An interview given by Asghar Farhadi to an Israeli journalist has become the subject of new controversy in Iran. On March 20, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a May 2016 interview with the Oscar-winning director on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival in which he said that his "only hope" for solving the problems between Iran and Israel is the people, arguing that "politicians have too much to lose."
The exchange was published soon after hard-line media outlets in Iran criticized Farhadi for announcing the screening of his latest Oscar winner, "The Salesman," in Israeli cinemas. Kayhan daily, whose editor-in-chief is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reacted to the news on March 12, writing, "Of course, this is not the first time that a film by Asghar Farhadi is screened in Israel. [His] film 'A Separation' was also welcomed by the regime occupying Jerusalem and screened in Israeli cinemas in early 2012. Unfortunately, Asghar Farhadi showed no reaction, neither in the case of [the screening of] 'A Separation' nor now when 'The Salesman' is about to go up on screens in Israel."
This time, however, the public relations office of "The Salesman" responded with a statement on March 22, which read, "The interview was done in a gathering of reporters and journalists, although one year has passed since, and it is difficult to recall the exact details. It is possible that the Israeli reporter did not introduce himself during the interview or, if he did so, the organizer failed to inform the distinguished Iranian filmmaker of the reporter's identity."
Given the explanations provided in the statement and the fact that Haaretz published the interview in connection with the Iranian New Year — which occurred on March 21 and is followed by a two-week holiday for the Iranian press — reactions to Farhadi's interview were mostly limited to social media. Once the Iranian New Year holidays ended, the media seemed more interested in Iran's upcoming May 19 presidential election.
Hostility between the leaders of Iran and Israel date back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In a historic speech in 1963 — 16 years before the revolution — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini protested the Shah's support for Israel and said, "Israel does not wish to see Islamic precepts in this country … it wishes to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture and to appropriate your wealth."
This hostility has continued ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the slogan "Death to Israel," which has appeared on murals and billboards across Iran and chanted at state-sponsored rallies. It is also a common point among all parties that have held power and maintained influence in post-revolutionary Iran.
Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the word "Israel" was replaced with "the regime occupying Jerusalem" in official discourse. All political relations with Israel were cut, and the thought of any future ones was outlawed. This was gradually extended to not only include political ties but also all social, economic, cultural and sports interactions between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
For instance, Iranian athletes refrain from competing against Israeli athletes at international competitions. The last sports competition with Israel was the FILA World Wrestling Championships in 1983, held in Kiev, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Iranian wrestler Bijan Seifkhani went up against Robinson Konashvili from Israel and won 7-4, placing him ninth in the world.
Immediately after the news of Seifkhani's victory, the Iranian Foreign Ministry ordered the national wrestling team to return home in the middle of the competition. Once back, the officials who had accompanied the national team to the games were reprimanded, with the Foreign Ministry saying, "When Iran doesn’t recognize Israel, there is no need for our athletes to compete against them."
The 1983 encounter marked the end of sports exchanges with Israel, with the ban now also encompassing Iranian soccer players who play for foreign teams. The most recent example of the latter is the case of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who plays for Iran's national soccer team as well as AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. When the Dutch team was placed in the same group as Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv for this season's European league competitions, Jahanbakhsh asked to be excused from the game due to the situation between Iran and Israel. His team granted the Iranian player's request.
Among other restrictions Iran imposes is a ban on any travel to Israel. Just like other Iranians, members of Iran's Jewish community are also not entitled to travel to "Occupied Palestine," meaning Israel. This warning is found on the inside of the cover of all Iranian passports. Indeed, Iranian law states that citizens who travel to Israel could go to prison for two to five years. They will also be stripped of their passports for three to five years.
There are no precise statistics on the number of Jewish Iranians who reside in Iran and Israel. Figures from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution suggest that the Jewish population in Iran exceeded 100,000. After the revolution, however, many Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States. At present, close to 30,000 Jews are estimated to reside in Iran, while about 250,000 Iranian Jews are believed to live in Israel.
Despite the Islamic Republic's hostility toward Israel, the Iranian constitution grants Iranian Jews one representative in parliament, who at present is Siamak Moreh Sedgh. In October, an Israeli radio station released an interview with Moreh Sedgh, who quickly dismissed the whole thing having occurred, saying, "I believe that their news reports are not worth even being denied; they themselves know that no free man would do an interview with them."
"The Salesman" has been on screens at Israel's Lev cinema complex since March 16, but it is not the first time an Iranian film is being shown in Israel. Indeed, Israeli cinemas as well as annual film festivals in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa have repeatedly screened Iranian films in recent years. Some of the films that Israelis have welcomed were made by prominent Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and Kambuzia Partovi, something that has been made possible by the use of non-Iranian producers and distributors. Considering the large number of Iranians who are believed to live in Israel, the warm reception these films have received is not far from what would be expected.