There are several biblical references to Jews in Iraq and archaeological evidence shows that Jews were living in the territories of modern Iran from 722BCE. Before the Arab conquest of Iran, Jews were heavily dependent on the whims of whichever king or ruler was in power. After the Arab conquest in the 600s CE Jews were classed with other non-Muslims as second-class citizens, subject to high taxes and punitive laws. This continued throughout the Mongol period with even Jewish converts to Islam subject to discrimination.
In the 16th century Shi’a Islam was declared the state religion, and Jews were labelled ritually impure. This meant they were forbidden from many public areas and by the 17th century Judaism effectively outlawed and forced underground. This ban on Judaism was soon disbanded due to the loss in taxes, however Jews were still subjected to many punitive laws. During the 18th and 19th centuries Jews were granted constitutional rights and equal status for the first time in Iran’s history. Together with Christians and Zoroastrians, Jews were allowed to elect a single member to the Persian Parliament. However, during this period Jews were also victims of frequent violent pogroms and whilst they officially had legal equality, in reality this was far from the case. During this period many Persian Jews left the country for a new life in British Mandated Palestine.
From 1925 new reforms under Reza Shah meant a greatly improved situation for Jews in Iran. For the first time Hebrew was incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish schools, Jewish newspapers were published and Jews were permitted to practice any occupation. However, the Shah was increasingly concerned by opposing political systems, namely communism, and by extention Zionism. Many Jews at this time joined the Communist Party as a response to antisemitism. In addition to this, the Shah sympathised with Nazi Germany and antisemitism amongst the general population was part of Jewish life. By the time war broke out many Iranians were preparing for a massacre of the Jews and Nazi broadcasts were played nightly on the radio. In 1942 the British capture of Iran was a relief to many of the country’s Jews.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, together with a strengthening of the clergy meant a spike in antisemitic attacks which continued until 1953. A new Shah in 1953 brought in an economic boom and cultural changes. Close political ties to Israel were established and Persian Jewry flourished. By the 1970s only 10% of Iranian Jews were classified as impoverished whilst 80% were classified as middle class. However, the country also suffered from lack of freedoms and military style dictatorship and in 1979 many prominent Iranian Jews joined the Islamic Revolution. Despite this, immediately following the Islamic Revolution at least 60,000 Jews left Iran. In the subsequent years, a further 30,000 Jews left the country.
The current Jewish population of Iran is just under 9000. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, Iran has maintained a policy of keeping Jews in the country rather than expelling them. Iran and Israel currently view each other as enemies, however it’s Jews live relatively peacefully alongside their neighbours.