September 23, 2019

Dual Tragedy of the Plasco Building Fire

For many Iranian-American Jews, the fire in and collapse of the historic Plasco Building in Tehran on Jan. 19 was a tragedy many times over.

The heartbreak comes not only from the loss of 75 innocent lives who tried to fight the fire or were trapped in the building; the building’s demise also rekindled the painful memories of the unjust execution of Habib Elghanian, the Jewish community leader who originally built the structure. The Plasco Building was one of the remaining symbols of the Jewish community’s height of success in Iran during its modern “golden age.” Not to acknowledge the Elghanian family’s role in this building’s creation and the tragedy that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the Iranian regime is also a travesty.

Media outlets worldwide have not extensively acknowledged the important role of the Elghanian family in the Plasco Building’s creation or only briefly mentioned Habib Elghanian’s name in passing. Elghanian and his brothers were among the most affluent and successful Jewish businessmen in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They not only imported an array of goods from the West into the Iranian market and expanded infrastructure but also brought new technologies to Iran that helped the country manufacture its own goods and, as a result, helped employ thousands of Iranians in their businesses. The Elghanian family was equally generous in giving back to countless needy causes in Iran, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The Plasco Building, completed in 1962 and standing 17 stories, was the first privately built “high rise” of the modern era created in Iran. It was also the first modern “mall” of that early era in Iran, with floors that were home to many new stores for various goods and services. The Plasco Building was elegant and modern in design and structure for its time, and a huge departure from the ancient slum-like “bazaars” of Iran’s past where people typically went to buy their goods. At a time when Iran was beginning to modernize, the building was a powerful symbol of both the country’s positive transformation and the immense achievement of Iranian Jews.

It was likewise a symbol of great pride for Iranian Jews who, just four decades before, had been forced by the Qajar kings of Iran to live in poverty and in run-down ghettos.

“Jews were proud, of course, that a Jewish person had built this iconic building, but many elders in the community were apprehensive about its implications and the much expected backlash by Muslims, envious of Jewish accomplishments,” Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, told me this week.

Jewish community leaders in Iran worried about the Plasco Building’s backlash because, according to Shahrzad Elghanayan, Habib Elghanian’s granddaughter, Iranian Shiite cleric Mahmoud Taleghani “objected to the idea that a Jew had built the tallest building of its time in Iran.” No doubt Taleghani, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Shiite clerics were furious at the Pahlavi kings, who had created an environment of co-existence and tolerance among Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. The late Shah of Iran and his father had essentially set aside the old Islamic Shariah laws, which were designed to impose or ensure superiority of Muslims over Jews or other “infidels.” The Plasco Building, built and owned by a Jew, was a direct slap in the face to that radical Islamic dogma at the time because the notion of a Jewish building being taller in size than Muslim-owned buildings was a totally unacceptable notion for the fanatic Iranian religious clerics.

When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country.

Those fears turned out to be prescient. On May 9, 1979, Elghanian was executed by a firing squad of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after being accused on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Elghanian first was given a 20-minute sham trial in front of the Iranian Revolution Court and TV cameras, but never was allowed to consult with an attorney, nor any chance to defend himself from the baseless charges. When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country. On that disastrous day, the lives of Iran’s Jews were forever transformed for the worse. It was then that they realized when their beloved community leader could be so easily executed with no real evidence, they too were no longer safe in a country where they had lived for nearly 3,000 years.

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary of his execution, I had the unique opportunity to interview Elghanian family members, Iranian-Jewish leaders and Iranian Muslims who knew Habib Elghanian well and who recalled their memories of his imprisonment and execution. One of the most revealing interviews I had was with Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother, who told me that Habib had left Iran during the initial chaos of the revolution but then returned to Iran because of his patriotism and commitment to Iran’s Jews as their leader.

“We all begged him not to go back to Iran — including Israeli Prime Minister Begin, because we all knew the new regime would execute him if he returned,” Sion Elghanian said. “He said, ‘I have done nothing wrong for them to execute me. I’ve created jobs and businesses to help the country grow and helped many Iranians of all faiths. Why should they kill me?’ ”

Sion revealed his family had made plans to bribe officials to help Habib escape the prison and country, but Habib refused to go along with the plans.

“He told us he would not go along with the plan to escape because if he did, the Iranian regime would take revenge by executing Jews in Iran. In this way, he sacrificed his life for the community.”

Another revealing interview was of an Iranian-Muslim businessman named Nasser Oliae, who was a longtime Elghanian friend and had nothing but praise for him. “One day they must create a giant statue of Habib Elghanian in the middle of Tehran for all of the great things he did for that country! He brought the plastics manufacturing industry to Iran, he hired thousands of people, he gave generously to thousands of Iranians of all religions who were needy. He was a man who truly loved Iran and wanted to see the country’s success,” Oliae said.

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian was an innocent Jew who was executed for no reason by the evil Iranian regime, and that regime still has not apologized to Iranian Jewry for this injustice.

Elghanian family members sold the building in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian-Baha’i businessman. After the revolution, the Iranian regime’s official “nonprofit” organization, called Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, confiscated the Plasco Building from Yazdani in 1979, and has been operating it since then. Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, which translates to “organization for the oppressed people,” was a front established by the Iranian regime’s ayatollahs after the 1979 Revolution to expropriate the assets of any person who they believed was an “infidel” in order to allegedly “redistribute” it to the poor or needy in Iran. Unfortunately for Iran’s poor, the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan has in the past 38 years never given a penny to them. Instead, the money and assets this group has confiscated over the years from Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is have all gone into the pockets of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. All of the Elghanian family assets and properties were also confiscated by the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan.

What is truly unfortunate about the recent Plasco Building fire was the fact that, since it was owned by the Iranian regime, no one will be brought to justice for the failure to upkeep the building and prevent the fire hazards that brought it down. We will never know what caused the fire or explosion that destroyed this iconic building in Tehran, and sadly, the ayatollahs who profited from the building for the past 38 years will never be held accountable for the fire code violations that resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives.

In the end, the Plasco Building fire disaster not only caused the death of many individuals but the loss of one of the remaining symbols of Jewish contributions to Iran during the 20th century. The building was also a symbol of the bygone era of modernity and new development that an Iranian Jew named Habib Elghanian and his brothers brought to Iran. Today, we cannot forget the calamity that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the current Iranian regime, nor can we forget the tremendous contributions thousands of Iranian Jews made to the betterment of the nation of Iran during the 20th century. 

Local Iranian-Jewish banker and leader acquitted of federal fraud charges

Family members said they watched tears of joy and relief run down the face of Shokrollah Baravarian, an 82-year-old Iranian-Jewish former banker and community activist, on Oct. 31 after a jury in a downtown Los Angeles federal court acquitted him on four charges of conspiring with his clients to defraud the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of tax revenue.

“For the last 2 1/2 years during the investigation of this case against me and the trial, I have had no peace of mind — I’ve maintained my innocence the entire time because I never did anything illegal, and I never conspired with anyone to do something illegal,” Baravarian told the Journal. “In my case, I believe that in the end, justice prevailed.”

In April, the government’s indictment alleged that Baravarian, a former senior vice president at the Los Angeles branch of Israel-based Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, conspired with three of his Iranian-Jewish clients in the United States to conceal the existence of undeclared bank accounts in Israel. It accused him of opening new accounts for them under pseudonyms and helping them access the funds overseas through loans from the Los Angeles branch of the bank. 

Baravarian’s attorney, Marc Harris, said the government’s case against his client was weak from the start because there was no evidence to show any wrongdoing by Baravarian — who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Tehran — and the bank’s clients all admitted during the trial that they never conspired with him.

“From the beginning, we maintained there were no facts to support the charges laid against Dr. Baravarian,” Harris said. “The paperwork showed, and the clients admitted, that these were legitimate loans that Dr. Baravarian’s clients needed and received to increase their lines of credit for their businesses. Several of the clients took out these ‘back-to-back’ loans secured by collateral held at the bank in Los Angeles, and most of them paid off the loans with U.S. funds, which proved that these were legitimate loans, not some mechanism or device to access hidden foreign accounts.”

Harris said federal prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of three of Baravarian’s Iranian-Jewish former clients, to whom they had offered leniency if they testified against Baravarian and the bank. One witness had been criminally prosecuted and two others were awaiting final sentencing for tax fraud, Harris said. 

“These witnesses admitted that they lied on their taxes by not disclosing their foreign accounts,” said Harris. “The government’s key witnesses agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge — to implicate the bank and Dr. Baravarian in their criminal conduct — to avoid going to jail. On cross-examination, however, each of the government’s witnesses admitted that they had not conspired with Dr. Baravarian to cheat on their taxes. In fact, the government’s very first customer witness admitted that he did not believe Dr. Baravarian did anything wrong and did not think he deserved to be prosecuted.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice in Los Angeles did not return calls for comment on the Baravarian case. In April, a Justice Department press release indicated that prosecutors had been investigating “the use of undeclared bank accounts globally.”

Harris said at the close of the trial, the court room was tense as everyone waited to hear the jury’s verdict and that as soon as the jury’s “not guilty” verdict was read aloud, Baravarian’s friends and supporters that had packed the courtroom burst out in loud cheers.

Baravarian said the IRS investigation broke his heart because he had established a reputation for himself as an honest individual during his career spanning more than 50 years while working in senior management positions at major banks in Iran, England and in the U.S.

“From a very young age, I was taught that honesty is the best policy, and I have never, ever gone against that belief in my work or personal life,” Baravarian said. “In my life, because of my conservative nature, I have tried never to do anything illegal, and I’ve always tried to do the right thing to help people. Therefore, it was very difficult for me to understand how this difficult situation would befall me.”

Baravarian got his start doing accounting work at the National Iranian Oil Co. at age 17 as part of a program that allowed him to study for his bachelor’s degree in accounting and work part-time simultaneously. He went on to receive a law degree and a doctorate. 

At one time in Iran, Baravarian was president of a major private bank overseeing more than $1 billion in funds, he said. His multiple language skills, education, excellent reputation with clients, as well as extensive work experience in finance, became his salvation when he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s. By 1983, he had gained a senior management position at Mizrahi.

“For many years, it was easier for my Iranian-Jewish clients to come to me for their loans or banking needs because I speak Farsi. They were more comfortable with my background in banking from Iran, and they were familiar with my integrity to help them get good loans for their business,” Baravarian said. 

Baravarian said he worked full-time for 25 years at Mizrahi’s downtown Los Angeles branch and then two years part-time at the bank following his 2009 retirement.

A statement released to the Journal by the West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) expressed the community’s long-standing support for Baravarian throughout the ordeal.

“The Iranian-Jewish community welcomes the great news of Dr. Baravarian’s acquittal,” the organization said. “He is a pillar of our community, very well-respected, and we are glad that he is now able to move beyond this.”

Many community leaders said Baravarian also has a stellar reputation among Iranian Jews in Southern California because of his extensive volunteer work within the community. Most notably, he has served on the board of the Iranian-Jewish nonprofit Magbit Foundation, which offers interest-free loans to college students, and volunteered as the president of the IAJF from 2002 to 2006.

Those who had worked with Baravarian said many in his community did not believe the allegations of fraud levied against him by the government but instead gave him encouragement to remain positive during the case.

“There was a strong feeling of surprise and disbelief that lingered in the community about these charges,” said Shahla Javdan, past president of the IAJF. “Both Dr. Baravarian and his wife have played and continue to play essential roles in our charitable organizations.”

Baravarian’s family members praised his close friends for their continued encouragement.

“I don’t know how we could have gone through this ordeal without having the full support we received from the family and friends around us,” said Baravarian’s daughter, Haleh Baravarian Shooshani.

Despite all of the difficulties he encountered with his case, Baravarian said he harbors no ill will toward his former clients who testified against him in this case or the federal prosecutors who brought the criminal charges against him. 

“I have no hatred for them because I’ve learned in my life that hatred only hurts the person with the feelings of hate in his heart, and forgiveness gives a person calm and peace,” he said. “After the trial, I went over to the government’s attorneys, shook their hands and told them I had no ill feelings for them and wish them all the best in life.”

The case against Baravarian came on the heels of other criminal cases against local Iranian-Jewish businessmen who in recent years had been convicted of various federal criminal fraud charges and had defrauded community members of millions of dollars through Ponzi schemes.

In May, Shervin Neman, also known as Shervin Davatgarzadeh, a Century City Iranian-American man, was convicted in federal court of defrauding two people — one of them a former NBA and NFL executive — out of $3 million in a Ponzi scheme. 

In March 2013, John Farahi, a popular Iranian-Jewish radio talk-show host and investment adviser, was sentenced by a U.S. District Court to 10 years in federal prison for operating a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme against local Iranian-Americans. Farahi was ordered by the court to pay more than $24 million in restitution to close to 60 victims.

Prior to that, Ezri Namvar, a longtime leading Iranian-Jewish businessman and philanthropist in Los Angeles, was sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in federal prison for stealing $21 million from four clients. Namvar also was ordered by the court to pay back $21 million in restitution to his victims, yet he allegedly bilked investors — who put money into his $2.5 billion real estate portfolio before the 2008 market crash — out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Iranian-Jewish community leaders and victims have kept quiet about Namvar and other Iranian-Jewish investors charged in recent years with running Ponzi schemes, in keeping with a long-standing community taboo against publicly discussing potentially embarrassing incidents. 

The Mensch List: A passion for helping struggling Iranian-Americans

Two years ago Elena J., a middle-aged, impoverished Iranian-Jewish woman in Los Angeles, was stricken with a rare illness that forced surgeons to amputate one of her legs. With no family and no friends locally to help her, Elena faced a grim future, as she did not have enough money to purchase a prosthetic leg or the means to get around town. Through word of mouth, she found Jaleh Naim, a San Fernando Valley-based Iranian-Jewish volunteer, who, in just a week’s time, helped Elena acquire a prosthetic leg with assistance from California’s social services agencies. Naim also raised enough money from others in the Iranian-Jewish community to help Elena purchase a special car outfitted for the handicapped. 

This type of effort is not unusual for Naim, who for more than a decade has worked part time and also volunteered much of her day for various local nonprofit Jewish organizations aiding the underprivileged. Yet, her greatest impact has come in the last four years, during which time she has raised substantial amounts of money from local Iranian Jews and distributed those funds to struggling Iranians of all faiths.

“People don’t really know who I am and the type of work I do — I prefer it that way because we are able to help raise money just through word of mouth from different circles of friends and family that contribute whatever amounts of money they can afford to give,” Naim said.

Four years ago, Naim and her volunteer partner Afsar Mogahdam helped start a Jewish emergency fund with the help of the leadership at Beith David Educational Center in Tarzana. “We realized that many people in our community could have their problems simply resolved with a little bit of financial help to get them back on their feet and moving again,” Naim said. “There are different situations, where they lost their jobs and are behind on rent, they have family problems and no way of feeding themselves, or they have encountered medical issues and have no means to pay for the care they need. We try to help as many people as we can with our limited resources.”

Naim said that, through her volunteer work for various local nonprofit groups, she encounters daily Iranian Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is who need financial help. She personally conducts background checks on them to make sure they truly are needy. 

“I raise money among friends and family I know on an individual or case-by-case basis, and they give anywhere from $100 to $1,000,” Naim said. “We disburse the money fairly quickly for each individual person in need that I have checked myself, so there really isn’t a large amount of money in this account at any one time,” Naim said of a special bank account for the donated funds that she and Mogahdam set up for this purpose.

Others who work with Naim in aiding Iranian-Americans in need in Los Angeles say she is a rarity, as many Iranian-Jewish women of her generation are not heavily involved on a day-to-day basis in helping homeless or poverty-stricken people.

“Mrs. Naim is an incredible asset to the larger Iranian community in this city because she is able, in a remarkable way, to truly help individuals and families that are really in need and struggling to survive,” Mogahdam said.

Fiasco Accomplished


It’s official: Jimmy Delshad elected new mayor of Beverly Hills

After a cliffhanger vote count, Jimmy Jamshid Delshad is preparing to claim two titles at his March 27 inauguration — mayor of Beverly Hills and top Iranian-born public official in the United States.

The milestone is being celebrated not only by his compatriots in Beverly Hills but also by the extended Iranian Jewish community of 30,000 in the Los Angeles area.

Delshad, 66, marked his all-but-certain victory on Saturday morning by attending services at three synagogues to thank congregants for their support. The first stop was at Sinai Temple in Westwood, where he had cut his political teeth by serving as president of the prestigious Conservative and traditionally Ashkenazi congregation from 1999 to 2001. He also visited Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills and the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center.

Once the remaining absentee ballots were counted on Wednesday, Delshad hadreceived 22 percent of the ballots cast, overtaking his closest challengerby 171 votes. The Beverly Hills city clerk will certify the election resultsby next week, and Delshad will be inaugurated as mayor on March 27.

Beverly Hills is governed by a five-person City Council, which in turn annually rotates the job of mayor among its members in order of seniority. The mayor presides over council meetings, but the city’s chief executive is the hired city manager.

Delshad was initially elected as a city councilman in 2003 and this year served as vice mayor of Beverly Hills.

In the current election, voters had to choose among six candidates, half of them Iranian Jews, to fill two council seats, with Delshad assured of the mayor’s post if he placed first or second.

When the polls closed March 6, Nancy Krasne, a city planning commissioner and board member of the National Council of Jewish Women, was the top vote getter. However, since she has less seniority on the City Council than other members, she is not yet in line for the mayor’s job.

Delshad was in second place, ahead of incumbent Mayor Steve Webb by a mere seven votes. After the partial count of absentee ballots, Delshad had widened his lead over Webb to 86 votes.

At that point, Webb conceded and Delshad declared victory.

“I feel blessed to have been chosen by the people of Beverly Hills,” Delshad said in a phone interview. “As a Jewish youngster in Iran, I was a second-class citizen and kept running into closed doors.

Through my example, I hope to open doors in America for other people like me.”

The English-language Tehran Times, published in the Iranian capital, reported the election as a straight news story. Delshad said he had received congratulatory e-mails from some Muslims in Iran, especially from former neighbors in his native city of Shiraz.

Beverly Hills was an early destination for wealthy Iranian émigrés after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Today, Beverly Hills counts some 8,000 residents of Iranian birth or descent, primarily Jewish, among a population of 35,000, according to Delshad.

However, global and Middle Eastern issues played no part in the election campaigns, with Delshad and other candidates running on such local preoccupations as traffic tie-ups, water conservation and bringing advanced computer technology to city government.

Like every previous immigrant group, the Iranian newcomers were met with some suspicion and incomprehension upon their arrival, and not all frictions have been resolved. Veteran residents frequently complain about Iranians who buy large, handsome homes, only to tear them down and replace them with huge “Persian palaces” to accommodate the social needs of large, extended families.

Another flashpoint came during the election itself when, for the first time, ballot forms were printed in Farsi, in addition to English and Spanish. The city clerk’s office was deluged with complaints, with one resident sneering that the new ballot “looks like a menu from a Persian restaurant with an English translation.”

In both the housing and ballot controversies, Delshad has played his characteristic role as mediator, trying to explain the viewpoints of the Anglo and Iranian communities to each other.

Delshad has come by his American success story the old-fashioned way, by initiative, enterprise and hard work.

One of three brothers, Delshad left Iran as a 16-year-old in 1956, more than two decades before the shah’s downfall, lived in Israel for 18 months, returned to Iran and left his native land for good in 1959 to settle in the United States.

After working for some time in a small Minnesota town, “where there were hardly any Jewish girls to date,” he and his brothers bought a car and drove west, with no final destination in mind. The trip ended with his enrollment at CSUN, where he earned an electrical engineering degree.

To put themselves through college, the brothers formed The Delshad Trio, with Jimmy playing the santur, a dulcimer-like Persian stringed instrument. The trio played at bar mitzvahs and weddings, performing “Israeli music with a Persian touch,” said Delshad, who still plays the santur for recreation.

After graduation, Delshad joined a fledgling computer firm and then formed his own company, specializing in computer hardware for backup systems. He sold the company in 1999, when he was elected president of Sinai Temple. When his civic duties allow, he does consulting and has established an import company for food packaging materials.

Delshad and his wife, who was born in Kfar Vitkin while her American parents were staying in Israel, have a son and daughter, both graduates of Jewish day schools and now in college.

“Being Jewish is part and parcel of my life,” Delshad said.

Jewish Journal Contributing Writer Karmel Melamed contributed to this story.