahead.