Clinton reassures Iranian Jews’ families

NEW YORK, July 5 (JTA) — President Clinton has reassured American Jewish leaders and a handful of relatives of the 10 Iranian Jews convicted of spying for Israel that his administration will continue to push for their freedom.

The delegation discussed possible ways Wednesday of pressuring Iranian hard-liners in advance of the appeals process for the imprisoned Jews. No announcement has yet been made as to when the appeals will be heard.

The Iranian Jews were sentenced Saturday to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years. Three Jews were acquitted.

Two Muslim men were also convicted and sentenced to two years, while two other Muslim men were freed.

A 16-member delegation met for one hour at the White House with Clinton, along with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.

The group expressed its concern over the fate of the 10 imprisoned Jews, the condition of the remaining 25,000 Jews in Iran and possible sanctions.

Clinton “displayed real compassion and depth of knowledge of the issues,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which coordinated the visit.

“He said the sentences were unjust, and that he is committed to mobilizing international support to gain their release.”

The president was particularly interested in hearing from the seven Iranian visitors to the White House — from New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore — who are related to three of the Jewish prisoners, Hoenlein said.

The relatives “communicated their concerns for the individuals and for the rest of the community,” he said. They also told Clinton “how grateful they are for his ongoing support.”

Jewish leaders have proposed a range of sanctions against Iran, but Hoenlein declined to comment on what kinds were discussed at the White House meeting.

Most pressing is an effort to block the visit to Germany next week of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

These leaders and some members of Congress have also discussed repealing the recent easing of sanctions on Iranian luxury goods. In April, the United States rewarded the small strides made by Iranian reformers by permitting the import of caviar, dried fruit, pistachios and Persian carpets. At the same time, sanctions remained in place against Iran’s far more lucrative oil industry.

Jewish leaders said that sanctions are a delicate balancing act, fraught with the risk of unintended consequences.

While sanctions may provide an outlet for venting frustration with Iran, they say, there is also the specter of sanctions paradoxically helping Iranian hard-liners. They would presumably seize any action against Iran as a chance to whip up anti-American and anti-Israeli fervor within society.

Not only would this strengthen the hard-liners’ hand, but it might also debilitate their fledgling moderate opponents and make life even worse for ordinary Iranian Jews, as the community could be scapegoated for the sanctions.

However, the position of at least one Jewish lawmaker is clear.

“Reimposing this embargo is the most powerful message the U.S. can send because it shows not only that we are concerned about human rights, but that we are not willing to go forward and do business as usual,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told JTA this week.

“And that is a far more telling message than to say that we are concerned with human rights but to continue with the recent unilateral trade concessions, where we are letting their goods in, they of course don’t take any of ours, and they don’t change their behavior.”

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