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Iran unveils a memorial honoring Jewish heroes

In this Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 photo, an Iranian Jewish man holds a Torah scroll at the Molla Agha Baba Synagogue, in the city of Yazd 420 miles (676 kilometers) south of capital Tehran, Iran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Earlier this week, authorities in Tehran unveiled a monument to slain Iranian Jewish soldiers who died during the country's long and bitter war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Death tolls for the hideous conflict differ, but casualty counts usually reach more than 1 million for both countries.

A public ceremony marked the memorial's opening on Monday, with speeches that took place at a dais flanked by the Iranian flag and a menorah. Banners showed the images of fallen soldiers, hailed as "martyrs" in Farsi and Hebrew inscriptions.

The commemoration may surprise those who think of the Islamic Republic's routine, angry rhetoric directed toward Israel, a "Zionist regime" the mullahs in Tehran refuse to recognize. But after Israel, Iran has the Middle East's second-largest community of Jews -- with its

estimated between 20,000 and 30,000. (Many more live in other countries such as the United States and Israel, where a former president, Moshe Katsav, was born in Iran.)

The Iranian government points to the continued population of Iranian Jews in the country as a sign of Iran's diverse traditions and the government's own respect for the country's rich history. The Old Testament Book of Esther is based in ancient Persia and is the foundation for the Jewish festival of Purim.

At the ceremony on Monday, Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, the vice-speaker of the Iranian parliament, made these somewhat underwhelming remarks: "The explicit stances of the Jewish community in supporting the Islamic Republic’s establishment and their obedience to the Supreme Leader of the Revolution demonstrate the bonds originating from the teachings of the divine religions." He went on to denounce the "violent and inhumane" behavior of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As my colleague Jason Rezaian reported last year, the country's Jewish community has benefited from the new administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who cut a more conciliatory figure compared to his predecessor, the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Rezaian, unfortunately, has been in Iranian detention for almost five months, arrested on unspecified charges.)

Last year, Rouhani was accompanied by Iran's sole Jewish parliamentarian on a trip to the United States. A Twitter account associated with him also offered wishes for the Jewish new year.

"We are not tenants in this country. We are Iranians, and we have been for 30 centuries,” Ciamak Morsadegh, the Iranian Jewish parliamentarian, told Rezaian last year.

"There is a distinction between us as Jews and Israel,” added a shopkeeper in the historic city of Isfahan. "We consider ourselves Iranian Jews, and it has nothing to do with Israel whatsoever. This is the country we love."