Window on Iran - I

Fatemeh Keshavarz

Posted Sep 4, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Window on Iran - I

In the past few months, the U.S. media coverage of Iran has gone from bad to unbelievable. It used to emphasize the negative and leave out the positive. It now appears to be inventing information that those of us in close contact with Iran are unable to trace. For example, in May 2006 there was a report in the papers here that the Iranian Jews will be forced to wear a uniform. Last weekend, another breaking news was: Ahmadinejad is imposing a ban on the use of foreign words. There is no truth to either of these (I won’t list more).

Some of us in the Iranian American community feel that, due to the explosive conditions in the Middle East, we must provide our American friends and family members with possibility of access to reliable information, small as its impact might be. This is why I have put this update together to keep you informed of events in contemporary Iran. Its frequency would be once a week—unless there is significant breaking news. I have made contact with friends who will monitor the news in Iran, and I will try to follow reliable publications here. Needless to say,  I will not be able to be comprehensive.

On the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, did you know that:

*  The Iranian supreme religious leader issued a legal decree (fatwa) on November 6, 2004 in which all development, production, and use of nuclear weapons is considered against the Islamic principles and should not be undertaken under any circumstances.

*  Iranian nuclear facilities have been inspected over 2000 time during the past three years (some surprise inspections) by the IAEA and nothing illegal has been found. The IAEA’s report has specified “to date, there is no evidence that undeclared material are related to any weapon’s programs.”

*  Iran is home to tens of thousands of people affected by Saddam Husain’s chemical weapons, and people have a strong feeling against the use of such weapons (I know some of these people personally).

*  Iran has described the package of incentives from the west as potentially acceptable and announced a while ago that there will be an official and detailed reply by August 22nd, 2006.

On the issues related to local politics, did you know that:

*  The Taliban are an enemy of Iran and have engaged in regular assassinations of Iranian diplomats.

*  The Iranian regime considers al-Qa’ideh a terrorist organization.

*  Iranians held night long vigils to commemorate the victims of 9/11.

*  Iran does not support the Shiite extremist Moqtada al-Sadr, and prefers peace, stability, and democratic elections in Iraq because it does not wish its own Kurdish population to aspire to separatist ideas and because a democratic election in Iraq will give a prominent role to the Iraqi Shiites.

According to all major historians of the region, in reality, Iran exercises little influence on the Hezbollah.

On the social and cultural front, did you know:

*  The latest best-selling titles in Iran are the DaVinci Code and Hillary Clinton’s My life in (Persian translation).

*  According to the latest statistics, close to 70% of the Iranian university students are women.

*  IVF, and gamete donation, as well as transsexual operations are legal in Iran.

*  Iranian cinema produces critically acclaimed films (often openly critical of the regime).

*  Iranian women golfers, race car drivers, and polo players compete internationally.

A lot questions are asked about Iranian religious and ethnic minorities in the west. Many people think, for example, that Jews cannot freely worship. Some even wonder if Jews still live in Iran. Again, I don’t wish to present ideal conditions for minorities in Iran. Iranian activists will tell you that legal reform is needed with regard to minority rights. Furthermore, modern nation-states are built on nationalistic ideologies that—despite their rhetoric of national unity—marginalize racial difference. The 1979 Iranian revolution further emphasized such differences by fore grounding religion as one of its organizing principles. Despite all of that, the answer to the above question is: yes Jews—and other minorities—do live in present day Iran and are very much a part of the social and cultural scene. The main problems that the Iranian Jews face at this point is the antagonistic relations between the two countries of Iran and Israel. Not being able to travel between the countries affects their personal lives.

This week I would like to introduce you to one of the most prominent poets of twentieth-century Iran: Simin Behbahani. Known as the “Lioness of Iran,” Behbahani has remained an ardent defender of human rights, free speech, and women’s rights. She spoke against war and violence even as the Iran-Iraq war raged in the 1980s. Currently President of The Iranian Writers’ Association, Behbahani has published 12 collections of poems and has stayed in the public eye before, during, and after the 1979 revolution defying all forms of totalitarianism. Behbahani was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. For a short biography of Simin Behbahni, please click on the first link below. And go to the second link to view the “Lioness” in action, and her pronounced fashion statements!

Current Issues

This week, Iran responded to the package of incentives aimed at suspending its nuclear program with a 30 page document which is not public yet. Comments from various European and American officials point to the fact that the Iranian government has given signs of interest in starting “serious”  negotiations while at the same time, it wishes to save face by not suspending enrichment as a “pre-condition” to the start of the negotiations. Some experts in Washington warned against a hasty rejection of the Iranian response and suggested to open up to Iran’s indication of readiness for negotiations. Such negotiations should ideally include: enrichment suspension, the Iranian role in the region, and keeping Iran accountable for its own human rights record. You may read more on these at:

In the meantime, a key House committee issued a stinging critique of U.S. intelligence on Iran yesterday, charging that the CIA and other agencies have failed to find information on Iran’s true intentions for its nuclear program and its ties to terrorism! It is not clear how the committee knows about these “intentions” and “ties” if intelligence agencies are not able to find any information about them. Here is the article on this in Washington Post:

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator’s statement that Iran reserves the right to continue its nuclear program “only under UN inspection” was presented in American and British papers as “Iran’s defiance of the UN resolution.”

15 day visas of about 40 American educated Iranian scientists arriving in the U.S. last week to participate in a university reunion in Northern California were revoked last minute without explanation. Some were held overnight in what one described to a friend in a brief phone call as “jail conditions” before being sent back to Iran.

<>Iranian scientists in a Tehran fertility clinic cloned a sheep successfully. Although the sheep died soon after birth, this first cloning in the Middle East was hailed by the world media as a great breakthrough. Iranian scientists described with excitement the history of their cloning experiments on mice and cows.  It may come as a surprise to you that Iran’s cloning program, like its work on embryonic stem cell research, has the blessing of the country’s religious authorities.

The Jewish Community in Iran:

The current population of the Iranian Jews is estimated approximately 30,000 (one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East). The official web page of the Iranian Jewish Association says:


There are about 100 synagogues in Iran of which about 26 are in Tehran. Iranian synagogues in terms of the history and place of construction have a variety of architectural styles. There are several synagogues in Tehran, Yazd and Isfahan cities, which because of their antiquity and beauty of architecture have been ear marked as national historic sites by Cultural Heritage Organization.

The most widely known Iranian Jewish Scholar is Solomon Haim the author of the Persian-Hebrew Dictionary.  This dictionary is compiled by “Solomon Haim” (1889-1968), one of the most famous Jewish scientists of Iran. He has compiled the most well known French-Persian, Persian-English, and English-Persian dictionaries and for this he is of high respect and prestige among the people of Iran.

You can visit the site at: to read about cultural organizations, schools, libraries, journals, community centers and more.

Suggested Reading:

Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (Hardcover) by Houman Sarshar (Editor)

This week’s visual delight:

The paintings of Yacob Amamepich, a Jewish painter from Tabriz, was on display in July 2006 in the Elahe Gallery in Tehran. Please click on: to view the paintings.

Please read more about some young members of the Iranian Jewish Community:

A Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran

        We have just learned that the Iranian alumni of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship organized a mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran this fall, in cooperation with the Teheran Jewish community.  Twenty-five young people from all over Iran, including Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz participated.  The Teheran Jewish Community provided the accommodations and kosher meals.  The main organizer of the Fellowship, Elham Abai, a twenty-eight year old computer engineer from Teheran, advised us that the inspiration for this incredible event came from the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni - Arash Abaie, Farjad Aframian, Marjan Yashayaei, Naghmeh Aghel, Mahyar Cohenbash, Shahram Shahrad and Elham herself - who participated in Nahum Goldmann Fellowships XII, XIV, and XVI in Sweden, Uruguay and Sweden.  Elham is the designer and editor of the Teheran Jewish Community’s website and magazine.

        The Iranian program followed, in an abbreviated fashion, the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship model, consisting of lectures and workshops, visits to local organizations and institutions, including the Great Synagogue, and sight-seeing in the old Jewish quarter.  Arash Abaie, Marjan Yashayaei and Mahyar Cohenbash also served as faculty.  There were also meetings with the leadership of the Teheran Jewish community, with whom the Iranian participants exchanged ideas and discussed communal concerns.

The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture – Iranian Connection

        The connection between the young Iranian Jewish leaders and the Memorial Foundation is itself a remarkable story.  Sometime during the winter of 2002, after we announced our plans to organize an International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Sweden in August, 2002, we received a communication from the president of the Teheran Jewish community expressing interest in the program, which they learned about from our website.  They advised us that the improved relationship between the Iranian Jewish community and governmental authorities had created conditions that would allow them to participate in an international Jewish cultural event outside of Teheran.  They told us they were prepared to recommend several young people as candidates for the Fellowship.

        There then ensued a long correspondence mostly dealing with technical details concerning visas and travel arrangements.  It was a cliff-hanger until the very last days before the fellowship, when we were able to finalize all the arrangements.  I vividly remember the thunderous applause from the other fellows (who had come from nineteen countries around the world) that greeted the three Iranian fellows when I introduced them at the orientation session the first evening of the seminar.  The warmth of their initial welcome was maintained throughout the seminar, despite occasional muted differences in political outlook.

        They eagerly consumed the cultural content of the program, which like all the other Nahum Goldmann Fellowship programs, was on the highest level, despite what we thought were their cultural deficiencies.  We were truly surprised to learn from Prof. J.J. Schacter that at his workshop on Jewish Biblical texts when he began quoting numerous Biblical texts, Arash Abaie, who was sitting alongside of him, was completing them under his breath.  Arash, the cultural affairs director of the Teheran Jewish community, is multi-talented Jewishly, teaching religious subjects in the Jewish high school and serving as chazzan at his synagogue.  We learned from the other Iranian fellows that Arash, during Purim, rushes from one synagogue to another in Teheran to assure that all who are interested can hear the reading of Megillat Esther.  Arash is deeply committed to the training of Jewish educators and leaders for the dwindling Jewish population in Iran.

Even more ardently, the Iranians sought connections with their counterparts around the world, as well as with the faculty, who all responded in kind.  Many warm relationships were established at this fellowship and the subsequent ones in Uruguay and Sweden that continue to this day, sometimes accompanied by various forms of support and assistance.

The integration of the Iranians into the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program has grown progressively.  It is expressed in the much more relaxed personal interchanges at subsequent fellowships that would appear remarkable to any outsider.

      Two highlights of Nahum Goldmann Fellowship XIV and XVI demonstrate how deeply embedded in the group the Iranians became.  At the pre-Shabbat program late Friday afternoon in Uruguay, an Argentinean Ashkenazi, Gabriel Romarowski, was joined by Naghmeh Aghel on her Iranian drum in a moving rendition of the Yiddish folk song about the Sabbath “Oib Ich Volt Gehat Koyach”.  The closing banquet reflected the complete fusion of the Iranians into the diverse cultural strands present at the fellowship. Naghmeh, the Iranian drummer, led fellows from France, Argentina and England in an Iranian song and a dance in which a Chinese convert to Judaism, and others joined.  Naghmeh is a teacher in the Jewish kindergarten and primary school in Teheran.

In Sweden last summer, Shahram Shahrad was the star on a panel of outstanding Jewish scholars contemplating the role of the Sabbath in contemporary society, with his description of how a Sabbath is experienced in Teheran today.  Both his presentation and person were embraced with real affection by the fellows from all corners of the Jewish globe, from Montevideo to Moscow.  Shahram, who can trace his family history to Isfahan, the predominant Jewish city in the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, serves as a leader of Gisha, the Jewish youth organization in Teheran and director of its theater group.

The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship has emerged as a small, but critical bridge between young Iranian Jews and the larger global Jewish community. 

Most remarkable of all to us is that the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Teheran was the first spontaneous effort by Fellowship alumni in a Diaspora community to replicate what they experienced in their home community.  We are working to multiply such similar events in other Jewish communities with Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni. 

The Iranian mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is the best demonstration of the potential impact of determined and inspired young Jews and the power that inheres in the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program.



Fatemeh Keshavarz, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatuares, Washington University in St. Louis