A wave of protests and counter-protests across Iran this week has swept the fate of 13 Jews jailed there for espionage into a far corner of the country’s concern.
One of Iran’s more controversial international issues last week, the Jews’ fate shriveled in importance for Iranian leaders as their deep, longstanding internal conflicts flared into open battle between respective supporters in the streets of Tehran and other major cities.
As student protesters confronted Islamic fundamentalist hard-liners in a battle for the direction of the country, no one knew how the clash would affect the jailed Jews, who face execution if convicted of spying. But experts and activists agreed the outcome would ultimately have a profound impact on the issue — and much else of Jewish concern.
In Israel, a source in the defense establishment told the Haaretz newspaper, “We can only hope that if the liberal forces gain the upper hand in Iran, they will manage to do so before the ayatollahs get their hands on strategic weapons that could harm Israel,” referring to the Islamic regime’s reported drive to develop nuclear weapons.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman said he “would be very happy” if the student demonstrations in Iran heralded a change.
“I am in favor of the regime in Iran changing into a much more normal, responsible and less extreme regime,” he said.
But Iranian officials singled out public comments from Israeli and U.S. officials as foreign interference. And Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy urged official restraint. “We should remain as observers and not be involved, not even by one utterance or declaration,” he said.
Analysts generally agreed the protests and violence, while a serious challenge to the regime, stood little chance of toppling the government. The students themselves seek not an overthrow of the Islamic system but its liberalization.
The crisis began last Thursday when police and fundamentalist vigilante groups invaded the campus of Tehran University to break up a peaceful demonstration of some 500 students protesting the shutdown of Salam, a pro-reform newspaper. Police and vigilantes swept through the dormitories in a rampage that the government acknowledged left two students dead, scores seriously injured and hundreds arrested. The students claimed as many as six were killed.
The students, backers of Iran’s relatively liberal president Mohammad Khatami, quickly organized demonstrations of up to 15,000 demanding the ouster of senior law enforcement officials and trials of those responsible for the violence. They also sought repeal of a recent law passed by parliament that would curb press freedoms.
Support protests broke out in other cities throughout the country. But some, including in Tehran, turned violent. Students or others attaching themselves to their cause roamed the streets smashing windows and clashing with the hard-line vigilante groups.
By Tuesday, the vigilantes, with police support, had taken control of central Tehran. And Khatami, the moderates’ standard-bearer, called on the students to cease their protests, saying they had degenerated into rioting led by people with “evil aims.”
Conservative forces, led by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for a huge demonstration Wednesday to protest the unrest. State media Tuesday said several pro-Khatami groups had joined the call.
“The developments today are even more of a wild card for us,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Khatami is either trying to avoid bloodshed, or he’s giving in to pressures from the hard-liners. Perhaps he feels the students have crossed the line, and it would be counterproductive to continue.”
Hoenlein emphasized that “Our concern is for the 13 Jews in prison, and for the Iranian Jews in general. If there’s a crackdown, and the hard-liners want to exercise muscle, that could be trouble.”
On the other hand, he said, if pro-reform forces prevail, the prisoners’ fate could brighten considerably. “Will the moderates — or even the hard-liners — try to improve their image after this? It’s possible they could say, let’s show a gesture to the West.”
The 13 jailed Jews, from the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan, were arrested in two sweeps, in January and March. Composed mostly of ultra-traditional Orthodox Jews, the group reportedly includes rabbis, Hebrew teachers and a ritual slaughterer. They are accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the human rights groups that have issued alerts on their behalf.
Iran’s estimated 25,000 Jews comprise one of three recognized religious minorities under the country’s Islamic constitution. They hold the right to practice their Judaism and organize communally, but any contact with Israel is strictly forbidden. And a 1996 law makes even passing information of a cultural or social nature to Israelis or Americans possible grounds for espionage. Some of the 13 reportedly have visited Israel or received assistance from abroad in connection with their religious activities.
While the ultimate impact of the current power struggle on their fate is impossible to predict, analysts agreed its immediate effect is clear.
“It’s pushed them out of the public eye,” said Professor Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iran at George Mason University in Virginia.
Advocates for the 13 among Iranian Jews here differed on whether the protests were good or bad, according to deep splits within their own community over tactics and leadership.
The secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Sam Kermanian, welcomed the issue’s shrunken prominence.
But Pouyeh Dayanim of the rival, more activist Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations, said: “My worry is, the clerics in power will become so involved in the country’s internal problems they will no longer care about international perceptions and may therefore go ahead and do as they please.”
Last Thursday, about 750 Iranian Jews filled the Sephardic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles for a public meeting of prayer and information on the 13 Jews, despite ads by the Iranian American Jewish Federation opposing the meeting.
But even Dayanim, whose council sponsored the meeting, said his group agreed with a call for restraint by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who spoke there. Sherman called for giving the Iran government “some breathing room” for the moment.
In line with this, he announced he was holding off on bringing to the floor of Congress a resolution he is sponsoring condemning Iran for the Jews’ imprisonment.