The Islamic revolution in Iran was motivated by antisemitism, not anti-Zionism, argues Colin Schindler in the Jewish Chronicle. It ended 30 years of collaboration between Israel and Iran. History might have taken a different turn, however, had Mossad, which knew little about Iranian politics, agreed to assassinate the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.
For many in the Jewish community,
it was Khomeini’s theological dislike of Jews — not solely Zionists —
that mattered. In 1970, he had written: “Since its inception, the
Islamic movement has been afflicted with the Jews, for it was they who
first established anti-Islamic propaganda and joined its various
stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to our
Khomeini viewed the Jews of the 20th century through
the same lens as the Jews of the 7th century who were in conflict with
the Prophet. In his eyes, Jews were corruptors of Muslim society,
mistranslators of the Koran, controllers of the Iranian economy and
agents of imperialism.
In power, Khomeini refused to insert the
word ‘Democratic’ before ‘Islamic Republic’ because it was “too
Western”. As Khomeini’s clergy strengthened its grip on power, secular
teachers were pushed out of education, women purged from the judiciary,
members of the Bahai faith dismissed from government positions and their
places of worship closed. All this unnerved Iranian Jews and hastened
the exodus of a community that traced its history back to Cyrus the
Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE.
Khomeini often praised the
work of a Palestinian pan-Arabist writer, Akram Zu’aytar, which seems
to have shaped his views. Originally from Nablus and a member of the
nationalist Istiqlal party, Zu’aytar worked for the Iraqi Ministry of
Education in the 1930s and was regarded by the British as having
The founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza
Shah, had allowed the Jews in 1927 to live outside their assigned
ghettos, to vote and to own land. Like his son, the Shah, he blew hot
and cold regarding the Jews. Yet Iran de facto recognised Israel in
1950, the second Muslim country to do so. Such contacts developed in the
years ahead. Turkey and Iran were viewed as the northern tip of “the
doctrine of the periphery” — states which were resisting the advance of
Nasserism and Soviet influence. While their political and military
elites were cosmopolitan, their rural populations, often poverty
stricken and illiterate, were devout Muslims.
Yossi Alpher, the author of Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies,
records that on the eve of the revolution, several thousand Israeli
businessmen were living in Iran. There was even an Israeli school in
Tehran. Despite Iran’s support for OPEC’s oil embargo after the Yom
Kippur War, by 1977, “oil sales were booming”. Despite the turmoil all
around, Israel and Iran were busily negotiating a $1.2 billion bilateral
arms deal. The project would use Iranian finance for the development of
six new Israeli weapon systems and a new generation of Jericho
In 1978, Mr Alpher had become the Mossad’s chief
intelligence analyst on Iran. He comments that no one in the Mossad or
the Foreign Ministry actually possessed any deep knowledge about events
Mr Alpher recalls in his book a meeting with the head of
the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi, on 28 January 1979. Mr Hofi said that Shapour
Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister, had called in Eliezer Shafrir,
the Mossad’s representative in Tehran, and asked the Mossad to
assassinate Khomeini in France. Before the astonished Mr Alpher could
respond, Mr Hofi said that he thought that Khomeini would never last.
“Let him return and the army would deal with him”. Mr Bakhtiar escaped
from Tehran, but was subsequently murdered in his home in Suresnes near
Paris by Iranian agents in August 1991.
Within a couple of months
of Khomeini’s return, the communal leader and philanthropist, Habib
Elchanan, was executed as a spy for Israel and opponent of the
revolution. Three days later, a chastened communal delegation travelled
to meet Khomeini in Qom. Khomeini recognised that “the Iranian Jews are
not Zionists and we work together against Zionists”.
a welcome comment belied Khomeini’s past attitudes. While the official
line was to make a distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”, reality
often intervened to prove otherwise.
The Iranian press spoke of “a Talmudic mentality” and “a kosher brotherhood” while Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, was part of a Zionist conspiracy to destroy Islam. Jewish suffering as depicted in Schindler’s List
was no more than an attempt to deflect attention away from the
Palestinians. Cartoons in the Iranian media bore an uncanny resemblance
to the antisemitic stereotypes depicted in the Soviet press.
fundamental opposition was not based on where the borders of Israel
should be situated but on its existence. Israel was not “a natural
phenomenon”, it was a tumour to be excised from Muslim lands. For
Khomeini, Islam was not privatised religious practice, but a political
power. There was therefore a sacred duty to liberate Palestine.
the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Iranian cry was
that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad”. An elite group of
several thousand Revolutionary Guards was established to form the Quds
(Jerusalem) Force. Yet Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Defence, perceived
that Saddam Hussein’s forces were the greater threat to Israel and
ordered that arms should be sent to Khomeini in unmarked aircraft via
The Iran-Iraq war was one of trench warfare and
gas attacks, but it also spawned the rise of the suicide bomber — first
used by the precursor of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s and later by
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in attacks on Israeli citizens.
UK, the brutality of Khomeini’s tenure did not deter Jeremy Corbyn or
Ken Livingstone from regular appearances on Iran’s state controlled
Press TV. Mr Corbyn sat silently when anti-Jewish remarks were made, his
regular presence was a betrayal of the thousands of Iranian socialists
killed by Khomeini’s men. Mr Corbyn’s comment during the “English irony”
episode was that his detractors “don’t want to study history”. His role
as a fellow traveller here is yet another example of his superficial
grasp of the complexity of the past.