When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses members of Congress on Tuesday, he will get a rousing reception and - no doubt - a standing ovation if he suggests a military strike on Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear weapons facilities. Mr. Netanyahu rightly will point out that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah and a threat to the Jewish state.
Members of Congress would be well-advised to take stock of the history between Iran and the Jewish state before giving the Israeli prime minister a green light to attack Iran. This 2,500-year-old history suggests that the character of the regime in Tehran has had the most immediate influence on Israeli-Iranian relations: Secularists have welcomed ties to the Jewish state, whereas Islamists have opposed cultivation of closer ties to Israel.
One of the most difficult challenges facing Uri Lubrani, Israel’s envoy to Iran from 1973 to 1979, was to persuade the 120,000-plus Iranian Jews to leave their homeland and settle in Israel. The reason for their refusal was simple: Until the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran, Jews had embraced Iranian culture and were major contributors to the country’s economic, cultural and political development.
To understand the unity between Jews and the Iranian culture, one must look back to the events of 2,500 years ago. The history of Jews and Persians begins with Cyrus the Great, then king of Persia. It was Cyrus, the liberator, who freed the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return home to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Those who remained settled in present-day Esfahan and Shiraz.
As long as there were shahs ruling Iran, Jews were welcome members of Iranian society, in keeping with the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. In 1958, David Ben Gurion sent a letter to the shah in which he mentioned Cyrus’ policy toward the Jews as the foundation of a strategic alliance between the two countries. The shah replied: “The memory of Cyrus’ policy regarding your people is precious to me and I strive to continue in the path set by this ancient tradition.”
That tradition of tolerance continued during Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Seventy-eight years have passed since the “Tehran Children” arrived in Israel when Iran facilitated the rescue of 780 children who cruelly had been separated from their parents. These children were snatched from the crematories of the Holocaust - whose existence is denied by leaders of the Islamic republic - in a unique rescue operation and made their long and tortuous way to Israel via Iran. In 1941, Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari, known as the “Schindler of Iran,” gave 500 blank Iranian passports to an acquaintance of his to be used by non-Iranian Jews in France.
During Israel’s formative years, the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Tehran was motivated primarily by the human and ideological considerations of immigration. In 1948, Jews were being persecuted in Iraq, and Israeli agents, with the tacit approval of Iranian officials, used Iran as a transit point to relocate Iraqi Jews to Israel.
Iran’s concern for the safety and welfare of the Jews continued until the shah left Iran. The fall of the shah in 1979 caused widespread despair among Iran’s Jewish community. A congratulatory kiss between Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in 1979 turned out to be a kiss of death for a number of prominent members of Iran’s ancient Jewish community and the harbinger of difficult times for Iranian Jews.
The late Khomeini’s attitude toward Jews had evolved into complete antipathy by the time he toppled the shah. In May 1963, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt sent an agent named Col. Abdul Hamid Sarraj to Qom to deliver $150,000 to Khomeini for anti-government riots. Prior to this date, Khomeini had referred to the shah as a “Zoroastrian fire-worshipper.” But after Nasser’s cultivation of this hard-line cleric, Khomeini would refer to the shah as “an agent of Zionism.”
Khomeini made his position on Jews clear in all his writings: “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda … they are wretched people who wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world.”
While Mr. Netanyahu is right about the existential threat to Israel of a nuclear-armed Iran, he is wrong about advocating a military option. History suggests that the option of a secular Iran should be the focus of U.S.-Israeli dialogue on Iran. Helping secularists in Iran gain control of their country is the best guarantor of Israel’s security dilemma.
S. Rob Sobhani is author of “The Pragmatic Entente: Israeli-Iranian Relations 1948-1978” (Greenwood Press, 1989).