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Behind the Headlines: Warning to Iran’s Devout Jews Spiraled into a Power Struggle

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The case of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying — which burst into the headlines this week with news of the trial’s first “confession” — apparently originated as a power struggle within Iran’s Jewish community.

But it wasn’t long before the dispute was sucked into the greater drama that has convulsed Iran during the past few years — the pitched battle for supremacy between Iranian hard-liners and their reformist rivals.

And if history serves as a guide, presumably this won’t be the last time Iran’s 2,700-year-old Jewish community will be a pawn in the country’s political struggles.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 — even as Iranian Jewry has shriveled from 100,000 to some 25,000 — 17 Jews have been condemned to death, primarily for being accused spies, according to Jewish groups in the United States. Two Jews were executed in Tehran three years ago.

The next one sentenced to death could be Hamid “Dani” Tefileen.

After facing the Revolutionary Court on Monday, Tefileen, 29, was broadcast on Iranian state television confessing to having been trained in Israel by the Mossad, the foreign intelligence agency of the Jewish state.

But American Jewish observers, human rights groups and foreign diplomats denounced the hearings that began Monday as a political show trial. They assumed Tefileen, who said he had visited Israel, was coerced to confess.

For 16 months he had been in solitary confinement, with human contact limited mostly to his interrogators.

It is unclear whether Tefileen will be the fall guy, or if his confession is a harbinger for the entire group. A conviction could bring anything from six months in prison to a death sentence.

Tefileen, a clerk in his father’s shoe shop, is said to be a devoutly religious man, as are all the accused.

And that, in part, may have been what landed them in this predicament.

The steady emigration of Iranian Jews since 1979 has left a vacuum in leadership, as many top religious and community figures were among the emigres who headed to Israel and the United States.

The Jewish leadership was traditionally based in Tehran, the capital. Jews more or less have been allowed to maintain a communal life, as long as it was low key and it was not seen as a threat to the Islamic state.

Appeasing the authorities ensured a modicum of security, said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based American Iranian Jewish Federation.

However, recent years have seen Jews in the southern city of Shiraz — a bastion of religious conservatism in general — grow more committed and energetic in their religious life, Kermanian said.

Most Iranian Jews are Orthodox, but the Shiraz community appeared to be growing more fervent in its practices, which many young Jews in the region found appealing.

Because of that growing appeal, the Shiraz Jews soon became a source of irritation to the Iranian authorities, who presumably preferred dealing with the leadership in Tehran.

The Shiraz Jews allegedly ignored warnings from both government officials and Jewish leaders in Tehran to tone down and limit their activities, Kermanian said.

The arrests in January and March 1999 of 13 Jews — most of whom are from Shiraz — may have been meant to send a message.

Very little is known about the 13, but among them is the chief spiritual leader of Shiraz, several part-time Hebrew teachers, a university professor, a cemetery worker, an office clerk, a tailor and a 17-year-old student, according to sources in the United States.

“The Iranians implicitly mentioned that the arrests were related to the warnings,” said Kermanian. “They needed to make it clear to the people that they were serious — basically to punish them and scare them off — and that they were going to be released shortly.”

Other observers, however, suggest that the hard-liners — vying to maintain a grip on power in the wake of political victories by reformists — had already fingered the Jews as the engine to whip up Islamic fervor and undermine the liberalizing efforts of moderates like Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Jews are second only to Iran’s Baha’i minority as favorite targets of the authorities to rally the public against a common enemy, according to observers.

The intracommunal dispute “played some role at the beginning, but we shouldn’t exaggerate it or exonerate the Iranian authorities for pinning this on the Jews,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We heard early on they had targeted” the Jews for political purposes, Hoenlein said. “It fits the periodic pattern.

“The difference this time is that we found out about it in time and have been able to do something about it.”

Once the arrests became public, the situation was apparently exacerbated, say observers, with Iranian hard-liners becoming more adamant about punishing the “Iran 13.”

The situation prompted debates among advocates about whether public or private diplomacy would be more effective in securing their release.

“We gave the Iranians many opportunities to negotiate and it all came to naught,” said Hoenlein, who has been at the forefront of negotiations on the detainees’ behalf, working through his network of contacts in Iran, Europe and America.

Before launching the campaign to secure their release, Hoenlein said his organization conducted its own investigation into the spying charges. Consultations with officials from the CIA, the FBI and the Mossad confirmed that the allegations had been fabricated, he said.

Without the international intervention, he speculates that some or all of the Iran 13 might have been executed by now.

In addition to the international attention surrounding the current case, the other major difference from previous spying charges against Iranian Jews is the rising tension within Iranian society. Indeed, the handling of the Iran 13 speaks volumes about the current political climate.

The Muslim fundamentalists who control Iran’s judiciary are clearly out to sabotage the small steps taken by their reformist rivals to repair relations with the West, say U.S. observers. At this point, anything less than convictions of some or all of the “Zionist spies” would mean losing face among their followers.

More significantly, in the past two weeks the hard-liners have jailed six journalists and shut down 16 reform-minded newspapers that have registered support for Khatami. Among the stated reasons for the newspaper closures was their alleged sympathy for the 13 Jews.

In such an atmosphere, some wonder why any Iranian Jew remains wedded to the land.

Some suggest that everyone who remains has at least one or two relatives in the United States. However, while those who left generally had the financial means to do so, those who remain are said to be either too poor, too old, too complacent — or simply too stubborn to sever a long tradition.

While flowery reports often emerge from Iran on how happy Jews there are, they are vulnerable to more than spying charges. In December, the dead body of a 44- year-old Tehran Jew was discovered. His Muslim business partner, with whom the victim had had a conflict, had reported him to the authorities the previous day, said Hoenlein.

But espionage remains the most popular accusation to make against perceived enemies.

“We cannot go on the assumption this will not happen again,” said Kermanian. “As to why stay, that’s the million-dollar question for many Jewish communities around the world.

“I guess one answer is that Jews are eternal optimists,” he said. “Iranian history has had its ups and downs, and Jews went through it with them. They always survived. I don’t think there will ever be a time that Iran will be devoid of Jewish life.”

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