Advocates for Iranian Jews won’t give up

NEW YORK, Sept. 21 (JTA) — Iran appears to have made a concession by reducing jail time for the “Iran 10,” but American Jewish advocates insist it’s not nearly enough.

Decrying the “justice denied” in the appeals verdict announced in Iran on Thursday, activists vowed that the fate of the prisoners will not be swept aside in favor of ongoing rapprochement between Iran and America.

In a mostly symbolic gesture in March, Washington had lifted the embargo on Iranian caviar, pistachios and Persian carpets.

Most recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was granted a visa to visit the United States. He spoke Thursday at UCLA, while protesters planned to voice their outrage outside.

“I think what the Iranian judiciary is trying to do by first not sentencing the Jews to death, then by commuting the sentences, is to slowly move this case from the international community’s radar screen. They won’t succeed,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.

“In our private conversations with the State Department and other representatives, despite all the gestures being made to Iran, this issue will be brought up time and time again in constructive dialogue with the Iranians until this case is resolved.”

For its part, the United States said it was “disappointed” that Iran did not “overturn all of the convictions that were imposed on the 10.”

On Thursday, Iran’s appeals court did not actually reduce the sentences, but merely changed the way they were meted out, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

This was precisely what American Jewish advocates had predicted beforehand, based on their sources within Iran. Rumors of a possible retrial, however, never materialized.

The 10 Iranian Jews were convicted July 1 on various charges, including spying for Israel, and sentenced to terms ranging from four to 13 years. By comparison, Iran convicted 10 Iraqis earlier this month for allegedly spying for Baghdad. They were sentenced to three to 30 months behind bars.

This appeals decision reduces the jail time of the most severely punished, Hamid Tefileen, from 13 to nine years, and the shortest sentence, for Ramin Nemati Zadeh, from four years to two years.

An Iranian judiciary official said time served would be included in the sentences.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Hoenlein, “but not a concession. We will continue to press for their release.”

“I’ve already spoken with high-ranking officials” in Washington, Hoenlein said, “who feel this is absolutely unacceptable. They feel very strongly about it, that any measures” toward detente “will have to be reconsidered.”

The next step, he said, is to appeal to either the Iranian Supreme Court, or to appeal to Iran’s chief spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or to President Mohammad Khatami, to intervene directly and pardon the prisoners.

There is also hope the hard-line judiciary will abide by Iranian law, which Hoenlein said states that prisoners may be released after serving 30 percent of their terms. The Jews have already served 19 months. That would mean Zadeh could soon be released, and Tefileen possibly within two years.

Whether they will bend any further seems doubtful.

According to numerous sources, scores of world leaders who gathered at the U.N. Millennium Summit earlier this month gave the Iranian delegation an earful about their treatment of the Jews.

Then on Tuesday came a bombshell from the lead attorney for the “Iran 10,” Ismail Nasseri, who is himself a former judge of the hard-line Revolutionary Court and was appointed by the state to handle the case of the Jews.

Nasseri told French media that Iranian officials had told him in the past month that unless he worked against the Jews, the state would revoke his license to practice, accuse him of espionage — or even have him killed.

After the appeals verdict was announced, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, Hossein Ali Amiri, was quoted as saying, “These sentences are the least possible sentences, and we have used the ultimate of Islamic kindness and generosity. According to the law, these charges could have brought execution.”

Serving as backdrop to all this is the ongoing power struggle between the Iranian fundamentalists and reformists, led by Khatami.

Khatami was elected in 1997, promising some liberalization and warming relations with the United States.

But the fundamentalists clerics in charge may have seized on a shrewd idea, said Iran-watchers.

After cracking down on a dispute between rival Jewish factions in early 1999 and arresting the 13 religious Jews, the hard-liners perhaps calculated that an open threat to Iran’s 27,000 Jews would set off a chain reaction: Irate American Jews would demand action in Washington, which would sabotage the fledgling rapprochement with Tehran and undermine Khatami.

Isolation, analysts note, benefits the Islamic regime: Hard-liners rail against a Western world conspiring against Iran, in hopes of distracting Iran’s increasingly impoverished masses.

So, in the spring of 1999, the judiciary accused the 13 Jews of spying for arch-foe Israel — an alarming situation considering Iran had already executed 17 Jews on similar charges since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

If there indeed was some sort of script, it may be working more or less according to plan.

As the neo-Stalinist show trial unfolded this spring — complete with “confessions” by some of the Jews broadcast on state television — American Jewish politicians and activists negotiated behind the scenes and occasionally took to the streets. On July 1, the 10 Jew were convicted, and three Jews acquitted.

The modest reduction announced Thursday is still not good enough, said Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns — AMCHA.

“If it’s nine years, it’s nine years too much; if it’s two years, it’s two years too much,” said Weiss, who in recent months has led the more boisterous of street demonstrations on behalf of the 10.

“It’s a farce. A classic move of those who use suppression is you do something outrageous, you back off ever so slightly, and everyone applauds you, then forgets the outrage is still in place.”

Weiss says he will not only organize another demonstration for Sunday, in front of the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York, but is also considering protests in front of the U.S. mission.

In criticizing other American Jewish leaders, Weiss said, “We’ve made a great mistake by not pressuring our government enough, by not galvanizing the community and demanding that there be a linkage between human rights and Iran’s relations with the West.”

“There’s great concern that with this reduction, Washington will see this as a green light for business as usual.”

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