Jewish leaders for weeks have quietly urged European leaders, businessmen, humanitarian groups and United Nations diplomats to press Iran to release 13 Jews arrested 10 weeks ago. Perhaps in response, Iran publicly announced their arrests Monday and said they had been charged with spying for Israel and the United States.
The captives, all men, include the chief rabbi of Shiraz, teachers, students of a local Jewish school and a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
All are being held in a prison in Shiraz, where they may face a revolutionary court. The punishment for espionage in Iran is execution. Two people were hanged in 1997 for spying for Israel and the U.S.Hoenlein said the men all live in southern Iran. Some were arrested in Isfahan, others in Shiraz. He said there are an estimated 25,000 Jews living in Iran.
The arrests come amid a fierce power struggle in Iran that pits President Mohammed Khatami, a moderate who won a stunning election two years ago, with hard-liners who seized power in 1979.
After Iran radio announced the arrests, Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon issued a statement flatly denying the charges and saying they were arrested only because they are Jewish. He interrupted a personal visit in Manhattan to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to ask him to work for their release.
In his statement, Sharon said none of the men "was involved in espionage and not one of them has, or has had in the past, any connection with any Israeli intelligence agency. Israel is deeply concerned about their fate and demands their immediate release."
The U.S. State Department also broke its silence on the matter, issuing a statement saying the arrests "send a very disturbing signal."
"We call on the government of Iran to ensure no harm comes to these individuals and to release them," it said.The U.S. has been monitoring the situation since the arrests occurred two weeks before Passover and decided to comment only after the matter became public. The statement said it had "treated the matter with a certain degree of discretion at the request of those who were directly involved in attempting to seek" their release.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said leaders of the Jewish community in Iran had asked that the arrests not be publicized in the hope of winning a speedy release. He said the ADL joined B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress in forming a task force of the Presidents Conference to coordinate efforts and monitor the situation, as well as to share information with the Iranian Jewish community in the United States.
"We woke up on Monday and were shocked to read of the Iranian radio broadcast that said they had been charged with spying," said Foxman. "And so now we have no choice but to call on those who have in the past have established some relationship with Iran" and ask for their support.
At the Iranian Jewish Center-Beth Hadassah Synagogue in Great Neck, L.I., Tuesday, a woman who declined to give her name said the community has been monitoring developments since the arrests. And she said the large Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles has been providing them with information.
"On the Iranian radio in Los Angeles yesterday, a man said he had come from Iran two days earlier and believed they were arrested because one of the men closed his store in Shiraz on Saturday," she said. "The man said the others were arrested because they also planned to close. … But nobody knows what is the correct story."
In fact, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Jews in Iran are legally required to close their shops on Saturdays, although Jewish students must attend school that day.
Hoenlein said that in the last 10 weeks, there have been reports from Iran that the captives would be provided kosher food and allowed visits from family members, and some would even be released. But none of that has happened.
Meanwhile, in developments concerning the power struggle in Iran, the director of the Iran Daily newspaper, who last week praised Khatami’s reforms and said they could not be reversed, was arrested Saturday and jailed for a day.
The next day, a former culture ministry official who is close to Khatami was put on trial for allowing a banned moderate newspaper to publish. The same day, the hard-line candidate who was defeated for the presidency by Khatami won re-election as speaker of the parliament. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri is expected to use his position to press for the election of hard-liners in next yearís parliamentary elections.
Ironically, a day after the announcement of the arrests, the new mayor of Tehran, a moderate who is an adviser to Khatami, officially took office and pledged to seek foreign investment for urban projects. The mayor, Morteza Alviri, said he has started negotiations with the World Bank to finance a major sewage project in the capital, which is home to 10 million.
Alviri’s predecessor is serving a two-year term for corruption and mismanagement. Some allege the charges are false and that he was simply caught up in the power struggle.