As 13 Iranian Jews suspected of spying for Israel and the United States are set to go on trial April 13, an American Jewish leader has cited some ominous signs coming from Iran.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said lawyers for the accused were barred from entering prison to allow their clients to sign retainer statements even after the investigating judge (who also will serve as the trial judge without a jury) had asked the suspects’ families to hire counsel.
"They were caught in a Catch-22 situation," Hoenlein said of the attorneys.
The judge later said he was compelled to ask a provincial bar association to assign counsel because the accused and their families had failed to do so, "despite repeated notices."
Three of the suspects free on bail were able to hire lawyers, Hoenlein said, and they are not expected to face serious charges. He pointed out that no charges have been lodged formally against any of the 13.
"We know that all 13 are innocent of the accusations," said Hoenlein. "We believe that they will try to force [the other 10] to confess rather than go to trial because there is no evidence against them. They will promise to let them off if they confess, and when they do that in front of the press, they will slap them with heavy sentences."
Although spying is a capital offense in Iran, Hoenlein said he does not believe the men will be executed because of "all of the assurances given [by Iranian officials] to people around the world: and the fact that there is no evidence against them. But there are no guarantees."
Since the arrest of the Jews, who hail from Shiraz, about 550 miles south of Tehran, Iran has faced intense international pressure by world leaders to either free the Jews or ensure they receive a fair and open trial.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said governments around the world "have expressed concern about the need to ensure the process" for the men, "who were detained more than a year ago without official charge."
Their arrests are seen as part of a larger power struggle in Iran between conservative hard-liners and reformers. In national elections last month, the moderate incumbent president, Mohammad Khatami, routed former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the candidate backed by conservatives. Khatami’s convincing victory was applauded by the United States, which two weeks ago responded by lifting a U.S. ban on imports of Iranian caviar, rugs and other luxury goods.
In announcing the action, Albright invited Iran to enter "a new relationship" with the U.S.She said that "reform, freedom and openness is growing stronger [in Iran]. … The democratic winds in Iran are so refreshing, and many of the ideas espoused by its leaders so encouraging, there is a risk we will assume too much. In truth, it is too early to know precisely where the democratic trends will lead."
Discussing the plight of the 13 Jews, Albright said: "We look to the procedures and the results of this trial as one of the barometers of U.S.-Iran relations." In comments to reporters, Albright said she believed that a "new chapter in our relationship" was opening.
But last week Iran’s hard-line supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the U.S. gesture on luxury items "deceitful" and said the U.S. had adopted a "position of arrogance," as reflected in Albright’s speech.
"The Iranian nation and its authorities consider the United States to be their enemy because America’s past behavior is full of acts of hostility and treason," Khamenei said, according to state-run radio.
His comments came after the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s elite fighting force, had similarly rebuffed Albright’s overtures. Observers saw the fact that Iran’s foreign minister had cautiously welcomed her speech as further evidence of the deep divisions inside Iran’s Islamic government.
Hillary Markowitz, a vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, or Amcha, said her organization held a rally Sunday outside Iran’s UN Mission to keep up the pressure regarding the fate of the imprisoned Jews. The easing of American trade sanctions has removed pressure, she said.
Hoenlein noted that just days after the sanctions were lifted, Khatami in a speech pointedly refrained from making any comments about the action. And Hoenlein questioned why the U.S. was making concessions given the fact that Khatami is "not in control of the military, police, security or terrorism apparatus."
"Two weeks ago, Iran fired a sea-to-air missile that had not been seen before," he observed. "If Khatami is in control, then his policies are no different [than that of the hard-liners]. As one leading Iranian expert told me, ‘He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’"