Another Jewish New Year has come and gone, and eight Iranian Jewish prisoners remain locked up in Iran on charges they spied for Israel.
Some observers had tracked rumors last week that the Islamic regime, with its membership in President Bush's "axis of evil," might be rethinking some of its polcies -- including a possible pardon for a group of pious Jews believed to have been wrongly jailed in the first place.
For the third straight year, the lone Jewish member of the Iranian Parliament, Maurice Motamed, took to the floor of the legislative body in advance of Rosh Hashana and appealed for freedom for the "Iran 10" -- now down to eight, as two were released after serving their sentences. Their release failed to materialize, though the authorities reportedly permitted their families to visit them in prison last Friday night to celebrate a Rosh Hashana service together.
"We'd started seeing some changes with respect to attitudes toward religious minorities in general, and we were hoping this would translate into some actual movement on the ground," said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian-American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, a community that boasts some 40,000 Iranian Jews. "As far as we're concerned, we always felt these people did not belong in prison, that the charges against them were wrong. We would welcome the pardoning of these prisoners as an excellent first step forward in a more equitable treatment of religious minority groups," he said.
That the holiday passed without the prisoners' release did not surprise more pessimistic Iran-watchers, who have long maintained that the mullahs in charge are tone deaf to international concerns and never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity at a goodwill gesture.
"I don't think they're smart enough to make these kinds of overtures," said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the L.A.-based Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations. "If they understood good PR work, they wouldn't have put these men in jail to begin with -- and they wouldn't have landed in the 'axis of evil.'"
Thirteen Iranian Jewish men were first arrested in January and March 1999 and eventually charged with spying for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service. Their real offense, said American Jewish observers, was that their increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism became a source of irritation to the authorities. Most of the men were religious leaders and came from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, said to be a bastion of religious conservatism in general. The arrests were believed intended to send a signal to the rest of the community.
But the issue was soon sucked into the vortex of the political dynamic at the time -- a power struggle between conservative forces, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the reformist faction, led by President Mohammad Khatami, observers said.
The Islamists seized upon the issue to whip up anti-Israel fervor, which is often seen as a galvanizing factor among all Iranians.
After a year-plus in solitary confinement, in May 2000 the Jews were brought before Iran's Revolutionary Court and delivered "confessions" that they had indeed spied for Mossad.
However, media and foreign observers were barred from the courtroom, the prosecutor served as judge and Israel denied it had any contact with the men. Most foreign diplomats and human-rights activists assailed the process as a sham.
There was initial fear the men might be executed. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 17 Jews had been condemned to death, primarily for being accused spies. But three of the 13 were acquitted, with the 10 others convicted on July 1, 2000, on various national-security charges. They were sentenced to terms ranging from four to 13 years. The men appealed, and under international criticism, Tehran reduced the jail time in 2000 to two to nine years.
In March 2001, merchant Ramin Nemati Zadeh, who had taught religious school, was released after serving out his term. And this past January, a second Jew, Hebrew teacher Faramarz Kashi, completed his term. For the remaining eight, their lone hope seems to be a pardon from Khamenei.
Much of the Iranian Jewish community -- both here and there -- has become resigned to the fate of the prisoners.
"Iran now has too much to face besides this issue," Dayanim said. "Unless Iran feels that releasing the prisoners will win them some kind of international brownie points, they will remain in prison and serve out their sentences."
Indeed Iran's greatest problem may come from within.
With unemployment said to be 14 percent -- particularly hard-hit are the young and educated -- and stifling social restrictions, the significant strata of university students are reportedly ever more restive and disappointed with Khatami's promises of reform.
But it's not only U.S. Jews who are keeping up the pressure. Foreign dignitaries visiting Tehran continue a steady drumbeat of criticism of Iran's treatment of its minorities, including the Jews behind bars.
In late July, for example, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy and security chief, listed the concerns that impede improved relations between Iran and Europe: disregard for human rights, a muzzled media, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and meddling in the Middle East.
For its part, Washington has become increasingly concerned about Iran's support for Palestinian terror groups. Iran has long been seen as aiding Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Hezbollah on Israel's northern border. And in January, ties between Iran and the Palestinian Authority surfaced with the Israeli interception of the Karine-A, a ship carrying more than 50 tons of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip.
Bush's now-famous "axis of evil" speech followed on Jan. 29.
Some in Washington suggest that Iran poses a much greater threat than Iraq.
If nothing else, Iran's inclusion in the axis may be playing a part in Tehran's recent rally to the defense of arch-nemesis Iraq as Iran seeks to form a united front against Israel and the United States. As relations began to thaw, however, some thorny issues of the past have resurfaced.
Iraq, for example, is home to an Iranian dissident group, while Iran shelters an anti-Iraq dissident group of its own. When regimes both asked for the other to boot out the opposition groups, it re-opened old wounds. The insults exchanged focused on which nation is truly in bed with the "Zionists."
"You will not find a single episode in history when the Persians have cooperation with the Arabs against the Zionists," said Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.
To which Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi replied, in the words of the Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency: "Baghdad had become the supporter of the Zionist regime by waging a destructive war on Iran, sowing the seeds of discord among Muslim nations."
Meanwhile, Iran's intense focus on Israel's actions against the Palestinians -- coupled with the widely publicized arrest of the Shirazi Jews on spying charges -- has fomented a hostile climate for the Jews remaining in Iran, Dayanim said.
An estimated 22,000 to 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, down from a peak of 100,000 or so before the 1979 revolution.
Dayanim said he has heard of Jewish children being beaten and harassed at school, with their fathers accused of being "Zionists." "We're actively engaged in efforts to increase emigration," Dayanim said. Those efforts, though, are hindered by the fact Jews face obstacles in trying to liquidate their assets, he said.
Those seeking to immigrate to the United States also face greater scrutiny from American immigration and FBI officials once they get to the immigrant way station in Vienna, given new post-Sept. 11 restrictions.
Kermanian, meanwhile, remains somewhat optimistic about the future of Iran's Jews. "Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years, always lived there as loyal citizens, and they loved their country," he said. "Even though there were ups and downs, Iranians and Jews found a way to live together in peace and cooperation. I have no doubt that with some good will, those days will return."
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