Like many a modern Cinderella story, the life of Izak Nazarian began in poverty and ended with a few billion dollars in the bank. His biography can be summed up as “the poor Jew from Tehran who became the richest Jew in Iran.”
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Nazarian, who died last week in the United States, was born in Tehran in 1929. His father, David Nazarian, was an apricot merchant. His mother, Golbahar Nazarian, Aviva in Hebrew, was from a family that had immigrated to Iran from Tbilisi, Georgia. When Izak was 6, his father died, and his mother decided to try to support the family by working outside the home. “A Jewish woman who goes out to work in a place with men is considered a prostitute,” a relative told her.
“My mother threw a ladder at him and fled, and I ran to hug her,” Nazarian would later say. His mother eventually rented a tailor shop that she ran, living in part of the store with her sons.
After David’s death, Golbahar Nazarian gave Izak and his brother Persian names — Parviz and Younes, respectively — to ease their integration into Iranian society. Younes later spoke of being bullied by Muslim youths, saying: “They used to attack us with clubs. Sometimes they tore our coats.”
Izak started working when he was 12, and at 14 he was a waiter on a U.S. army base in Iran. A Jewish officer helped him enroll in a railway trade school, where he studied to be an electrician.
Two years later he went to Italy in search of work, and met activists for Jewish immigration to Palestine. “I heard they were fighting for the State of Israel,” Nazarian related. He eventually went to Palestine. He fought in the War of Independence, in the Negev Brigade’s Seventh Battalion, and was wounded in the leg by a land mine. In 1951 he worked as a chauffeur in the Kirya government center in Tel Aviv, where he sometimes drove Golda Meir, then labor minister. “I would arrive at Golda’s house ... she would come to the window and call, “Yitzhak, come in and have a cup of coffee,” he said. After his mother and brother joined him in Israel, they bought a truck. “Little by little we started getting into contracting,” he said.
In 1957, when Iran was booming, Golbahar suggested that he and his brother return. “To make money, and come back,” as he would later put it. He was to become an industrialist and a major contractor in Iran at a time when Israel played a major role in development there, in projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. “Without education or certificates I became a well-known and serious contractor and we built the sewage system of Isfahan with engineers and companies we brought from Israel, including Solel Boneh,” Nazarian would later say.
That period ended in 1979, with the Islamic Revolution. Nazarian told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that he headed a delegation of Jewish community leaders that had been invited to meet with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The meeting was canceled at the last minute, and as Nazarian returned to his home, a member of the Revolutionary Guard approached him and recommended that he get out of Iran.
The family moved to Los Angeles, where Nazarian channeled his technical expertise into a new area, wireless communications. He got in touch with academics who were searching for ways to monitor truck traffic using satellites. “A boy from the ghetto of Tehran makes a research proposal to two professors of electronics,” he later described it. The company he established, Qualcomm, became a wireless communications giant.
He later invested in other companies and also became a philanthropist. In Israel in 2003, he established the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to improve the performance of government and the public sector, in order to address what he called Israel’s “lack of political stability and connection between the voting citizens and their elected representatives in the Knesset and in government,” he said.
In addition to his brother Younes, Nazarian is survived by his wife Pouran, their four children — Dora Nazarian Kadisha, Dalia Nazarian Sassouni, Daphna Nazarian Salimpour and Benjamin Nazarian — 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.