NEW YORK, Nov. 23 (JTA) — The chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Court has reportedly said that some of the 13 Iranian Jews arrested for espionage might be freed if it is in Iran’s national interests.
Gholamhossein Rahbarpour said such a decision would be made by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and would have “nothing to do with the court,” according to a news report.
Jewish advocates for the Iranian Jews expressed cautious optimism over the statements, saying this is the first time an Iranian authority has suggested political implications for the issue.
In recent months, Iran has come under pressure from Western governments and human rights groups that have repeatedly raised the fate of the 13 Jews in statements and meetings with Iranian officials.
Many observers believe that the arrests and accusations are part of a power struggle between conservative hard-liners and President Mohammad Khatami, who has made overtures to the West.
The Jews being held in the Shiraz jail are religious and community leaders and include one 16-year-old boy. Arrested in March, they are being detained for spying for Israel.
Espionage is punishable by execution in Iran.
Both Israel and the United States have vehemently denied the charges. The Reuters report Tuesday, quoting Iranian newspapers, said that Rahbarpour compared the current arrests with the Iranian hostage crisis, during which American diplomats were held for 444 days in the U.S. Embassy and released in January 1981.
The Jews “are not more important than the American spies,” who were detained and then released, Rahbarpour reportedly said.
“Of course, it is possible the same thing will happen for these Jews, or the situation could change and their conditions may turn out worse than the American spies,” he is quoted as saying.
Still American Jewish advocates for the prisoners discern in the statement a flicker of hope.
“To the extent that it indicates that the judiciary would be flexible in looking at the issue, we welcome it,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the American Iranian Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.
This is the first time, Kermanian said, that the arrests have been raised publicly not only as a judicial issue, but one with political implications.
Until now, Iranian officials have contended that the arrests are an internal matter. Officials have denied any religious motivation for the arrests, saying that Muslims were arrested together with the Jews.
Earlier this year, Rahbarpour reportedly said the court had strong evidence against the accused.
So far, none have been formally charged, and no trial has been announced, but American Jewish advocates, while hoping for their release, are also working on various levels to try to ensure that the prisoners receive a fair trial.
“This is a significant statement from an important personality,” the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said of the reports out of Tehran.
“We hope that this will be reflected in action not for some of the 13, but for all,” Malcolm Hoenlein said.