The release from prison of five Iranian Jews last week was due not to a change of heart by the regime in Tehran, but to a political calculation that Iran's international image needs burnishing, observers say. And clouding the relief of the Jews' relatives and advocates is concern that the men could be rearrested at any time or 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.
The past days have seen conflicting statements as to whether the five have been released permanently. Over the weekend, media reports circulated that the five had been released permanently after being pardoned by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By Monday, however, word emerged from Iranian officials that there had been no such pardon and that the prisoners had only been released on a 10-day "holiday."
The ambiguity fits Iran's traditional treatment of its Jewish prisoners. But the question remains: Are the five free for good, or could they be returned to prison?
"It could go either way, depending on the whim of the Iranian government," 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.
"This is why we've been warning: People should be judicious in their public statements. Just as Iran granted their release, they can revoke it. It's a constant test."
When Iranian officials said this week that no pardon had been granted, Tehran may have been reacting to media coverage of the release. Media reports had attributed cynical motives to the release and quoted certain activists who sounded self-congratulatory.
The quintet released Feb. 19 after four years in prison were merchant Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, who had been sentenced to 13 years in prison; university English instructor Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Hebrew teacher Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; perfume merchant Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and shopkeeper Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.
An array of factors appear to have influenced Iran's decision to release the five men, who had been imprisoned with eight others on charges of spying for Israel.
Israel has steadfastly denied that the men were its spies.
The ongoing skirmishes between the hard-line clerics who run Iran and their more moderate rivals likely played a role in the latest releases, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. Clawson also cited pressure from the European Union, a major trading partner with Iran, which said human rights abuses were hindering an expansion of economic ties. The release came on the heels of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 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 reportedly has meted out to 17 Jews accused of espionage since the country's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
While pressure from the Europeans and the United Nations over human rights may have played a role, so, too, may Washington's saber-rattling against Iraq, North Korea and Iran, which President Bush dubbed the "axis of evil."
"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 Iran recently lifted the death sentence on a leading dissident who had called publicly for separation of mosque and state.
Regardless of the speculation, "it's hard to assess what motivates the Iranians in general," Hoenlein said.
U.S. advocates tried to judge when it would be wise to publicly assail Iran for its perceived show trial and forced confessions, and when to settle for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Of late, advocates have opted for diplomacy.
More moderate Iranian officials recognized that the imprisonment of the Jews "was an injustice that cost Iran heavily in its international image," and they "were looking for a way out," Hoenlein said.
Along with the uncertainty over whether Iranian officials view the latest releases as permanent or temporary, it is unclear whether relatives of the five men could join them if they are allowed to emigrate, or what persecution might be in store for family members who remain behind. Such factors underscore the precarious existence of the 20,000 to 25,000 Jews who remain in Iran, down from a peak of about 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.
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," he said.
"I think the steps that they've taken are positive."