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Yes, there are Iranians in Israel: Here's what one thinks of the nuclear talks

Emanuel Shfaim was smuggled out of Iran when he was 18 and about to be drafted.
Emanuel Shfaim was smuggled out of Iran when he was 18 and about to be drafted.Noga Tarnopolsky/GlobalPost

JERUSALEM — On most days, Emanuel Shfaim, 45, works from morning til night at his dry cleaning business, often joined by his wife, Nava.  

They are well known in the neighborhood, Jerusalem's German Colony, for the excellence and variety of their services. Need a sheepskin ottoman cleaned after an unfortunate collision with a glass of red wine? Shfaim will find a way to make the stain disappear.

In his small storefront shop, the whir of washing machines competes with the omnipresent sound of the radio. On Friday, ahead of this week's negotiations in Geneva between the West and Iran, a news bulletin announced Iran's "red line": the country will refuse to send any nuclear material outside its borders. 

Shfaim shrugged as he handed a customer his pressed shirts.

"There's nothing new there," he muttered, his sing-song Persian inflection giving the Hebrew a cheery cadence. Shfaim said he avoids watching Iranian news channels because "it is too infuriating. All lies."

Shfaim is one of about 50,000 Iranians living in Israel, most of whom left Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Many in the Iranian diaspora thought this moment would never come: after more than thirty years, a diplomatic window between the West and the pariah state is "cracking open," in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Iran's nuclear project is the main obstacle to relations between the West and Iran, and is the cause of severe economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy and disconnected it from the international banking system. Iran maintains its reactors are solely for civilian use; the West counters that enriched uranium can only serve military purposes.

Representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United StatesRussiaChina, the United Kingdom and France — plus Germany arrived in Geneva this week for the first round of negotiations with Iran since last month's historic phone call between President Barack Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. 

Their brief conversation was the first official contact between leaders of the US and Iran since 1979, and was heralded as a diplomatic breakthrough.

But Shfaim isn’t buying it.

"They've invested billions of dollars in the nuclear project! You think they're about to give it up? No way. No one would," Shfaim said of Iran.

In Israel’s Iranian community, many evince a reflexive, dismissive skepticism of Rouhani. Most in the community arrived after 1979, many under treacherous circumstances.

Shfaim barely made it out of Iran, back in 1986.

It was one of the bloodiest periods in the Iran-Iraq war, and Shfaim, then 18, was about to be drafted. All males of draft age — meaning, 14 and older — were refused passports as Iran flailed in the war.

Shfaim's parents paid smugglers about $2,000 to help their son flee, and he joined a group of 35 Jews who trekked over mountains to surreptitiously cross into Pakistan.

It was, he says, "terrifying." The group was attacked by pirates — who often worked in cahoots with the smugglers. One of his cousins, traveling in another group, vanished while trying to escape.

After reaching Pakistan, "the first thing we did was find the U.N.," he recalled, "so that we wouldn't get caught." He remained in Pakistan under U.N. protection for 6 months.

"I love Iran," Shfaim said. "It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am one hundred percent Iranian."

But his patriotism has no bearing on his feelings about Iran's nuclear ambitions, or its new president’s latest gambit. Rouhani’s apparent overtures to the West are "complete baloney — all politics and nothing else," he said.

Shfaim has surprisingly jovial memories of the Islamic revolution, which took place when he was 11.

 "You know, it was exciting," he said, smiling. "Fire, bullets, lots of people on the streets. One thing I remember well is that no one knew who Khomeini was. No one had even heard of him. Everybody was out on the streets protesting against the Shah — Down with the Shah! — and at one point posters started appearing with Khomeini's picture on them. No one had any idea who that guy was. It wasn't for him that they took to the streets. It was to get rid of the Shah."

In an abstract fashion, Shfaim is an optimist about the future of Israel-Iranian ties.

"Iranians are not Egyptians or Syrians, who grow up hating Israel. They're not Arabs. Iranians are not even religious," he said as he touched up a collar with an iron.

"If the government changes, God willing, there will be peace. No problem."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost: Yes, there are Iranians in Israel. Here's what one thinks of this week's nuclear talks

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