Listening to Iran

Menashe Amir is the voice of Israel in Iran — but he's much more than that. Governments call for his advice because, on Israel's state-run radio, he's been broadcasting daily to Iran, in Farsi, for 48 years.

Menashe Amir has been broadcasting daily from Israel to Iran for 48 years

Menashe Amir listens to a caller from Iran on his Farsi-language phone-in show. An Iranian immigrant, Amir has been broadcasting to Iran on Israels state-run radio for 48 years. ((CBC))

Close your eyes, and you'd swear you were in Tehran. The tinkle of the santur, the whiff of Persian kebabs, the dancers chattering in Farsi ... It's Persian Night!

But open your eyes and you'll see the old banknotes with the shah's picture pinned up in the kitchen. You're in the last place you'd expect to find a celebration of Iranian culture: Mahane Jehuda.

Jews from Iran celebrate Persian Night in Jerusalem. ((CBC))

Mahane Jehuda is the old Jewish Market in Jerusalem — a little more trendy nowadays, with cappuccino bars squeezed in amongst the fruit and vegetable stands. But Persian Night? In Jerusalem? While Iran's president threatens to wipe Israel off the map? 

In truth, it's not so strange. Since the time of Darius the Great, there have been ties of blood and history between the two nations that are now, 2,500 years later, on a collision course. Some 60,000 Jews from Iran live in Israel and they don't forget the old country, where many still have family. So it's natural that they gather often to enjoy Persian food and to sing along with their favourite Persian songs.

Should Israel strike?

But it's not just the Iranian Jews who are intensely interested in all things Persian. Israel, and the world beyond, is debating the looming question: should Israel strike at Iran's nuclear facilities before the mullahs get the bomb? 

In Mahane Jehuda, on Persian Night, the prevailing view seems to be, no — but America should! Why, people want to know, does the world think it's only Israel's job to stop Iran going nuclear? 

"Why Canada not bombing Iran?" asks one celebrant. "Why is America not bombing Iran? Only Israel — why?" 

Of course, nobody is bombing Iran, yet. But Israel is creeping inexorably to a decision - and many experts say time is running out. In one or two years, they say, an Iranian nuclear device may be ready and it will be too late to stop it. Israel's new F16s — called F16Is — have been fitted with bigger fuel tanks to increase their range and Israeli missile defences are being upgraded.

An Iranian Cross-Country Checkup

What to do to avert this nightmare? Many governments — including those of Israel, the U.S. and Canada — take this question to Menashe Amir. 

Amir is the voice of Israel in Iran — but he's much more than that. Governments call for his advice because, on Israel's state-run radio, he's been broadcasting daily to Iran, in Farsi, for 48 years. He's been at it ever since he immigrated to Israel from Iran and, for the past 15 years, he's also been hosting a fascinating Sunday call-in show. It's a kind of an Iranian version of the CBC Radio program Cross-Country Checkup, with a twist: it's broadcast from outside the country.

What Iranians are saying

A sampling of calls from Iranians, recorded and translated from Farsi by CBC News at Menashe Amir's Jerusalem studio:

'Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister.'

'Islam only exists for [Ayatollah] Khomeini. They've ruined the people's lives ... they've brought dictatorship. Khomeini, [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad ... with the oil income from the country, they live in their palaces while we live under the poverty line. What Islam? ... We don't want to live under tyranny ... why can't we have a good life?'

'First of all, come and help us overthrow this regime and then we can have a referendum. But first we have to overthrow the regime — without violence.'

'Our people know the regime and they know their bad intentions ... unfortunately, the governments of Europe aren't doing anything because they're only worried about their economic interests.'

'For what purpose do the people of Iran need nuclear weapons? The people of Iran should demand bread, water and freedom and they should shout it out. Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?'

Iranians can call a number in Germany, so that they're not seen to be calling the "Zionist entity," and they're rerouted to Amir's studio, where they can vent. Once you understand what they're saying, it's a revelation. 

Amir's Iranian callers don't just condemn their own government. They pour out their admiration for democracy, for America — even for Israel. On a recent show, the first caller had this to say: "Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister."

Actually, Ehud Olmert hasn't been prosecuted yet. But it could happen. And Iranians aren't shy about applauding Israel's democracy — or lamenting Iran's lack of it. One pleads, "Come and help us overthrow this regime." Another asks, "Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?"

West needs to wake up

In an interview with CBC News, Amir said the West has failed to understand the Iranian threat. He believes the regime is opposed by most Iranians but is consumed by an apocalyptic vision: the triumph of Shia Islam [also known as Shiite] over the world.

Western governments, he says, don't see that, for the Iranian mullahs, the destruction of the Jewish state is just a step along the way. Everyone knows that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be wiped off the map. But Amir points out, "On the same day, in the same speech that Ahmadinejad called for wiping off Israel from the map, he added that the destruction of Israel is the first step of our final confrontation with western civilization."

Amir says the regime dreams of a new caliphate — an Islamic empire spanning the globe. He adds, "I want to tell you one more thing that the western countries don't understand or don't take it serious — and that's the item of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah. And they believe that once the Mahdi comes, the whole universe will convert to Shiite Islam."

The technology factor

What scares Israelis even more is that this fundamentalist world view is married to high technology. Iran recently sent a rocket into space to mark the birthday of the Mahdi — a 9th century imam known to Shias as the "last imam." When Iranian TV covered the launch, the reporter didn't forget to add the obligatory phrase when mentioning the Madhi: "May Allah hasten his return."

Amir says the rocket sent a message. "They have the money, the missiles, they are seeking to have the nuclear bomb and the life of humankind is not important for them. I want to mention what Rahim Safavy, who was the chief commander of the revolutionary guards in Iran, said a few days ago: 'We shall win and you, the westerners, shall lose because we gave 200,000 victims, martyrs, in eight years of war with Iraq and we have 300,000 disabled and injured in this war — and we don't care about it. But you, the westerners, are afraid to give 4,000 or 5,000 thousand victims and casualties, so the final victory will be ours.' "

But Amir says the Iranian people don't share the regime's messianic vision. He says most would support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and even rise up against the regime.

"Iranians are totally a different nation — a peaceful, polite, moderate people who want a good life, who adore the United States, who respect Canada, who like western music … But the regime in Iran doesn't feel like they're Iranians. Mostly, firstly, they think they are Shi'ite Muslims and they have to work for the sake of Islam and not for the sake of Iran — and they are sacrificing the Iranian interest for the sake of Shi'ism."

Prepare for the worst

But not everyone shares Amir's view on the fragility of Iran's government.

One who does not is Shabtai Shavit, who ran Israel's legendary spy service, the Mossad, from 1989-96. Shavit, who's now a security consultant, says the notion of Iranians overthrowing the regime in the wake of an Israeli strike is a fantasy.

Still, Shavit agrees with Amir that Israel must not assume that the regime will act rationally. "We have to make our decisions according to the worst-case scenario: They're going to have the bomb," Shavit says. "They're going to pursue … an unrational way and they're going to use the bomb. If this is the case, then I don't have any other choice but to pre-empt it."

Amir says his Iranian callers believe Israel has an obligation to act.

Their message, he says, is rooted in history. "They claim the Israelis and the Jews have a historical debt to the Iranians because, 2,000 years ago, Cyrus the Great came, freed Jews from Babylon and he sent them back to their country to build again their homeland ... Iranian listeners say, now that's the time you pay us back. Please come and help us to get rid of this regime."

Suddenly, Persian Night in Jerusalem doesn't seem so strange.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.