Behind the Headlines: Advocates for Iranian Jews Fear Policy Shift Under Republicans

Iranian and U.S. oil officials seem to be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect that a pair of oil men, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, will occupy the White House and end America’s long-standing oil sanctions against Iran.

But among American activists lobbying to free 10 Iranian Jews imprisoned for alleged espionage, opinion is divided as to whether a Republican administration would forsake their cause celebre for oil interests.

At the same time, some activists lament that as the “Iran 10″ judicial process drags on and hopes for their release grow dimmer, American Jewish leaders are preoccupied by the violence engulfing Israel and the Palestinians.

The 10 were convicted in July on various charges connected with spying for Israel.

Amid international pressure, an Iranian court reduced their sentences to terms ranging from two to nine years. They could have faced the death penalty; 17 other Jews have reportedly been executed in Iran for alleged spying since 1979.

Now undergoing a second appeal, the case is being reviewed by the Iranian prosecutor general. It is unclear when he will render a decision. He may let the ruling stand, order a retrial, or send it up to Iran’s Supreme Court.

One remaining option would be to appeal to Iran’s chief spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to pardon the prisoners.

With American Jewish leaders furiously defending Israel on several fronts — in Washington, at the United Nations, in the media — the Iranian case has clearly slipped down on the priority list.

“We’re stuck,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.

While he said he understands the attention among mainstream Jewish leaders on the situation in Israel, he feels that the lobbying efforts on behalf of the Iranian Jews has lost tremendous steam as a result.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations who has been a major advocate on the issue, said that despite the crisis roiling Israel, he continues to monitor events in Iran daily.

He said communication with the 27,000 or so Jews in Iran and other Iranian sources has worsened during the Mideast violence, Hoenlein said, as Tehran has ratcheted up its pro-Palestinian, anti-”Zionist enemy” vitriol.

The Jewish community of Shiraz, from which most of the 10 prisoners were arrested, is now “leaderless” and fearful of what may come next.

“Yeah, we know what kind of government we’re dealing with in Iran, but we and the families are not giving up hope,” Hoenlein said.

Likewise, oil folks are hopeful their lot will improve.

In a news report Dec. 5 from Tehran, Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Hossein Kazempour-Ardebili said removal of U.S. oil sanctions is “inevitable.”

Iran is reported to be OPEC’s second largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia, generating some 3.7 million barrels per day.

“Representatives from U.S. oil firms had informed Iran five months ahead of the U.S. presidential elections that in case of a Republican victory, the sanctions would be lifted swiftly,” Kazempour-Ardebili was quoted as saying.

The same day, in Houston, a top official at the Conoco oil firm, also expressed optimism that America’s oil policy vis-a-vis Iran and fellow rogue state Libya “will change in the next 12 months” — regardless of who becomes president.

Conoco, the fourth-largest U.S. oil company, heads a coalition of oil concerns that has reportedly lobbied Washington intensively to lift the sanctions.

American companies are banned from doing business in Iran because of its place on the State Department’s annual list of sponsors of terrorism.

In addition, a 1996 law, known as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, calls for punitive trade measures against foreign companies and countries that invest in Iran’s energy sector.

“We’re going to be there the day after sanctions are lifted in Iran and Libya,” Archie Dunham, Conoco’s chief executive, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

The coalition includes Halliburton, the company led by Dick Cheney until he was tapped as Bush’s vice presidential running mate. Cheney has, in the past, lobbied against sanctions, but said early during the campaign that he would accede to Bush on the issue.

The Clinton Administration has balanced criticism of Iran’s handling of the “Iran 10″ with its stated goal of rapprochement with Iran, apparently to reward its relatively moderate president, Mohammad Khatami.

This spring the administration lifted the ban on several Iranian luxury exports, like caviar, carpets and pistachios, angering advocates of the “Iran 10.”

President Clinton once reportedly described the “Iran 10″ case as “an irritant” that hamstrung his efforts at reconciliation with Iran.

Nevertheless, some observers predict a Bush administration would be less responsive to human rights concerns, and more eager to promote trade.

During the presidential campaign, both Bush, a former oil executive in Texas, and Al Gore proclaimed the fate of the 10 Jews as a “test” that would shape future U.S.-Iran relations. Cheney also announced he would cease his oil- related lobbying.

The Republican Party platform adopted in August does not specifically mention sanctions, but says that Iran’s record on terrorism and human rights, specifically the case of the Iranian Jews, “demonstrates that Tehran remains a dangerous threat to the United States and our interests in the region.”

Bush and his advisers were “clear and unambiguous during the campaign that they would maintain the sanctions against Iran, and they are suspicious of the Clinton administration’s statements about the `moderation’ of the Iranian government,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Indeed, Iran’s reported actions over the past two months could temper any notion that moderation is sweeping the country.

For example, the Iranian foreign minister was in Damascus, Syria, in October, reportedly exhorting leaders of Hamas and other terrorist groups to launch attacks within Israel. Hoenlein said Iran has also increased financial support to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite gunmen in south Lebanon.

If oil sanctions against Iran — a lever to exert diplomatic pressure — are lifted, Dayanim, the U.S. Iranian Jewish leader, said hopes for freeing the Iran 10 “are pretty much over.”

More optimistic was Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of a rival Los Angeles- based group, the American Iranian Jewish Federation.

He said he believes that “any American president would be sensitive to issues of human rights and minority rights.”

“I take him at his word, until it is proven otherwise,” he said of Bush. “If he becomes the president, we are going to ask him to keep his word.”

Hoenlein, too, doesn’t expect an about-face toward Iran.

Even if a Bush White House were oil-friendly, he said, Iran’s build-up of its missile and nuclear-weapons programs, and its sponsorship of terrorism – - combined with a divided U.S. Congress — “would all mitigate against a bold move to lift sanctions.”

Meanwhile, the 10 Iranian Jews, who are Orthodox, remain in prison and are “pretty much resigned to their fate,” Dayanim said.

In all, 13 Iranian Jews — religious leaders, shopkeepers, and a 16-year-old student — were arrested in January and March 1999.

They prisoners are permitted once-a-week visits from relatives and reportedly provided with kosher food, Dayanim said.

As for their families, some are said to be struggling financially with their primary breadwinner behind bars.

“We have made sure that they are taken care of,” Dayanim said.

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