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Release of Five Iranian Jews Clouded by Concerns over Future

February 21, 2003
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This week’s release from prison of five Iranian Jews resulted not from a change of heart by the regime in Tehran, observers say, but because of a political and economic calculation that requires a burnished national image.

And clouding the relief of their relatives and advocates is concern that these releases will never be permanent, that they may be rearrested at any time, or be subjected to other forms of harassment, at the whim of the authorities.

At the same time, U.S.-based advocates for the Jews are reminding the community that another 11 Iranian Jewish men remain unaccounted for after disappearing while allegedly trying to cross Iran’s border illegally in the early 1990s.

An array of factors seems to have ratcheted up the pressure on Iran to release the five, who had been imprisoned with eight others on charges of spying for Israel.

The “Iranian 13,” as they came to be known, became a cause celebre in the Jewish community and their plight was taken up by international diplomats after the 13 were arrested and imprisoned in January and March 1999.

Three were subsequently found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years.

Israel has steadfastly denied that the men were its spies.

The ongoing skirmishes between the hard-line clerics who run the country and their more moderate rivals likely played a role, as did pressure from the European Union, a major trading partner with Iran, which has cited human rights abuses as hindering expanded trade between the two, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

The release came on the heels of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Mecca, a traditional time for rulers to demonstrate magnanimity, Clawson noted.

“I’m sure the Iranians will try to take credit for this in their negotiations” with the European Union, Clawson said. “But that’s quite unwarranted; they made these people do hard time.

“It’s only magnanimous if you compare it to what the hard-line judiciary could have done.”

Numerous Iranian officials had threatened the Jews with execution, a penalty that Tehran has reportedly meted out to 17 Iranian Jews accused of espionage since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

While pressure from the Europeans and the United Nations over human rights may have played a role, so, too, might have Washington’s saber-rattling again Iraq, North Korea and the third member of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” Iran.

“I think Iran, after several years of not paying attention to international pressure, is now taking public steps to improve its image abroad because they may not want to be a target of the war on terrorism the U.S. has launched,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.

At the same time, Dayanim said, “This is not taking place in a vacuum; this is a little piece of a much larger picture.”

He noted, for example, that last week Iran lifted the death sentence on a leading dissident who’d publicly called for separation of mosque and state.

However, the Jewish release has not yet been announced by Iranian media, which some suspect means it is for foreign consumption only and to avoid riling domestic hard-liners.

Regardless of the speculation, “it’s hard to assess what motivates the Iranians in general,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which had lobbied on behalf of the Iranian Jews.

Likewise, U.S. advocates seem to have struggled for a sense as to when it was wise to publicly assail Iran in street demonstrations for its perceived show trial and forced confessions and when to settle for behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

“They follow everything we say closely and don’t want to appear to be succumbing to pressure,” said Hoenlein, adding that his group will now push the issue of the missing 11, whom witnesses have reportedly spotted on several occasions inside Iranian prisons.

“That’s why we admonished people about what public comments they made, and why people should still be circumspect about what they say.”

Of late, advocates had opted for diplomacy.

More moderate Iranian officials, Hoenlein said, “recognized it was an injustice that cost Iran heavily in its international image, but they were looking for a way out.”

The other five were released at various intervals, raising hopes that the last five might also gain their freedom.

They were released earlier this year for what has been called a “vacation,” only to be re-arrested this past weekend.

Then came Wednesday’s re-release.

It is still unclear whether the Iranians view the releases as permanent or parole — or if the Jews would be permitted to emigrate whether their relatives could join them or what persecution the family might face if they remained behind.

All of which underscores the precarious existence of the 20,000 to 25,000 Jews who remain in Iran, down from a peak of some 100,000 at the time of the revolution.

“At any moment, they may rearrest these people” if they see or read any critical statement by advocates, Dayanim said.

He said the Iranian authorities have made it clear that they can “use any excuse, any criticism that you make, and put these people back in jail. Which is why I have not criticized the government.

“I think the steps that they’ve taken are positive,” he said.

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