Behind the Headlines: Families Fear for Iranian Prisoners; World Pressures Tehran for Release
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Behind the Headlines: Families Fear for Iranian Prisoners; World Pressures Tehran for Release

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Amid an international effort to secure the release of 13 Iranian Jews who face possible execution, U.S. relatives of the accused spies are publicly expressing fears for the lives of their loved ones.

Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose, Calif., is the sister of Nasser Levihaim, 49, the oldest among the prisoners. She said that her brother’s family was at first reluctant to even acknowledge that Levihaim had been arrested. Iranian Jews have traditionally refrained from making public statements about their situation for fear of reprisals.

When the charges were announced, Javaherian called her family five times in one night.

“I was so scared, I was crying all the time,” she said in a phone interview, trying hard to control her emotions.

She said her brother is the father of three sons, the youngest 18 months old, and a manager of an electric company in Shiraz. She speculated that the Iranian authorities might have gone after him because he frequently volunteered as a Hebrew teacher.

Levihaim’s wife has not been allowed to see her husband since his arrest in March, but she can bring kosher food to the prison once a week, a process that involves signing four different papers. “We have no idea whether he’s getting the food,” Javaherian said.

Javaherian was one of the relatives who met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who declared his readiness to fly to Tehran together with the same ecumenical team that earlier obtained the freedom of three American soldiers held in Yugoslavia.

Political leaders in the United States, Israel, Germany and France sought to mobilize world opinion on behalf of the threatened prisoners. Efforts are also under way to enlist the support of Italy, Spain, Britain, Holland and other European Union countries, as well as the United Nations, the Vatican, Japan and Canada.

In Washington, resolutions have been introduced in the House and Senate calling on the Clinton administration and foreign governments to seek the release of the 13 Jews and condemning Iran’s treatment of its religious minorities.

While the world outcry continues, many observers are puzzled why Iran would arrest the Jews during a time when the government of President Mohammad Khatami has signaled a desire to improve relations with the West.

Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles said the answer lies in an internal power struggle between Iranian moderates, led by Khatami, and fundamentalist hard-liners.

“There are conservative groups in Iran which advocate strict Orthodox Islamic values and see any contact with the West as threatening these values, and they try to sabotage Khatami’s policies,” Kermanian said.

It is the hard-liners who control the security apparatus, which arrested the Jews, as well as the judiciary, he noted.

The high-profile public actions follow months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering during which Jewish organizations sought to influence Tehran through quiet diplomacy.

The first batch of five Jews was arrested in January, Kermanian said.

In the second wave of arrests, Iranian security forces took another eight Jews into custody in late March, shortly before Passover.

The 13 Jews range in age from 16 to 49 and were mainly residents of the southern city of Shiraz, while others were arrested in Tehran and Isfahan, Kermanian said.

During the first months of imprisonment, the Jews were not charged with any crimes, and some signals from Tehran indicated that they might be set free.

Then early last week, in a confusing series of announcements and retractions, Iranian officials accused the 13 of spying for Israel and the United States, which “at certain instances provide for capital punishment,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The espionage charges are ridiculous, said Kermanian. “No one would recruit spies among a group (of Jews) who have high visibility and are constantly watched by the authorities,” he said.

In a country riddled with corruption, any nation hostile to Iran could have its pick of spies at $1,000 a month, he added.

The 13 prisoners, including a 16-year old boy arrested in his classroom, are mainly religious Jews, Kermanian said. They incurred the government’s displeasure for such “crimes” as teaching Hebrew, holding religious classes and requesting permission to close their businesses on Saturdays.

Following the March arrests, an informal consortium of American Jewish organizations began a quiet effort to mobilize their most influential contacts.

Members included the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti- Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

Last week, after Iran announced the spy charges, consortium members decided to go public. Foxman contacted Jackson, who agreed to meet with the ADL leader and relatives of some of the prisoners in Los Angeles on Thursday. Among some 50,000 Iranian Jews in the United States, Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration, with 30,000.

Foxman stressed the seriousness of the situation by noting that at least 17 Iranian Jews, including community leaders, have been executed in Iran since 1979.

In a news conference in Los Angeles on the following day, Jackson described the meeting with the relatives as “a deeply moving experience.

“I watched bitter tears roll down their faces in anguish and pain and fear for their loved ones.”

Jackson said his first move would be to appeal to the religious authorities in Iran “to allow us to visit and gain the release of the 13 prisoners, and to appeal fervently that their lives be spared.

“I have seen some evidence that Iran is trying to rejoin the world. One expression would be to set the 13 Jews free,” Jackson said.

Jackson was expected to repeat his message in a meeting with prominent rabbis in New York on Sunday.

Flanking Jackson during the news conference were two men who had accompanied him on the earlier mission to Belgrade, Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Los Angeles and Dr. Nazir Khaja, national president of the American Muslim Council.

Khaja said he has been in contact with Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and after receiving a full briefing he intended to take up the fate of the 13 prisoners with the Iranian government.

Taking the lead in urging congressional action has been Rep. Brad Sherman (D- Calif.), whose House resolution has now also been introduced in the upper chamber by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sherman said in a phone interview that one purpose of the resolution was to warn Iran that its persecution of Jews would set back any attempts by Tehran to improve ties with the West.

Since neither the United States nor Israel has diplomatic ties with Iran, it is particularly important that France, Germany and Japan, Iran’s major trading partners, exert pressure on the regime, Sherman noted.

He said he was watching closely in which court the 13 Jews would be tried. “It could be a regular civilian court, a military court, or a Revolutionary Council court.

“But unfortunately the options here range from bad to awful.”

Sherman has been inundated for months with letters and personal calls from the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles.

Most of the pressure has come from part of the community affiliated with the International Judea Foundation — Siamak and the Eretz Cultural Center. These groups believe that the more-establishment Iranian American Jewish Federation had been too cautious in its quiet diplomacy until last week, when the spy charges were announced.

Federation leader Kermanian acknowledged that there had been differences on tactics within the community, but that it was united in the goal of freeing the prisoners.

In Tehran, the official radio charged that the 13 Jews were part of a “Zionist espionage ring” and accused the United States and Israel of trying to “sensationalize the scandal” and of interfering with Iran’s internal affairs.

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