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Iranian Jewish Prisoners ‘On Hold’

Internal unrest has pushed the fate of 13 imprisoned Jews off Tehran's priority list

by Tom Tugend

July 22, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Iranian authorities, preoccupied with large-scale internal unrest, have put the case of 13 Jews arrested as "Zionist spies" on hold.

Whether that bodes ill or well for the prisoners is an open question, interpreted in different ways by activists in the large Iranian-Jewish community in Los Angeles and by relatives of the prisoners.

Massive student protests against the hard-line faction of Islamic fundamentalists in the Iranian government, followed by a police crackdown, have pushed the fate of the imprisoned Jews off Tehran's priority list, said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.

"In a way, it's better that this case is out of the news," said Kermanian. He has been closely following the fate of the prisoners, who were arrested in March, held in the southern city of Shiraz and face possible death sentences.

The lowered media profile may give negotiators for the 13 Jews some added flexibility in dealing with the authorities, Kermanian believes. He credits quiet diplomacy during the last few weeks, met with "good faith" by Iranian authorities, with easing conditions for the prisoners.

Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the rival Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles, agreed that Iran's internal unrest has "put the prisoner issue on the back burner," but he puts forward a different analysis.

"I'm worried that the people in power in Tehran may decide that the internal situation is so bad that international opinion no longer matters," said Dayanim. "In that case, there might be a widespread crackdown, which could bode badly for the 13 Jews."

Relatives of two of the prisoners also struck pessimistic notes.

"Everything is getting more complicated and more tense, and I doubt whether this turmoil is good for the Jews," said Joseph Farzam of Los Angeles, whose 35-year-old cousin, Ramin Farzam, is one of the prisoners.

Although there has been confirmation that many of the prisoners have been allowed family visits and delivery of kosher food, Joseph Farzam said that Ramin's parents have not been permitted to see their son.

"The family is under tremendous pressure," he said.

The tenseness was also reflected by Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose, whose 49-year-old brother, Nasser Levihaim, is the oldest of the prisoners.

Javaherian had been one of the first Iranian Jewish immigrants to go public when she earlier petitioned the Rev. Jesse Jackson to intervene on behalf of the prisoners.

But reached by phone, she described the situation in Iran as "not good" and declined further conversation for fear of "making the situation worse."

She did confirm that Levihaim's family in Iran had been able to visit him in prison during the last few days.

In general, the Jewish community in Iran is caught between two battling factions, and the fate of the 13 prisoners may well depend on which one prevails in the end.

The hard-line, or conservative, side is led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who controls the judiciary, security forces, intelligence, and national television and radio.

On the other side is President Mohammad Khatami, who has been trying to introduce some liberalizing reforms and who is largely backed by the student demonstrators.

Officially, at least, Iranian Jews are trying to stay out of the line of fire between the opponents.

"This is an Iranian, not specifically Jewish, matter," said Kermanian. "Obviously, individual Jews, like individual Iranians, have strong feelings, but they do not take a position as a community."

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