Maurice Motamed has one of the loneliest jobs in the Middle East. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his controversial Holocaust statements, the sole Jewish MP in Iran’s 290-member Majlis (parliament) felt he had no option but to confront him.
“When our president spoke about the Holocaust, I considered it my duty as a Jew to speak about this issue,” Mr Motamed said in his office in Tehran. “The biggest disaster in human history is based on tens of thousands of films and documents. I said these remarks are a big insult to the whole Jewish society in Iran and the whole world.”
Mr Ahmadinejad, president of an overwhelmingly Muslim state, has not apologised. But Mr Motamed said the president had since qualified his statement by insisting that he had not denied the Holocaust and was not an anti-semite.
Mr Motamed represents Iran’s 25,000-strong Jewish community, the largest such group in the Middle East outside Israel. Since 1906 Iran’s constitution has guaranteed the Jewish community one seat in the Majlis. The Armenian, Assyrian and Zoroastrian minorities together hold a further four seats.
Although he took on Mr Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust, Mr Motamed supports the president on other issues, including the standoff with the US, Europe and Israel over the country’s nuclear programme. “I am an Iranian first and a Jew second,” he said.
He acknowledged there were problems with being a Jew in Iran, as there were for the country’s other minorities. But he said that Iran was relatively tolerant. “There is no pressure on the synagogues, no problems of desecration. I think the problem in Europe is worse than here. There is a lot of anti-semitism in other countries.”
Most of his family, including his parents and sisters, left after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, as did 75,000 other Jews, heading mainly for Israel, the US and Europe. But Mr Motamed, 61, an engineer, stayed. “I love my homeland.”
Jews have been living in Iran in large numbers since Cyrus the Great freed them from slavery when he captured Babylon in 539BC. Members of the Jewish community in Iran today, for the most part, keep a low profile and many Iranians are unaware of their presence. Mr Motamed said there were about 14,000 Jews in Tehran, which has 20 active synagogues, 6,000 to 7,000 in Shiraz; 2,000 in Estafan and small groups scattered throughout the rest of the country.
He confirmed that Jews and other minorities were excluded from “sensitive” posts in the military and judiciary. And the authorities refuse to allow Jewish schools to close on the sabbath. But Mr Motamed said there had been improvements in other areas. Legislation introduced three years ago overturned a judicial practice of awarding more compensation to families of Muslim accident victims than to those of Jews. And when he complained in the Majlis about a TV soap regularly portraying rabbis as evil, he said the Speaker, Mehdi Karubi, had expressed support.
Nasser Hadian-Jazy, associate professor of political science at Tehran University and a childhood friend of the president, said Mr Ahmadinejad was keen to put the Holocaust row behind him.
“I asked him, ‘Are you anti-Jew?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ I said, ‘Why not go to a synagogue to express regret for what Iranians have done to Jews?’ … He said, ‘I have another idea, a better idea.’
“He will do something to show he is not anti-Jewish. I hope he will do it soon. He will make a gesture to the Jews in Iran and that has implications for Jews elsewhere. What he will say is very important and will remove the idea that he is anti-semite.”
Saeed Jalili, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and another close friend of Mr Ahmadinejad, said the Jewish seat in the Majlis “tells you that we have no problems with Judaism” but said he had not heard of any planned gesture by Mr Ahmadinejad. “The Jewish community in this country are very fairly treated … Of course, a symbolic gesture is good and well, but we think that what we do is more than symbolic.”