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A Call for Justice and Freedom

Jewish groups enlist the help of Jesse Jackson in trying to secure the release of 13 jailed Iranian Jews accused of spying. In L.A., anxious Iranian Jews organize to protest the arrests

by Tom Tugend

June 17, 1999 | 8:00 pm

A dramatic appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Los Angeles last week helped kick into high gear an international campaign to free 13 Iranian Jews who were arrested by Iranian authorities for alleged espionage, and who face possible execution.

In a news conference at Leo Baeck Temple last Friday, Jackson said that he is ready to fly to Tehran, if granted a visa by Iran, joined by members of the same ecumenical team that in May obtained the freedom of three American soldiers in Yugoslavia.

In related developments, political leaders in the United States, Israel, Germany and France sought to mobilize world opinion on behalf of the threatened prisoners. Efforts are also underway to enlist the support of Italy, Spain, Britain, Holland and other European Union countries, as well as the Vatican, Japan and Canada, and the United Nations.

In Washington, resolutions have been introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate that call on the Clinton administration and foreign governments to seek the release of the 13 prisoners and condemn Iran's treatment of its religious minorities.

The high-profile public actions follow months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, during which Jewish organizations sought to influence Tehran through quiet diplomacy.

The first arrests, of five, occurred in January, according to Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, who has been monitoring the situation from day one. In the second wave of arrests, Iranian security forces took another eight Jews into custody in late March, shortly before Passover.

The 13 range in age from 16 to 49 and were mainly residents of the southern city of Shiraz, while others were arrested in Tehran and Isfahan, said Kermanian.

During the first months of imprisonment, the Jews were not charged with any crimes, and some signals from Tehran indicated that they might be set free. Then early last week, in a confusing series of announcements and retractions, Iranian officials accused the 13 of spying for Israel and the United States, which "at certain instances provide for capital punishment," the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The espionage charges are ridiculous on the face of it, said Kermanian. "No one would recruit spies among a group [of Jews], who have high visibility and are constantly watched by the authorities," he said. In a country riddled with corruption, any nation hostile to Iran could have its pick of spies at $1,000 a month, he observed.

The 13 prisoners, including a 16-year-old boy arrested in his classroom, are mainly religious Jews, said Kermanian. They incurred the government's displeasure for such "crimes" as teaching Hebrew, printing the weekly Torah portion, holding religious classes, or requesting permission to close their businesses on Saturdays.

Following the March arrests, an informal consortium of American Jewish organizations began a quiet effort to mobilize their most influential contacts. Members included the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director.

Last week, after Iran announced the spy charges, consortium members decided to go public. Foxman contacted Jackson, who agreed to meet with the ADL leader and relatives of some of the prisoners in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 10. Foxman stressed the seriousness of the situation by noting that at least 17 Iranian Jews, including community leaders, have been executed in Iran since 1979.

At his news conference the following day, Jackson described the meeting with the relatives as "a deeply moving experience...as I watched bitter tears roll down their faces in anguish and pain and fear for their loved ones."

Jackson said that his first move would be to appeal to the religious authorities in Iran "to allow us to visit and gain the release of the 13 prisoners, and to appeal fervently that their lives be spared."

"I have seen some evidence that Iran is trying to rejoin the world. One expression would be to set the 13 Jews free," Jackson said.

"We as Americans and Jews believe it is imperative that Iran heed Jesse Jackson's plea," said ADL Western Regional Director David Lehrer.

Flanking Jackson during the news conference were two men who had accompanied him on the earlier mission to Belgrade -- Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and Dr. Nazir U. Khaja, national president of the American Muslim Council.

Khaja said that he has been in contact with Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform leader, and after receiving a full briefing, he intended to take up the fate of the 13 prisoners with the Iranian government.

One of the relatives who met with Jackson was Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose, whose 49-year-old brother, Nasser Levihaim, is the oldest among the prisoners. Javaherian said that her brother's family, with whom she talks daily by phone, was at first reluctant to even acknowledge that Levihaim had been arrested.

"I called them in Shiraz and asked to speak to Nasser, and his wife told me that he had gone to Tehran and would be back next week," said Javaherian. Only after the news of the arrests became public, did the wife confirm that Levihaim was in prison.

Again, last week, when the spy charges were announced, Javaherian called her family five times in one night.

"I was so scared, I was crying all the time," she said in a phone interview, trying hard to control her emotions.

She described her brother as the father of three sons, the youngest 18 months old, and manager of an electricity company in Shiraz. She speculated that the Iranian authorities might have gone after him because he frequently volunteered as a Sunday-school Hebrew teacher.

Levihaim's wife has not been allowed to see her husband since his arrest in March, but she can bring kosher food to the prison once a week, a process that involves signing four different papers. "We have no idea whether he's getting the food," said Javaherian.

Taking the lead in urging congressional action has been Sherman Oaks Democrat Brad Sherman, whose House resolution has now also been introduced in the upper chamber by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y).

Sherman said in a phone interview that one purpose of the resolution was to warn Iran that it would have to pay a price for its persecution of Jews, which would set back any attempts by Tehran to improve its ties with the West.

Since neither the United States nor Israel has diplomatic ties with Iran, it is particularly important that France, Germany and Japan, all major Iranian trading partners, exert pressure on the regime, Sherman noted.

He said that he was watching closely in which court the 13 Jews would be tried. "It could be a regular civilian court, a military court, or a Revolutionary Council court...but, unfortunately, the options here range from bad to awful."

Sherman has been inundated for months by letters and personal calls from Los Angeles' Iranian Jewish community, which is 30,000 strong. Most of the pressure has come from part of the community affiliated with the International Judea Foundation -- Siamak and the Eretz Cultural Center. These groups believe that the more establishment Iranian American Jewish Federation had been too cautious in its quiet diplomacy until last week.

Federation leader Kermanian acknowledged that there had been differences on tactics within the community, but that it was united in the goal of freeing the prisoners.

There remains some puzzlement among observers why Iran would arrest the Jews on trumped-up charges at a time when the government of President Mohammad Khatami has signaled a desire to improve relations with the West.

Kermanian and Sherman agreed that the seeming paradox lies in an internal power struggle between Iranian "moderates," led by Khatami, and fundamentalist hard-liners.

"There are conservative groups in Iran which advocate strict Orthodox Islamic values and see any contact with the West as threatening these values, and they try to sabotage Khatami's policies," Kermanian said.

It is the hard-liners who control the security apparatus, which arrested the Jews, as well as the judiciary, he noted.

In Tehran, the official radio charged that the 13 Jews were part of a "Zionist espionage ring" and accused the United States and Israel of trying to "sensationalize the scandal" and of interfering with Iran's internal affairs.



Get Involved

To get involved in helping the arrested Jews in Iran:

Contact the Committee for the Defense of Jewish Detainees in Iran, (310) 535-6610; or The Committee of Religious Minority Rights in Iran, at (818) 325-3848.

To register your concern on the situation, direct letters to His Excellency Kofi Anan, United Nations Secretariat, New York, NY 10017, or fax (212) 963-4879. Letters of support can be sent to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, 1317 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069.

In L.A., Cause for Alarm

By Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Among Los Angeles' estimated 30,000-strong Persian Jewish community, the arrest of 13 Jews in Iran is topic number one. "Everybody, everybody, is worried," says Frank Nikbakht, a local activist.

"People I know are quite shocked," says Elham Gheytanchi, a UCLA sociology doctorate candidate active with the Center for Iranian-Jewish Oral History (CIJOH). "My first reaction was that espionage is really bad because it leaves no ground to defend them no matter what the real charge is."

Homa Sarshar, CIJOH's founder and president, is also wary of the Iranian government's claim and motives.

"We have seen different tricks within the last year, and this is one of them," she says. She believes that the espionage charges are an excuse to condemn the captured to execution.

A member of the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran -- a small organization supported by the Council of Iran Jewish Organizations in California -- Nikbakht has been actively tracking the government-sponsored anti-Semitism that has intensified in Iran since 1998. In March, he detailed the extent of the tensions in an issue of Chashm Amdaaz, a local Iranian-Jewish publication. In his article, Nikbakht stated that the tactics employed not only approximate but incorporate 1930s Nazi propaganda.

Nikbakht has compiled virulent anti-Semitic writings and cartoons that have appeared regularly in the bimonthly Tehran journal, Sabh.

The Committee for Religious Minority Rights recently pushed for a resolution -- which Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., has introduced in the House -- condemning the arrests and demanding the Iranian-Jewish prisoners' release. Nikbakht is pleased with the State Department's response to the crisis so far and says that plans to address the situation are currently in the works. Sherman is scheduled to speak during Shabbat services at alocal Iranian synagogue.

Meanwhile, the Iranian-Jewish community is waiting to see the outcome of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's efforts.

"It's a tough call," says Gheytanchi. "Jesse Jackson had success in Yugoslavia in having those three [American soldiers] released, but Iran is a different matter."

Nevertheless, Nikbakht and Sarshar praise Jackson's efforts.

"Any action in this way is positive action. It would be welcome from my side. I hope he would be successful," says Sarshar, who adds, ominously, "I'm not very optimistic."

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