Last week, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Mohammad Reza Shah, gave a touching and significant speech at the Anti-Defamation League’s 2023 National Leadership Conference. Pahlavi echoed the poignant words of Reverend Martin Niemoller’s famous quote, “first, they came for the Socialists…” Neimoller implied that continued silence in face of discrimination and violence against successive groups, beginning with the Jews, was a form of complicity with the atrocities committed against them. Crown Prince Pahlavi stressed that hatred, suppression and violence against the Jews by a ruling power can spread quickly to many other groups in society. In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”
Pahlavi was, of course, referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of Jew hatred, terrorism and Holocaust denial. Not coincidentally, this regime is also one of the most grotesque violators of the human rights of its own people. Noting that the regime was born with the persecution of Jews and the execution of Jewish community leader Habib El Ghanayan, Pahlavi noted that the regime quickly moved on to other groups including women, the Baha’i, Sunni Muslims, Christians and “Shia Muslims who did not subscribe to [the Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s perverse interpretation of our faith.”
Few realize that the prince’s father had been slandered relentlessly with antisemitic rhetoric by Khomeini before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many only remember Khomeini as the Ayatollah who “suddenly” deposed the Shah in 1979 to create the world’s very first modern Islamist theocracy. But Khomeini had been a thorn in modern Iran’s side since the 1960s, when he and other senior clerics opposed the Shah’s secular reforms that would reduce religious influence in Iran. These reforms included a coed literacy corps, and extending the vote to women and non-Muslims, including Jews.
Khomeini gave a now historical speech in 1963 at an important seminary in Qum, Iran, where he used antisemitic conspiracies as his primary rhetorical device to inspire his followers to oppose the Shah and his reforms. Using the typical antisemitic tropes of Jews as “cunning” and “greedy,” Khomeini framed Israel—and not the Shah—as the agent who wishes to “destroy the Koran, the clergy, and Islam itself.” Khomeini added that Israel was about to “steal Iran’s wealth for itself … they [the Jews] are all friends of the dollars. They hold no belief or moral principles, and they have no sense of loyalty.” Khomeini portrayed the Shah as Israel’s puppet. He even “accused” the Shah of being a “secret Jew” and suggested that the “equality between men and women” a plot instigated by another persecuted minority, the Baha’i.
The speech was so bombastic that some of the Shah’s ministers pressed for Khomeini’s execution. But the Shah’s Chief of Internal Security (Savak), Major General Hassan Pakravan, convinced the Shah to delay the execution. In the meantime, Pakravan consulted with two senior clerics who urged eighteen others to hastily travel to Tehran to bestow onto Khomeini the rank of Ayatollah. This rank would save Khomeini because the execution of Ayatollahs was illegal under the constitution. Khomeini was instead exiled to Turkey briefly, and then at his request, to a seminary in Najaf, Iraq. (In return for general Pakravan’s protection of Khomeini from execution, the Ayatollah thanked him by executing him immediately after he took power in 1979.)
While in Iraq, Khomeini spent fifteen years cultivating ties with other religious fundamentalists and, more importantly, with anti-Israel militants including the Muslim Brotherhood. His religious doctrine, codified in his 1970 manifesto, “Guardian of the Jurist,” contains edicts much more like the antisemitic Muslim Brotherhood than traditional Shia jurisprudence, which aims for coexistence with the state.
Crown Prince Pahlavi knows that the main pillar of the Iranian regime is premised upon antisemitism and that the regime’s discrimination and hate has extended to greater sectors of Iranian society. This fact was reinforced by Jonathan Greenblatt, Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League, who stated that the Islamic Republic is “as dangerous as Al Qaeda [and the Muslim Brotherhood] in its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish democracy … it is an armed militia that has focused not on feeding its own people but on subjugating its citizens and spreading terror across the region.”
Crown Prince Pahlavi knows that the main pillar of the Iranian regime is premised upon antisemitism and that the regime’s discrimination and hate has extended to greater sectors of Iranian society.
Indeed, the regime has shot thousands of protesters dead and arrested tens of thousands in successively stronger protests in 2009, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022-2023. In November 2019 alone, the regime murdered more than 1500 protesters and arrested approximately 20,000. Last fall, the death of the young 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police triggered an unprecedented national uprising that is ongoing. This uprising resulted in 520 deaths including 65 children, and hundreds of youth were blinded by pellet guns misused as anti-riot weapons. To date, tens of thousands of arrests have taken place, and the regime has increased its beating and subjugation of women who refuse to wear hijab.
In the 235 days since the “Mahsa Uprising,” the regime has not been able to shoot and arrest their way into the suppression of dissent. In the week leading up to May 1, International Workers Day, Iranian laborers including petrochemical, industrial, education, healthcare and university students and retirees staged nationwide strikes and protests that have alarmed the regime and are planning to continue.
In his speech at the Anti-Defamation League, Pahlavi recalled the time during WWII when Iran gave refuge to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Nazis and the Soviets, including 5,000-6,000 Jews. He also recalled when Cyrus the Great, the first Persian monarch, enabled the Jews exiled in Persia to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. Now, Pahlavi asks for the help of the Jewish and international community to support the protests of the Iranian people and their fervent desire to be free. The international community must undertake the greatest collective measures to ensure that the virus of hate unleashed by the Islamic Republic will never again infect other bodies politic. Ending this regime and its abuses represents the promise of peace and tolerance in the Middle East and the global community. Invoking the glory of the rebuilding of the second Jewish temple, Pahlavi said “Iran is our temple, help us to rebuild it.” His plea, if heeded, could bring about a change of Maccabean significance.
Jessica Emami, PhD is an Iranian American Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Politics (ISGAP).