Rafteh ya marize? “Is he sick or has he gone?” Whenever a friend at our Jewish school in Tehran was absent for a day, we would ask each other this question. If he failed to appear after a few days, we would know that he had “gone.”

It was the mid-1980s and Iran was in the middle of a long war against Iraq. No one knew when or how it was going to end.

As students at one of Tehran’s Jewish high schools, we would watch our friends suddenly disappear, and then reappear six months later in Europe, the U.S., or Israel.

They would get there through a sophisticated smuggling operation that spirited Iran's Jews out of the country and into Pakistan.

There were several different ways in which the operation would begin. One entailed getting a phone call from the Sokhnut — the Jewish Agency in Israel — asking if you were ready “for the wedding.” As a child I was told that if I heard this code phrase after answering the phone, I had to immediately inform my parents and get them on the line.

I remember getting our call in the summer of 1985. It was on a Friday and my parents were having their pre-Shabbat afternoon nap. After I picked up the phone and exchanged the usual greetings, the caller asked me the code question. I ran to my father and let him know. He picked up the phone and told the speaker that we were not ready yet.

This was not the only method of approach though. Others knew people within the Jewish community who could arrange the whole smuggling operation, via their contacts in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which borders Pakistan. From there, the smuggled individuals, and in some cases whole families, were spirited across the border into Pakistan.

These operations were not always successful. In some cases, Iran’s border guards fired on the cars carrying them, mistaking them for smugglers. There were even casualties, including the death of a 15-year-old Jewish Iranian girl. Others were caught and jailed for a short period and then released.

In most cases, the escapees tried their luck again and succeeded. I personally know of one person who was caught and released by Iranian border guards three times. He finally succeeded in crossing the border on the fourth attempt.

In one of the most famous cases, eight Iranian Jews who were on their way to cross the border into Pakistan went missing, never to be seen again. In 2014, the Mossad found out that Iranian security forces had killed most of them, after mistaking them for members of the opposition. Meanwhile, the fate of another three Iranian Jews who disappeared on their way to Pakistan remains unknown.

Years later, it emerged that the Mossad had been behind such operations. This was not something that we were aware of in Iran at the time — everyone referred to the Sokhnot as the party responsible. Retrospectively, it should not have been a surprise though: The Mossad has carried out many operations to save diaspora Jews over the years, a notable example being Operation Moses in the mid-1980s to save Ethiopia’s Jews.

But why would the Mossad choose to smuggle many thousands of Iranian Jews to Pakistan, a country that is deeply hostile to Israel and has no Jewish community? Theoretically, the Mossad could have smuggled Iran’s Jews across the border to Turkey instead. Unlike Pakistan, Turkey has diplomatic relations with Israel and a Jewish community.

Most probably the Mossad’s rationale was dictated by geography and Turkey’s location on Iran's western border. Historically, Iran's western borders with Turkey and Iraq and its northern border with the USSR and then the post-Soviet Republics have been far more important to its leadership and military planners than Iran's borders in the east with Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was due to the greater economic, political, and military importance of Iran's neighbors to the west and the north, while those to the east were comparatively much poorer.

Furthermore, even within Iran itself, the provinces in the west and the north of the country were comparatively more affluent in terms of economic and agricultural resources than Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which borders Pakistan. This province is mostly desert and has very few resources. Unsurprisingly, it is one of Iran's poorest provinces. Although not as poor, the same can be said of the southern part of Iran's Khorasan Province, which borders Afghanistan.

Consequently, the Islamic Republic dedicated far fewer resources to securing its borders with Pakistan, making it a much better choice for the operation to smuggle out Iran's Jews. This was especially true during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, when most of Iran's military resources were dedicated to the conflict.

In terms of ties with Iranian smugglers, it is possible that the Mossad had established connections with them during the 1970s, when Israel and Iran had diplomatic relations. This could have been to set up escape routes for Mossad agents and other Israelis in Iran in case other avenues out of the country were closed in the event of unforeseen circumstances. 

At the time Pakistan was vehemently anti-Israel, antisemitic views were widespread among the population, and Israel had nothing to offer it. So why, from the early 1980s until the end of the operation in 1997, would the Pakistani government agree to host thousands of Iranian Jews, who were smuggled out over a decade and a half as part of a Mossad operation?

The likely answer is U.S. support: In all likelihood, once the Iranian Jews arrived on the Pakistani side of the border, U.S.-sponsored Jewish and other refugee charities were responsible for housing and helping them, until their cases were processed.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s actions did not impact its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). When it came to Pakistan-IRI relations, their security-oriented priorities were far more important than Pakistan hosting Iranian Jews.

Pakistan returned none of the Jews who escaped across the border. Iran's Jews, including many members of my family and my synagogue in Tehran, will forever be indebted to its government and its people for hosting them.


Meir Javedanfar, Ph.D, is an Iranian-Israeli lecturer, author, and commentator. He has been teaching Iranian politics at Reichman University in Israel since 2012 and is a non-resident scholar with the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.

This article is part of a series about Iran and Israel made possible by a grant from the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York and the Nazee & Joseph Moinian Foundation.

Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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