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

NEW YORK, June 8 (JTA) —Israel and the United States have strongly condemned the Iranian government for charging 13 Iranian Jews with spying for America and the Jewish state. Israel called for the immediate release of the detainees, and the United States criticized the arrests, saying, “They are a very disturbing signal.” Iran’s state-run radio broadcast a report of the charges Monday, according to a report by the Associated Press quoting the British Broadcasting Company. 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. 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. Israel’s Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday met briefly with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the arrests. Annan has made “numerous approaches on behalf of these people,” according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has been involved in the issue since the Jews were arrested in March. In New York on a personal visit, Sharon on Tuesday “declared that none of the arrested men was involved in espionage and that none of them has, or has had in the past, any connection with any Israeli intelligence agency,” according to a statement from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Israel is worried about these arrests which have occurred only because they are Jewish. Israel is deeply concerned about their fate and demands their immediate release,” the statement said. The detainees — who are believed to include rabbis, teachers and leaders of the Isfahan and Shiraz communities in southwestern Iran — had been held for nearly three months without being charged. 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 announcement of the charges has lent urgency to a situation that Jewish groups have been monitoring for several months. Hoenlein of the Presidents Conference said much has been done during the past 10 weeks to press the Iranian government to release the detainees. Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference, whose organization represents 55 Jewish groups, had been working with various governments around the world to help secure the Jews’ release. In addition to Annan, other representatives of the United Nations, human rights groups, Jewish organizations, humanitarian agencies and business people with interests in the region have been involved in the issue, Hoenlein said. The Iranian Jewish community in the United States has also been involved, he said. 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.” Now, he said, those involved are preparing to “go all out to respond to what’s happening.” 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.” (JTA correspondent Matthew Dorf in Washington contributed to this report.)