Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani is apparently bringing the country's only Jewish member of parliament to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, in an apparent effort to rehabilitate the Islamic Republic's image on the global stage amid fears that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program designed to attack Israel.
Rouhani likely seeks to move away from the violent and contentious rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who repeatedly condemned Israel and the Jews, while denying the Nazi Holocaust -- by accompanying Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the sole Jewish MP in Teheran's Majlis (parliament), to New York.
Sedgh, a 48-year-old medical doctor, succeeded Maurice Motamed, in 2008, as the sole Jewish MP in the Teheran parliament.
Sedgh and Ahmad-Reza Dastgheyb, a Muslim, are the only MPs that will join Rouhani to New York.
Under the 1906 constitution of Iran, Jews are allowed one reserved seat in parliament, a practice that continued even after the 1979 Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, which turned the ancient state into an Islamic theocracy. Similarly, other minorities, including Zoroastrians (who adhere to a pre-Islamic Iranian faith) and Christians have one and three parliamentary seats reserved, respectively, based on their population. (Interestingly, another Iranian faith, The Baha'i, has been deemed “illegal” and have no representation in government whatsoever).
Under Rouhani's regime, both he and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have even delivered happy wishes to global Jews for the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, on their official Twitter accounts.
"Our Jewish countrymen are a recognized minority in Iran and have an active representative in the parliament," Zarif told the Tasnim news agency, according to Tehran Times.
"We were never against Jews. We oppose Zionists, who are a small group. We do not allow the Zionists to represent Iran as an anti-Semitic country in their propaganda, so they can cover up their crimes against [the] Palestinian and Lebanese people."
Zarif even made a snide attack against former President Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust. "Iran never denied it," he tweeted. "The man [Ahmadinejad] who was perceived to be denying it is now gone."
However, according to the Washington Free Beacon, Sedgh himself accompanied Ahmadinejad during the former president's visit to the U.N. in 2009.
Indeed, despite his Jewish heritage, Sedgh is a fervent anti-Zionist and fierce critic of Israel (at least in public). In a 2009 speech, he thundered: “[Iran's] Jews will direct their ... cries against all servants of imperialism and Zionism." The year before that, he participated in a rally outside the U.N. office in Teheran, condemning "Israeli war crimes and the slaughter of the innocent people in the Gaza Strip."
The Times of Israel reported that Sedgh even described the Jewish state as "inhuman" for its treatment of Palestinians.
”We are in complete disagreement with the behavior of Israel,” Sedgh told Reuters in 2008.
"They kill innocent people.”
In 2010, Sedgh denied that Iran was an anti-Semitic nation, in an interview with Russia Today. “Jews are safe in Iran," he stated. "That’s true. Nobody needs guards. There has never been a single instance of anti-Semitism in Iranian society. This phenomenon belongs to the European, Christian world. There is no anti-Semitic sentiment in Iran. We have no attacks on synagogues or cemeteries as happens in Paris."
But Sedgh's predecessor in parliament, Maurice Motamed, openly criticized the Iranian government for some of its anti-Semitic stances and policies, while defending Iran's nuclear program. Somewhat dramatically, Motamed took grave exception to Ahmadinejad's view of the holocaust.
"Denial of such a great historical tragedy that is connected to the Jewish community can only be considered an insult to all the world's Jewish communities," he once said.
Meanwhile, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not believe that Iran has committed to a new chapter in its relations with the Jewish state, describing Rouhani’s mild rhetoric as ”spin.”
"The Iranians are creating media spin in order to keep the centrifuges spinning,” said a statement from Netanyahu's office.
“The test is not in Rouhani's words, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to vigorously pursue its nuclear program at the same time that Rouhani grants interviews.”
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst, wrote in Al-Monitor, that Rouhani may have more to fear within Iran itself than in the West, since, among other things, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the most powerful person in the country), is also a holocaust denier.
“By taking Iran's Jewish MP to the U.N., Rouhani wants to tell the international community that the Iranian government is not anti-Semitic and that Iran respects Jews,” wrote Javedanfar.
“And he is counting on the support of Iran’s Jewish MP to achieve this goal. However, domestically, the odds are stacked against Rouhani and this is one area where Iran’s Jewish MP will not be able to help him. When it comes to Holocaust denial, Rouhani's rivals have a strong backer: Khamenei.”
Javedanfar added that Rouhani “will have to watch his step.”
“Although taking Iran's Jewish MP to the U.N. may somewhat improve Iran's image abroad, at home where it most matters, it is unlikely to help him much,” he noted. “In fact, Rouhani may soon find that going against Khamenei's denial of the Holocaust may be too costly.”
The Jews have lived in Iran (Persia) for almost three thousand years – in the 20th century, the Jewish population in the country reached a peak of about 150,000, in 1948. The Jewish community, still believed to be the largest in the Middle East after Israel, dwindled following the Khomeini revolution, as thousands of Jews fled to Israel, Europe, Britain, Australia, the United States and Canada.
After he seized power in post-revolutionary Iran, Khomeini vowed to protect the Jewish and Christian communities by official edicts.
There are at present an estimated 25,000 Jews living in Iran, according to many sources, including the Iranian Jewish Committee, (mostly in Teheran and Isfahan), though official census data suggests even fewer.
According to Sephardic Studies, Tehran boasts 11 synagogues, which are filled to the brim during holidays. However, Jews are forbidden from ever travelling to Israel, where many have relatives.
''We are Jews, not Zionists. We are a religious community, not a political one,'' a Persian Jew named Yashaya said.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.