Tuesday, December 14, 2004

JERUSALEM — The queries he receives from Iranian Muslims about converting to Judaism say less about the lure of the Jewish faith, Menashe Amir believes, than about the abysmal situation in the land of the ayatollahs.

“The main reason they ask about conversion is that they want to get out of Iran, and it has become more difficult to obtain visas to Europe and elsewhere,” said Mr. Amir, longtime director of the Iran desk of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

“They believe that if they convert to Judaism, they can receive refuge in Israel.”

Mr. Amir has received dozens of queries about conversion in recent years, mostly through a weekly call-in program for Iranian listeners he conducts from Jerusalem. Callers dial a number in Europe and are rerouted automatically to the Jerusalem studio.

Many openly criticize the regime in Tehran, and some even give their names. There have been no reports of the government hunting them down.

“The regime apparently sees this as a way to let off steam,” said Mr. Amir.

The Islamic regime in Tehran is so oppressive, he said, that it has made Islam hateful to many Iranians. “Some convert to Christianity, despite the fact that it could cost them their lives if it was discovered. A few think about converting to Judaism.”

The Jewish community in Iran — which numbers 23,000, compared to 80,000 before the 1979 revolution — retains its vitality. There are 11 synagogues in the capital, Tehran, four in Shiraz and several in other towns.

“The Jews are doing all right economically, and their educational institutions function,” said Mr. Amir.

They avoid contact with Israel or international Jewish organizations, but maintains ties, with the tacit approval of Tehran, with the large Iranian Jewish communities in Britain and the United States.

Mr. Amir and his team closely monitor Iran’s pulse via Iranian radio and TV broadcasts, the press, the Internet and “other sources” and broadcast a daily 35-minute news program in Farsi to an audience estimated at up to 2 million Iranians.

Revolutionary governments grow stale and eventually alienate the populace. This is what Mr. Amir believes has happened in Iran. “It’s clear that the regime has reached a dead end after 25 years,” said the Tehran native.

“The country has become much poorer. The population has grown from 37 million to 67 million. They need to provide 800,000 new jobs each year, but can’t. Unemployment is 15 percent. Poverty is spreading and many women turn to prostitution. Senior clerics in their Friday sermons speak out against the cost of living.

“When I ask callers why there has been no uprising, they say the regime is brutal and people are afraid. They point out that without American intervention, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq would have been freed from oppressive regimes.”

There is no leadership around which the various opposition groups have been able to rally, he said, and there is little cooperation among the dissidents.

Mr. Amir believes the Iranian people would welcome an American intervention “with open arms.” However, he believes that the Iranian regime is ready to collapse, even without foreign military intervention.

“If America invested in encouraging opposition groups inside and outside Iran, it would not need to send in a single soldier,” he declared. If such an effort were made, he thinks, the results could be felt during the term of the second Bush administration.

As for “the Iranian bomb,” dissidents want it as much as the regime, Mr. Amir said, although they would not like to see the ayatollahs get their hands on it. “Iran is a nation without a natural ally, and it always feels threatened by outside forces. Every Iranian wants the [atomic] bomb. They want deterrence.”

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