While Iranians Take to the Streets, Quiet Diplomacy for Jews Resumes

While Iranians are preoccupied with massive protests and counterdemonstrations in Tehran, the case of 13 Jews imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel may be on hold, say Iranian Jewish activists here.

Whether that bodes ill or well for the prisoners is an open question, interpreted in different ways by activists and relatives of the prisoners who are held in the southern city of Shiraz and face possible death sentences.

The protests have pushed the fate of the imprisoned Jews off Tehran’s priority list, said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.

“In a way, it’s better that this case is out of the news,” Kermanian said.

The lowered media profile may give advocates for the 13 Jews some added flexibility in dealing with the authorities, Kermanian believes.

This quiet diplomacy may have been successful, according to Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the rival Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles.

Dayanim said that just before the beginning of the student demonstrations last Thursday, he had been informed that three of the 13 prisoners — a 16-year-old boy and two religious leaders — would be released.

The information was conveyed, through a middleman, by one of the highest- ranking members of Iran’s hard-line judiciary, Dayanim said.

The Iranian official also indicated that if the “proper environment” was maintained, meaning no embarrassing public protests were held on behalf of the Jewish prisoners, additional prisoners would be released, Dayanim said.

Dayanim’s colleagues on the council tried to confirm the information by contacting Parviz Yeshaya, head of the Jewish community in Iran, but were told that due to the internal unrest, Yeshaya was unable to reach the relevant government officials.

Dayanim warned, however, that the situation in Iran is changing daily, and that because of the crackdown on the reform faction in Iran, the fate of the 13 could worsen.

“I’m worried that the people in power in Tehran may decide that the internal situation is so bad that international opinion no longer matters,” Dayanim said. “In that case, there might be a widespread crackdown, which could bode badly for the 13 Jews.”

Relatives of two of the prisoners were also pessimistic.

“Everything is getting more complicated and more tense and I doubt whether this turmoil is good for the Jews,” said Joseph Farzam of Los Angeles, whose 35- year-old cousin, Ramin Farzam, is one of the prisoners.

Although there has been confirmation that many of the prisoners have been allowed family visits and delivery of kosher food, Farzam said Ramin’s parents have not been permitted to see their son.

“The family is under tremendous pressure,” he added.

It’s a pressure also reflected by Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose, Calif., whose 49-year-old brother, Nasser Levihaim, is the oldest of the prisoners.

Javaherian was one of the first Iranian Jewish immigrants to work publicly for the prisoners’ release when she petitioned the Rev. Jesse Jackson to intervene.

But reached by phone, she described the situation in Iran as “not good” and declined further comment for fear of “making the situation worse.”

She did confirm that Levihaim’s family in Iran had been able to visit him in prison during the last few days.

In general, the Jewish community in Iran is caught between two battling factions, and the fate of the 13 prisoners may well depend on which one prevails in the end.

The hard-line side is led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who controls the judiciary, security forces, intelligence and national television and radio.

On the other side is President Mohammad Khatami, who has been trying to introduce some reforms and is largely backed by the student demonstrators.

Officially, at least, Iranian Jews are trying to stay out of the line of fire.

“This is an Iranian, not specifically Jewish, matter,” Kermanian said. “Obviously, individual Jews, like individual Iranians, have strong feelings, but they do not take a position as a community.”

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