Bahai News - West watches Iran's closed-door trial of Jews
MONDAY, MAY 1, 2000
West watches Iran's closed-door trial of Jews
Iran's Jewish people - who've prospered under 20 years of Islamic
rule - are worried over spy trial that resumes today.
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
On the streets, Iran's minority Jews look like anyone else in the Islamic
But when the congregants enter a heavily fortified gray and brick building
off Palestine Street, the men quietly pull folded black yarmulkes from their
pockets, fit them to their heads, and offer prayers along with their
families in a top-floor synagogue.
Jews have been in Iran since they were freed from slavery in the 6th
century BC, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. At 30,000-strong
today, they are the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside
Israel. They are a legal minority, whose fortunes have largely improved in
the 20 years since the Islamic Revolution.
But the trial of 13 Jews accused of spying for Iran's archfoes - Israel
and the United States - has sent a chill wind through the community. The
trial resumes today in Shiraz, Iran, and if the accused are found guilty,
the case could torpedo Iran's improving relations with the West. There is
also growing concern that the fate of the Jews now facing possible death
sentences is caught up in the intense political power struggle between
hard-line clerics and reformists.
A guilty verdict at the closed-door trail by the conservative-controlled
Revolutionary Court could deeply undermine President Mohamad Khatami's
détente policy with the West, analysts say. That in turn could
harm his reform plans at home.
Jews here are eager to say that they are Iranians first, and love
their country. On the record, Jewish leaders say that little has changed
in the 15 months since the Jews - along with eight Muslims who have
never been identified - were arrested. Three of the Jews have been
released on bail.
But during a prayer service this weekend at the end of Passover, one
man took a visitor aside in the synagogue and confided that "most people
are in denial. There is a real terror in their heart. They are afraid,
because of these 13 people. We know them. They are all innocent."
Iranian authorities have sent mixed messages: a former chief justice
made a guilty pronouncement last year, while subsequent signals,
however, indicate that some officials are hoping for a face-saving way
out. Judge Sadeq Nourani, who is overseeing the trial, made an emotional
visit to the prison, and handed out Passover presents to the
"The fate of these 13 people is no longer the heart of the game,"
says a senior Western diplomat. "The president, his foreign affairs
ministry, and a clever elite understand that the risk [of a guilty
verdict] is very heavy for the country itself.
"On the other hand, it is a very good opportunity for the
conservatives to torpedo Khatami's détente policy with the West,"
Western scrutiny and criticism of the case - spearheaded by Jewish
groups abroad - has been sometimes counter-productive to Iranian Jews,
by confirming for hard-liners that the community has especially close
ties to Israel and the US.
Evidence against the 13 - among them a rabbi, professionals, and a
17-year-old student - reportedly includes exchanging e-mails with
Israel, and making visits to the Jewish state while abroad, both illegal
in Iran. Many have relatives in Israel and the US.
"It is not right to say that we are in prison in Iran. The only point
is that we can't go to Israel," says Hooshang Eliassian, a Jewish
spokesman. "We are free - marriage, schools, and rituals are all
according to our custom. Iranian law is for us just as it is for
Muslims. There is no problem for us in Iran. It is ungrateful to say
Still, the usual annual exodus of 500 to 600 Jews from Iran has
increased since the Shiraz arrests were announced. At first, authorities
leveled several lesser charges, but months later brought the espionage
charges - causing alarm among human rights groups about a political
Support from Iranian Jews abroad has been welcome, says Manouchehr
Eliassi, Iran's single Jewish member of parliament. But "Zionist groups
connected with the US" have "taken advantage of the issue to blame the
Islamic Republic of Iran, which is against our interests. This is
internal, and will be solved."
"It is my belief that the authorities and even the judicial
authorities are looking at this with an open mind," he says. "It's a
national issue now. Many Iranians know about this and are supporting us.
We are not alone."
Iranian analysts now speak optimistically that the Jews will
eventually be released. "Not even the conservatives want to risk
completely cutting off Iran from the West again," says one reformist
editor, whose paper was banned last week.
Pressure from outside has been strong: "Do not underestimate the
importance of this in Western capitals," says a European diplomat. "If
they were to be executed, it would have a serious, serious impact on
Iran's relations with the West. There has been some backtracking, but
some people want them [executed] to derail Khatami's plans."
Tough criticism from dozens of countries and human rights groups -
including Russia, which is often an Iran ally - has revealed a double
standard, some here say. The unrecognized Baha'i minority has been
persecuted for years, causing little fuss.
"There are thousands of political prisoners in Iran, and dozens of
people are executed every year," notes one diplomat, saying that Jewish
interest groups abroad have made Iran an issue in Jewish capitals.
"When you are close to God, there is a calm, and that is where we are
now," says Jewish farmer Cyrus in the Tehran synagogue. As for the
Shiraz group, he says: "If they are guilty, they will be sentenced. If
not, they will be freed. It's up to the legal system."
Contrary to popular perception, the religious roots of the 1979
Islamic Revolution helped invigorate Jewish faith in Iran.
"In these 20 years, people have come more religious, especially young
people: It has been like an atomic bomb that changed the entire
atmosphere," says Mr. Eliassian.
Some have compared last week's Passover - which commemorates Moses
leading the Israelites from Egypt - to Iran's case. But Iranian Jews
reject that analogy as "unacceptable."
"The Israelites were a tribe from outside that had gone to Egypt,
were enslaved, and Moses saved them," points out Mr. Eliassi, the
parliamentarian. "We are and always have been Iranians - that is the
©Copyright 2000, The Christian Science Monitor
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