NEW YORK, Sept. 5 (JTA) — The waiting game continues in Iran, as the judiciary there has postponed at least for another week a decision in the appeals of 10 Iranian Jews convicted on charges of spying for Israel.
The delay is ostensibly because the three judges reviewing the appeals are divided on whether the charges the Jews were convicted of actually constituted a crime.
But few observers doubt that domestic Iranian politics are at play.
If anything, they say, the delay undermines the efforts by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami — on the eve of his address to the United Nations this week — to spruce up his image as a reformer and to bolster his claim that he, not the Islamic fundamentalists, is truly in control of his country.
The delay also did nothing to defuse a flurry of street protest and behind-the-scenes diplomacy that greeted Khatami as he and 150 other heads of state arrived in New York for the U.N. Millennium Summit.
Jewish groups sponsored two media events just blocks away from the United Nations, while an Iranian exile organization held a noisy anti-Khatami demonstration within earshot of visiting dignitaries from around the world.
“We cannot tolerate a situation where it is a crime simply for being Jewish,” said New York Gov. George Pataki, who headlined Tuesday’s first street event, sponsored jointly by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
A second event, held later, was organized by AMCHA — The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.
“Mr. Khatami, to you, your Parliament and your judiciary, human rights and dignity must be the right of every citizen,” Pataki said.
“You claim to be a reformer. Show it and release these 10.”
Convicted July 1, the 10 Jews have already served some 18 months in prison. Their sentences range from four to 13 years, but Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, says his sources indicate that several more may be released, with jail terms reduced for the rest.
But he wouldn’t bank on it.
As delaying the appeals decision demonstrates, said Hoenlein, “the only thing predictable about Iran is that nothing is predictable.”
Thus, the need to prod Khatami, both publicly and privately.
Hoenlein, who met with Iran’s Parliament speaker last week, still holds out hope that he will be able to plead his case directly to Khatami this week. There was talk of such a meeting on Monday at the United Nations, when Khatami spoke with a reportedly “pre-selected” gathering of Iranian emigres, including a few Jews.
From the Jewish side, Hoenlein conceded there was internal debate on whether a meeting with Khatami would somehow be manipulated by the Iranian media for domestic consumption. Hoenlein said a meeting would only take place if Jewish leaders were guaranteed their say. In the end, that point was moot because American Jewish leaders weren’t invited at all.
“We should meet with Khatami to send the right message that the appeals should succeed and security guaranteed for the entire Jewish community,” Hoenlein said at Tuesday’s media event
This and similar events have been staged outside Iran’s mission to the United Nations. But some wonder precisely what impact these events have, except to draw a hoard of media.
Soon after Pataki had left the event, more than a dozen speakers from across the political and religious spectrums followed him to the podium.
They firmly but politely intoned about human rights, the rule of law, sanctions against Iran and the country’s continued isolation from the world. Yet their voices rarely rose above the din of roaring buses and trucks nearby.
The glaring exception was Max Saatchi, an Iranian emigre who stood beside the podium and held high a placard of the 10 imprisoned Jews — sitting in the Iranian courtroom, heads bowed, in prison-issue grey flannel uniforms.
After each speaker, Saatchi, whose father is Jewish and mother Muslim and says 17 relatives have been executed for anti-regime activities, thrust in hand in the air and repeatedly shouted, “Terrorist Khatami out of U.N.!” or “No appeasement with mullahs!”
Before his arrival, Khatami had met with members of Iran’s Jewish community, which numbers 27,000 and is steadily shrinking; sent the Jewish member of parliament in Iran’s official delegation; and planned to host a “Dialogue on Civilizations” panel later this week.
Saatchi was unimpressed.
“Khatami is a terrorist, like the rest of them,” said Saatchi, a middle- aged man of medium height, dark features and a black moustache. “He’s a wolf, but they present him as a lamb.”
Saatchi blended in better at the protest of Iranians in exile, held an hour later. Billed as the largest-ever rally by Iranian Americans, several thousand marched through the streets, banging drums, chanting through bullhorns and waving the green, white and red flag of Iran.
The marchers settled into a designated area alongside anti-China protesters from Taiwan, who shouted and clanged cow bells in support of U.N. recognition. The Iranians quickly drowned out the Taiwanese.
The Iranians seemingly have been champing at the bit to vent at Khatami.
Last week, posters began appearing around the city, depicting Khatami “the terrorist” with fangs and bulging eyes. And this weekend, four Iranians were reportedly arrested in separate incidents for throwing yellow paint, at Khatami’s entourage and elsewhere. Yellow, said activists, is “the color of dismay, the color of disapproval.”
On the arrests and trial of the Jews, however, non-Jewish Iranian Americans have been notably silent.
In part, they say, it’s been due to a lack of organization and the fact the community has yet to find its political voice, like, say, the Cuban-exile community. One activist even says she was unaware of the rallies of American Jews.
Nevertheless, Tuesday may have marked a watershed moment. Several at the protest, organized by the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, spoke out about the trial, describing as a transparent attempt to frighten the masses and impose conformity on all Iranians.
They also noted Iran’s financial support and training for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Charges of espionage are a “typical punishment for those the regime wants to discredit,” said Mitra Bagheri, a member of the council’s foreign relations committee, who recently relocated from Paris to New York to help organize Iranians here.
“I don’t think people in Iran believe anything the government says, because it tells big lies, and the truth is always the other way around.”
Says Anahita Sami, 18, the move against Iran’s Jews is part and parcel of the campaign against all of Iran’s minorities.
“It’s so obvious the Jews were not guilty of anything,” said Sami, a student at George Washington University.
“This is happening to innocent Iranians all the time. They want to control people through the word of God, and to keep the pressure cooker from exploding by brainwashing them.”
Another activist cautioned Americans not to judge all Iranians by the current regime.
“One thing has to be made clear,” said Kasra Nejat, president of the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri.
“The Iranian government, the supreme leaders — the whole system is corrupt. It has nothing to do with the Iranian people. That’s why we’re here, because this government doesn’t represent real Iranians.”