Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asserted his country’s right to defend itself militarily against the Iranian nuclear threat – regardless of the presence of Jews in Iran.
As he spoke during a visit to the U.S. last week, all but lost amid the heated talk about a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s suspect nuclear programme were the thousands of Jews who live in the Islamic Republic.
Many observers think Iran would retaliate against an Israeli military strike by firing its large arsenal of missiles capable of striking Israel, or have its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza hit the Jewish state with short-range rockets and missiles.
It could also strike Jewish or Israeli targets in other countries, and possibly those within its own borders.
The rising crisis illustrates the uneasy situation of Iran’s Jews, the largest community in the Middle East outside of Israel and Turkey and one of the world’s oldest centres of Judaism, its historical roots reaching back 2,700 years.
They are believed to number around 25,000, after two major waves of emigration following Israel’s founding in 1948 and the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before the revolution they numbered around 100,000.
Many in the community, centered in Tehran and the southern city of Shiraz, are affluent merchants.
Publicly, they are supportive of a system that offers them protected minority status – though not equal access to certain government and military jobs – and assures them a seat in the Iranian parliament.
Siamak Merehsedq, the current Jewish lawmaker in the Iranian parliament, said: ‘No matter who dares to attack our country, we will stand against the threats like other Iranian people.
‘The Iranian Jewish community will stand by their compatriots under any circumstance, forever.’
Meir Litwak, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University, said it is doubtful the government would lash out at Jews in Iran.
The regime ‘has to treat Jews well to show that Jews can live under a Muslim regime as a protected minority, so there is no legal or moral reason for the existence of a Jewish state,’ he said.
‘If they start killing their own Jews, international pressure would be far more than before.’
Iranian Jews living in Israel are not so sure.
There are an estimated 250,000 Jews of Iranian descent in Israel, including the jailed former President Moshe Katsav, the former military chief and current opposition lawmaker Shaul Mofaz and one of the country’s most popular singers, Rita, who recently put out a Farsi-language album.
Although Iran has a history of treating its Jewish minority fairly well, some Iranian Jews who have emigrated to Israel worry that an Israeli attack could expose family and friends still in Iran to retaliation.
Kamal Penhasi, who runs Israel’s only Persian newspaper, Shahyad, calls Iran’s government ‘unstable and unpredictable’.
He said: ‘If there is a war, you can’t tell what the response to the community will be.’
Mr Penhasi is afraid that even if the Iranian government doesn’t directly attack Jews, its police might stand aside if angry Iranian citizens decide to do so in the event of an Israeli attack.
‘The government could say, “The people did it” and police forces couldn’t stop them,’ he said.
So far, there have been no reported cases of such attacks.