Three Iranian Jews imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel have been released, but the last five remain in jail, contrary to earlier reports.
Sources close to the issue said Monday that Iranian authorities had granted the last five an indefinite furlough. On Wednesday, however, those sources confirmed that the reports from Iran were "disinformation."
That's "why we urged people not to comment on this, because it's happened before," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The uncertain status of the five seems to underscore the precarious situation faced by the entire Jewish community in Iran. They now number between 22,000 and 25,000, down from 100,000 or so prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
After the three Jews were pardoned last week, hopes were raised among their families and American advocates that the remaining five would soon be freed.
Hoenlein said he was "still hopeful" that they would be released soon.
Both Israel and the Iranian Jewish community deny the men ever spied for "the Zionist regime," as Tehran alleges.
It's unclear what led to the dissemination of the false reports.
Pooya Dayanim said Wednesday that sources in Iran informed the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles on Monday that the five men were home with their families.
The release was confirmed the next day by an Iranian justice official in a statement to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA.
"We now know that the information given to us [was] false. The five remaining Iranian Jews are still in prison," Dayanim said.
Asked why the sources would provide erroneous information, Dayanim said, "No comment."
The five who remain in jail are Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, sentenced to 13 years in prison; Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.
The three released last week -- who reportedly were granted a pardon directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- were Javid Beit Yakov, 42, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison; Farzad Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Paknahad, 24, who had received eight-year sentences.
Analysts suggested the release of the three might be due to a supposed power struggle between relative moderates in the Iranian regime who favor detente with the West and conservative clerics who have maintained a grip on power since the 1979 revolution. Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: President Bush's lumping of Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil"; the prospect of a United States-led war against Baghdad; and the possibility that Iran may be the next target of America's year-old war on terrorism.
It's not only from Washington that Iran is feeling the heat. Europe, a significant economic partner, reportedly has cited Iran's disregard for human rights and its treatment of minorities as impediments to improved relations.
According to analysts, the tension between Iranian hardliners and reformers influenced the original arrests.
Thirteen Jews were arrested in January and March 1999, but three were found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years. The men appealed, and Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000. Two men already were released after serving out their terms.
Advocates for the men say that what really bothered Iranian authorities was the men's increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism. Most of the men were religious leaders from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a bastion of religious conservatism. The arrests were perceived as a warning to the rest of the community, and there was initial fear that the men might be executed.
In May 2000, after more than a year in solitary confinement, the 13 gave "confessions" for Iran's Revolutionary Court.
But their advocates -- and media, diplomats and human rights experts from around the world -- pronounced the closed trial a fraud.