The Iranian Mystery Man
Dr. Daniel Dana’s incredible journey from Muslim Shiite to proud Israeli citizen.
Daniel Dana’s office in Jerusalem has the feel of a museum – with hundreds of photographs and news clippings lining the walls, chronicling his 35 years of activism against the fanatical Islamic regime in Iran.
But that’s only part of the story. The twists and turns of Dr. Dana’s life – from practicing Muslim, to champion athlete, to military sharpshooter, to international fugitive, to Christian priest – rivals the plot of any best-selling novel.
But the most shocking twist of all was Dana’s more recent discovery of his Jewish roots.
Daniel Dana was born and raised as a Muslim Shiite named Jamshed Hassani. His family lived in the Sarhad district in northeast Iran. At school he would spend long hours becoming fluent in the Koran.
“Although my parents were generally pro-western and Iranian nationalist, I was more radical than the other kids,” Dana told Aish.com. “This is because my grandmother – my mother's mother – was an expert in the Koran and scrupulous in her observance of Shiite tradition. She was determined that I grow up to become an Ayatollah, a top-ranking clergy in Shiite Islam.”
Dana’s grandmother pushed him to undergo rigorous Islamic training, sitting with him for hours and correcting his reading of the Koran.
When Dana was 15, his grandmother died and her influence on him waned. At the same time he began studying Iranian history in high school. “I had questions and doubts about Islam,” he says. “The more I looked, the more I saw a contradiction between Shiite ideology and Iranian nationalism.”
“I was convinced that Khomeini’s regime would eventually destroy Iran. I had to stop them.”
Dana got into sports and became a champion boxer and gymnast. Through his athletic achievements, he became friendly with the Shah’s wife, the Queen of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. After his graduation from law school at Tehran University, the Queen advised Dana to go to Paris, earn his PhD, and come back to be her legal advisor in the royal court.
Dana got married, had a few kids, and at age 30 went to France. But his plans to work for the Queen never materialized.
It was 1978 and Iran was on the verge of a geo-political earthquake: the Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini had spent the previous 15 years in exile trying to overthrow the Shah, and he was now brought to Paris to consolidate political support and stage his revolution.
“At this point people didn't know much about Khomeini, other than his promise to ‘reform’ Iran from the Shah's policies,” says Dana. “Journalists, diplomats, everyone was fawning over Khomeini. He had the support of many Iranians, as well as European leaders. But I knew he would be a tragedy for Iran.”
Dana became an early, outspoken critic of Khomeini. On the first day that Khomeini arrived in France, Dana and 15 other Iranian graduate students went to see the Ayatollah in Neauphle-le-Château, outside of Paris. All the other students – including Dana’s wife who was in Paris studying for her Masters Degree in psychology – showered praise on Khomeini.
Dana, however, knew from his Shiite upbringing precisely what damage a fanatical Khomeini regime would do to the country. So at the meeting, he stood up and declared: "You are going to ruin our country. You will destroy our beloved history and culture. You are deceiving the Iranian people and the world. Evil liar!"
“Immediately Khomeini’s security guards pounced on me,” says Dana, “and the French police – who were outside guarding the compound – arrested me for insulting this so-called ‘holy man.’ They didn't know what Khomeini really stood for.”
After a short detention, Dana was released. But within months, Khomeini had arrived triumphantly in Iran to lead the Islamic revolution, welcomed by a joyous crowd of 5 million people.
“I was convinced that Khomeini’s regime would eventually destroy Iran. I had to stop them.”
Dana had spent 10 years in the Iranian army and police force, and was awarded medals for being the top sharpshooter. So he formulated a plot to assassinate Khomeini.
The Shah and his family had fled to Morocco, so Dana traveled there to share his plan with the Queen. “I told her that I was willing to go to Tehran and make my ideological contribution to saving the nation of Iran. I would put a bullet into Khomeini’s forehead – and stop the Islamic revolution at its inception.”
But the Queen discouraged Dana from doing so. So he moved on to plan-B.
Three Death Sentences
Dana returned to Paris where he joined other Iranian students in establishing Javan ("young"), the first paramilitary group opposing the Khomeini regime. They performed various secret operations – including the daring capture of an Iranian missile gunship.
Prior to the revolution, Iran had purchased dozens of warships from France, but not all had been delivered. So in 1981 Khomeini sent naval officers to bring the remaining ships to Iran.
It was the first time that a Western nation had agreed to transfer advanced weaponry to the Khomeini, and Dana’s group was determined to stop it. Working with the former chief of staff of the Iranian army, they developed a detailed plan to capture the warships en route back to Iran, then utilize pockets of resistance throughout Iran to launch a full-scale overthrow of the Islamic regime.
Disguised in Spanish police uniforms, Dana’s group successfully pulled off the raid in international waters – capturing one of the warships and holding the 31 Iranian naval personnel captive. But the larger-scale plan went awry: The activists manning the coordination center in Spain were arrested, and in the resulting communications breakdown the entire operation collapsed.
“At that point we had no choice but to go back to France, where French President François Mitterrand convinced us that our best move would be to release the boat and accept political asylum in France.”
Dana’s life had hit a dead-end. Though he had a PhD in international law from the University of Paris, he could not find work in France because he had been arrested multiple times by the French police for opposing the Iranian Islamic regime. In addition, his wife was a strong supporter of Khomeini, so his marriage was over and he became estranged from his two children.
On top of it all, Dana’s anti-Khomeini activities had earned him three separate death sentences by an Iranian Islamic tribunal.
Daniel Dana was a man without a country, a soldier without an army.
In March 1986, Dana went to the Iranian Embassy in Paris and told them that he wanted to be executed.
He recalls: “I was depressed and wanted to commit suicide. But being a tough guy, I didn't want to simply jump off a bridge or overdose on pills. I came up with at a novel approach: Since the Iranian Islamic tribunal had already pronounced three death sentences against me, I decided to go back to Iran, present myself to the authorities, and have them execute me. This way I could die on my beloved Iranian soil, while making a strong political statement at the same time.”
And so he did. In March 1986, Dana went to the Iranian Embassy in Paris and told them that he wanted to be executed. “They thought I was joking, but I was serious.”
The Iranian intelligence services interrogated him for endless hours, and eventually allowed him to travel to Iran. But there his plan was thwarted. “The Iranian authorities realized that executing me would be bad PR for the regime. So they decided instead to use me for propaganda purposes. They would pardon me and allow me to work as a lawyer in Iran – then hold me up as a symbol of the regime’s commitment to freedom and human rights.”
Dana became a practicing attorney and a Professor of Law at Azad University in Tehran. But in typically Dana style, life did not proceed quietly. Through his legal research, he discovered that high-ranking government officials had embezzled $370 million.
He took the information directly to the Iranian Minister of Justice – who promptly offered him a bribe to keep quiet.
“That has never been my style, so the next day I went public with the scandal. A week later I was in London for a conference, and received word from my law office: ‘Don't come back to Iran. It is too dangerous for you’."
Thus, in 1990, Dana became exiled a second time from Iran.
He traveled to Mumbai where he had some legal clients, and from there he settled in Australia where he had friends and was granted political asylum. He became involved in Christianity and studied theology for three years at the University of Melbourne, eventually ordained as an Anglican priest.
But Dana never let go of his activism against the Khomeini regime. During this time Salman Rushdie had written The Satanic Verses, a novel critical of Islam that became an international scandal when the Ayatollah sentenced him to death. Anyone associated with the book became a target of attack: The book’s Japanese translator was brutally stabbed to death, the Italian translator was seriously stabbed, and the publisher in Norway was shot three times in an attempted assassination.
“I am an idealist and this type of intimidation only increased my motivation,” he says. Dana translated the book from English into Persian – and was promptly censured by the Australian government for “inciting hatred” among the 300,000 Muslims living in Australia and the tens of millions more in nearby Indonesia and Malaysia.
In 1994, Dana was granted a research fellowship for two months at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While in Israel, the Australian government used the opportunity to cancel his “asylum status,” citing him as a security risk for provoking Islamic hatred.
This put Dana in real geo-political limbo – he could not travel to Iran, France, Australia or any other country for that matter. He had no choice but to remain in Israel.
In Israel he was introduced to Jews and Judaism for the first time. As he learned more, he rejected Christianity and came to conclusion that Torah is authentic. He soon met a Russian immigrant to Israel and got married.
Around this time Dana was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that is found predominantly in Middle Eastern Jews. “I started to think about the idea of Jewish blood in my veins,” he says.
Little did he know. In 2007 he traveled to the U.S. for a relative’s wedding. Also in attendance was his cousin, Dr. Miriam Dnada, the daughter of his uncle Musa, his mother's brother.
”Our real family name is Abayef, and we are Jews."
Miriam told Dana how, when her father [Dana’s uncle Musa] had died a few years earlier, he revealed in his final hours:
"When my own father [Dana’s grandfather] was on his deathbed, he told me a family secret: That we are really Jews,” Musa told Miriam. “And now, I am passing that secret along to you. Our real family name is Abayef, and we are Jews."
Upon hearing the shocking news, Dana suddenly understood why his grandmother always insisted on not eating meat with milk. And thus began his quest to unravel the mystery of his family history.
Two centuries ago, Dana’s ancestors lived in Mashad, in the northeast corner of Iran. It is a Muslim stronghold, attracting 20 million Muslim pilgrims every year, who come to worship at the shrine of the Imam Reza. In 1839 a terrible pogrom called for the forced conversion of Jews to Islam. Many lived dual lives as crypto-Jews, but Dana’s ancestors fled to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, where they were able to practice Judaism openly.
Fast-forward to 1925, when the Reza Shah (the father of the noted Shah of Iran) rose to power and instituted freedom of religion in Iran.
“My grandparents were unhappy with the recent Communist takeover, so in 1927 they moved back across the border into northwest Iran,” says Dana. “But they feared another pogrom and made a conscious decision to keep their Jewishness a secret. So they changed their last name and pretended to be Shiite Muslims.”
At the time, Dana’s mother was age 3 and had no inkling of the family’s Jewish roots. But her brother Musa was 8, and the family secret was entrusted to him – only to be revealed decades later, on his deathbed, to his daughter Miriam.
“Now I understand why my grandmother pushed me so much to become an Ayatollah,” says Dana. “She bent over backwards and made every effort to prove herself as a good Muslim, to drive out our Jewish roots.”
Now approaching age 70, Dr. Dana has no thoughts of slowing down. He continues to work as a political activist, helping to organize various plans to bring about regime change in Iran.
He is also a prolific author, having written dozens of books and scholarly papers. One book, an autobiographical novel entitled "Three Ropes Hanging," tells the fascinating story of his uncompromising war against the Shiite regime and the death sentences against him. Another book, "Abayef – A Bridge Builder Between Faiths" is the stirring saga of his journey through various religions before learning of his Jewish ancestry.
But his favorite topic these days is promoting the socio-historic ties between Iran and Israel.
“This connection goes back 2,700 years, longer than relations between any two countries anywhere,” says Dana, referring to the era of Persian King Cyrus (6th century BCE), who allowed the exiled Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. “Today all we hear coming out of Iran is Holocaust denial and threats to annihilate Israel with nuclear weapons. But this is a grave distortion. Historically, Iran and Israel are twin sisters – symbols of advanced culture, while rooted in the warm Eastern mentality.”
Dana says it is only a matter of time before the Islamic regime falls. “This evil dragon is opposed by the vast majority of the Iranian population,” he says. “It will fall and be replaced by a moderate, rational Iranian leadership. That’s why it is crucial to cement the foundations for strong bilateral relations between Iran and Israel as soon as possible.”
As for his Jewish origins, Dana says: “I still have many relatives in Mashad, but I have no contact with them. Politically it would be too dangerous for them. I shudder to think that they – like me for so many years – remain unaware of their Jewish roots.”
Dana is philosophical about his years of wandering and adventure. “It is clear that this roundabout route – from Iran to France to Australia and finally to Israel – was God’s way of sending me home, to discover who I really am.”