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Iranian Jews charged with spying amid stepped-up efforts for release

NEW YORK, June 8 (JTA) — Israeli officials are refusing to comment on reports from Tehran that 13 Iranian Jews have been charged with spying for Israel and the United States. The officials expressed concern that any reaction from them could harm the detainees, who have been held since March. By contrast, the United States government this week criticized the arrests, saying they “send a very disturbing signal.” Iran’s state-run radio broadcast the news Monday, according to a report by the Associated Press quoting the British Broadcasting Company. Meir Izri, a former Israeli ambassador to Iran, said the fact that the arrests were publicized in Tehran provides hope that the detainees would not be maltreated. Those arrested include rabbis, teachers and leaders of the Jewish communities of Isfahan and Shiraz in southwestern Iran. The 13 “were accused of spying for the ‘Zionist regime’ and ‘world arrogance,’ references to Israel and the United States respectively,” the AP report says. The announcement of the charges has lent urgency to a situation that Jewish groups have been monitoring for several months. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the espionage charges “outrageous and baseless.” In an interview, he said much has been done during the past 10 weeks to press the Iranian government to release the detainees. “We’ve had intercessions by every government, by every person possible,” said Hoenlein, whose organization represents 55 Jewish groups. Advocates had worked with the utmost discretion in the hope that such cover would give Iran the “chance to back off.” “We received assurances all along” that the Iranian government would “take certain steps” and that “people would be released,” Hoenlein said. “They promised all along different things, none of which have come to fruition.” The “high-level intercessions” also included representatives of the United Nations, human rights groups, Jewish organizations, humanitarian agencies and business people with interests in the region, Hoenlein said, without elaborating. The Iranian Jewish community in the United States has also been involved, he said. Now, he said, those involved are preparing to “go all out to respond to what’s happening.” For the first time, on the record, the United States government on Tuesday criticized the arrests, saying they “send a very disturbing signal.” Testifying before the House International Relations Committee, Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, called on Iran “to ensure that no harm comes to these individuals and to release them immediately.” All three members of the committee who offered opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing on developments in the Middle East, also raised the plight of those under arrest. This arrest “is certainly not conducive to Iran changing its image in the West,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). “Phony charges against innocent civilians is not a good way for the Iranian government to attempt to reintegrate itself into the civilized world community,” said Lantos, who has frequently expressed a desire to travel to Iran. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), and the ranking minority member, Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), both expressed serious concern. Espionage is punishable by death in Iran, the AP report said, noting that in 1997 Iran hanged two people convicted of spying for Israel and America. Although the Iranian radio report apparently did not specify the suspects’ religion or nationality, Hoenlein said there could be no doubt that the arrests were directed against “only Jews. They have not arrested anybody else.” Following a conference call Monday night, Hoenlein and Ronald Lauder, the newly installed chairman of the Presidents Conference, issued a statement in which they asked for a redoubling of all efforts on behalf of the Iranian Jews. “We call upon all civilized nations to intervene with the government of Iran to put an end to this injustice,” the statement said. “Iran cannot purport to be moving towards a more moderate stance while continuing such inhumane practices.” Some sources had earlier suggested that an internal dispute among Jewish communities in Iran triggered the arrests. Hoenlein said specific details remain unclear, but he believed that an internal dispute “doesn’t appear to be the issue, even though it might have been at some point or for some people. “Once you’re charged with espionage, everything else pales in comparison.”