The US-Iran relationship is haunted by the death of my grandfather to this day
This excerpt is adapted from “Tehran Titan: From the Jewish Ghetto and the Shooting Platoon to Corporate Colossus – My Grandfather’s Life, A book by Shahrzad Elghanayan, photo editor for NBC News Digital. The book, which was released in November by AP Books, tells the story of Habib Elghanian, a longtime Jewish industrialist and community leader in Tehran, Iran, who was killed in the first round of civilian executions. of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The book explains the decline of Iran’s once thriving Jewish community and provides an overview of the early months of US relations with the new Islamic Republic.
“Sorry, sir, we cannot reach Tehran. “
Fed up with the phone operator’s recurring inability to get a line to Iran, my dad hung up and called the mechanic at our downtown Manhattan apartment building.
“This is Karmel Elghanayan from Apt. 31-H, ”he said. “Could you please bring my car?” Soon he was driving down FDR Drive in his brown and tan Cadillac to a store in Greenwich Village where he would buy a shortwave radio.
He needed news.
On the morning of May 9, I woke up to a house full of disheveled and tired people – people I used to see in our apartment at lunch or dinner. I had no idea that something cataclysmic had happened.
A few days earlier, on March 15, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had locked my grandfather, a powerful businessman and leader of the Jewish community, in Qasr prison in Tehran. As talking with our few relatives and friends still in Iran had become increasingly difficult, Radio Iran’s shortwave broadcasts became the second best option for the most up-to-date details on the progress of the Iranian revolution.
My dad unpacked the big black box and tested the radio reception around our apartment on the 31st floor. He settled in a corner of the bathroom sink by a narrow east-facing window, where the sounds were clearest 6,000 miles away.
That spring, when I was 7 years old, news in the Farsi language was on the radio every day. My father never missed the morning show New York time for the evening news from Tehran, or the evening show for the early morning developments. Some weekend mornings I would sit on the floor in front of the bathroom and watch him shave while he listened to Radio Iran before I left for breakfast with my mother, Helen, and my younger brother. , Shahram, at the Greek restaurant across the street on 58th Street and First Avenue.
We had moved to New York almost two years earlier, in the summer of 1977, after my father decided he didn’t want to raise us in Iran. Two years before that, in 1975, it was the Shah’s secret service – not Khomeini’s revolutionaries – that took my grandfather from his house in the middle of the night and detained him for months before releasing him. Now a theocratic ruler had succeeded the monarch and imprisoned my grandfather again. During the first week of May, revolutionary firing squads executed some 200 people, almost all members of the deposed Shah’s government, army and secret service.
At 10:30 p.m. on May 8, 1979, my father picked up the 6am newspaper from Tehran as he did every night. He planned to get up early the next morning to attend services at the synagogue to mark my grandmother Nikkou Jan’s yartzeit, the traditional religious ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of her death. In his striped cotton pajamas and burgundy leather slippers, he stood facing the white marble bathroom mirror to listen.
Eight men were executed today. Among them was millionaire businessman Habib Elghanian.
As the announcer continued the report, my father stood still in stunned silence. My mother, hearing her stepfather’s name on the radio, rushed into the bathroom. My brother and I slept in our rooms.
On Long Island, my father’s younger brother, Sina, had dozed off to the whisper of his shortwave radio. His pregnant wife, Sheryl, heard the news and shook him to wake him up.
As news of my grandfather’s execution spread in the middle of the night, friends and family from Long Island and Queens rushed to our house. Others who lived in our building put on bathrobes and took the elevator to our apartment. On the morning of May 9, I woke up to a house full of disheveled and tired people – people I used to see in our apartment at lunch or dinner. I had no idea that something cataclysmic had happened. My mother gave me breakfast, then took me to the hall outside where a little yellow school bus was waiting for me outside to take me to the Lycée Français, where I was finishing my first year.
My father’s sister, Aunt Mahnaz, who was in New York City, was spared the late-night phone call. Shortly after her two boys went to elementary school, her cousins arrived at her home on the Upper East Side, their faces a testament to the sadness they were about to express.
The family started to mourn my grandfather even as it marked my grandmother’s yartzeit.
That evening, reports of my grandfather’s execution spread around the world. On ABC’s “World News Tonight,” presenter Peter Jennings, with a chromakey map of Iran over his left shoulder showing the capital Tehran and a silhouette of a rifle across the nation’s yellow outline, reported the news. “Elsewhere abroad today, there have been more executions in Iran,” he intoned. “They have become almost commonplace. But today’s events raise growing concern for Iranian minority groups. Among the eight men who faced an Islamic firing squad today was a prominent Jewish businessman, the first member of this troubled community to be convicted of association, according to the terms of the tribunal, “with Israel and Zionism”. Jews in Iran fear this accusation from Muslim activists more than any other.
On the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported: “An Iranian firing squad in Tehran today executed eight other people, including a prominent Jewish businessman accused of having ties to Israel. In Washington, the State Department reiterated its strong disapproval of summary trials and executions. As to the businessman’s death, Cronkite said, “it has been reported that he was tried as an individual, not as a Jewish leader.”
A Washington Post editorial the following week noted how outrageous the charge of “spying for Israel and raising funds for Israel to bomb the Palestinians” was. “It seems to come down to the fact that he had met prominent Israeli figures in the early 1960s and contributed to Israeli causes,” the newspaper wrote. “In other words, he was assassinated because he was a Jewish friend of Zionism. In no other country in the world is this a capital crime. “
Amnesty International subsequently found numerous violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, sanctions for a crime which was not a criminal offense at the time it was committed, denial freedom of religion and the right to self-defense. by a lawyer and the right to appeal.
What the initial reports did not immediately predict, however, was that the execution would be a turning point for the Iranian economy and the future of the nation’s Jewish community. The news that night also couldn’t predict how the reaction of the US Congress to my grandfather’s execution would become Khomeini’s excuse to sever diplomatic relations with the United States – with repercussions still being felt. today.
What the first reports did not immediately predict, however, was that the execution would be a turning point for the Iranian economy and the future of the country’s Jewish community.
In Tehran that fateful night, the Revolutionary Guards drove down my grandfather’s driveway with big trucks to clear the house of its furniture. Longtime nanny, Layla Khanoum, and babysitter, Vali, were still there. They watched as the guards filled the trucks with beds, sofas, chairs, tables, and even family albums.
“Please,” Layla Khanum pleaded with one of them as he looted the house. “I raised these children. Please let me save some of their photos.
“Stop it,” the guard told him. “These albums are not yours.”
“Please let me just babysit a few of the children,” she pleaded, tears streaming down her wrinkled face.
Back in New York, when my father tried to call his brother Fred in Iran, the overseas operator came up with the same infuriating refrain:
“Sorry sir, we cannot reach Tehran. “
As our black shortwaves buzzed in the cold marble bathroom, my grandfather’s bullet-riddled body languished in the prison morgue, with a cardboard sign around his neck. He said: “Habib Elghanian, Zionist spy. “