Builder of Wrecked Tehran Tower: Iranian Jewish Businessman Executed in '79 as 'Zionist Spy'

Habib Elghanian, founder of Plascokar industries for which the building was named, had the edifice put up in the 1960's, in a pre-Islamic revolutionary era when the Jews fared well in Iran.

Iranian Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian in 1972.
Iranian Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian in 1972. Reubenzadeh

Executed by firing squad as a "Zionist spy" in 1979, Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian was the builder of Tehran's iconic Plasco building that went up in flames on Thursday.

Elghanian was the first Jew or leading businessman to be executed in post-Islamic revolution era. His demise at the age of 67 is seen as playing a key role in spurring the subsequent departure of more than three quarters of Iran's Jews.

The execution took place in May 1979 though Elghanian had been persecuted from before the revolution, under the Shah's rule, and arrested in 1975.

Elghanian was possibly singled out for his leadership role in Iran's Jewish community. He also invested in Israel and put up the first skyscraper in Ramat Gan's Diamond Exchange district along with his brothers.

After marrying in 1936, Elghanian went to work as a watch and hat importer in the Tehran bazaar, later expanding the enterprise with his brothers along with Iran's oil-rich economy.

A decade later he went into the manufacture of plastic combs and buttons, a company that later came to be named Plascokar, for which the fire ravaged building in Tehran was named.

The company expanded into the production of plastic pipes, steel and textiles.

Elghanian set up a charity to support Jewish schools and the American Joint Distribution Committee's efforts to provide for the Jewish poor. He lobbied on behalf of women's property rights as well.

He partnered with Muslims and Armenians, as well.

Elghanian sent his family to the United States when the Shah's regime fell, but made the mistake of returning to Iran himself to sell his businesses.

He was speedily arrested, and prosecuted two months later in May 1979, in what a relative said was a less than 20-minute trial. Convicted of crimes that included meeting with Israeli leaders, Elghanian was sentenced to death and executed the very next morning. Iran confiscated all his property.

Israeli architects and engineers were also active builders in Iran during the reign of the shah, including the period when Elghanian's tower went up.

While Israeli ties with pre-Islamic revolutionary Iran were common knowledge at the time, a recent doctoral study at the Technion has revealed new details about the extent to which Israeli architects had been active in a country now known as the Islamic Republic.