NEW YORK, Feb. 22 (JTA) — American advocates for Iranian Jews welcomed the victory of reform candidates in Iran’s elections, but are uncertain whether it would lead to freedom for 13 Jews accused of espionage.
They caution that the judiciary is still controlled by the country’s hard- line clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the emergence of relatively moderate Parliament after last Friday’s vote removes the “excuses” Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had given for delaying the trial of the Jews.
Khatami “has a mandate now, and the way they handle the 13 is a test of his intent and of the kind of rule of law that they will implement,” Hoenlein said.
The elections were seen as a contest between forces aligned with hard- line Islamic clerics and those who want to see a loosening of strict enforcement of Islamic codes and an opening to the West. Many believe the arrest of the 13 Jews was part of that struggle.
The trial will test whether the relatively moderate forces truly support democracy and a civil society or if their professions of moderation are “just a facade through which they carry out the same policies with a more gentle face but the same consequences,” Hoenlein added.
One American analyst said the elections would influence Iran in the long term, but is skeptical that in the short term they would benefit the 13 Jews or have much impact on Iran’s policies toward West.
“The major levers of power — the armed forces, judiciary, electronic media, security and the main economic institutions — remain in the hands of the hard-liners,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.
He also noted that the Iranian view of reform and moderation may differ radically from the American perspective.
“What the sides are arguing about is the role of Islam, structures and personal freedom, but they’re not talking about foreign policy issues,” like weapons of mass destruction or sponsorship of international terrorism, he said.
Hoenlein said several unnamed foreign governments had agreed to contact the new members of Iran’s government to urge the release of the Jews.
The 13 Jews — religious and community leaders — were jailed in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz last spring. They have been accused, but never formally charged, of spying for Israel and the United States, accusations both countries vehemently deny.
Last month, shortly after Iranian authorities announced that a trial would be held soon, three Jews were released on bail. No date for the trial has been set. If convicted the Jews would face the death penalty.
Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the American Iranian Jewish Federation, said that over the long term, the election results will likely pave the way for “the implementation of the rule of law and civil society and much fairer justice system.”
But as for the issue of the 13 Jews awaiting trial, Kermanian said, “We hope that just as Iran had promised, they will make sure that all of the rights of the prisoners are preserved and that once the review of their case is complete, Iranian judicial officials will indeed come to the conclusion that they are all innocent and every one of them is released.”
Pooya Dayanim, a spokesman for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, said his group is “very happy” with the results of the elections and that “more moderate and reform-minded people who care about the rule of law and pay attention to world opinion are going to be in charge.”
But Dayanim recommended taking a “wait-and-see attitude” concerning the 13, whose fate will be determined by Iran’s judicial system.
Dayanim said he was also pleased by the fact that Jews would have a new Parliament member, Maurice Motamed. Only one Jew is allowed to sit on this 290-member governmental body.
Incumbent Manouchehr Eliasi had been viewed as ineffective, said Dayanim, noting that Eliasi had been silent on the issue of the 13 Jews until just before the election, when he announced that he’d been promised the Jews would be released, which Iranian judicial authorities promptly denied.
By contrast Motamed “is known for being a strong advocate of Jewish interests and doesn’t play around with words or endear himself to the Iranian regime,” said Dayanim.
Kermanian said he did not know if the plight of the 13 jailed Jews had been a central issue in the campaign for the Jewish seat in Parliament.
Ali Fallahian, a former Iranian intelligence minister who was responsible for the Jews’ arrest last year, was defeated in his bid for a Parliament seat.
The federation and council, both based in Los Angeles, which has the country’s largest concentration of Iranian Jews, have differed in their approach to the plight of the 13 accused of spying. The federation has advocated quiet diplomacy, while the council has called for international pressure on Iran.
Iranian Jews living in the United States have traditionally refrained from making public statements about the situation inside Iran for fear of endangering family and friends in the Islamic nation.