Jewish leaders have rejected the assertion of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami that he will not intervene in the case of 10 Iranian Jews convicted of spying for Israel.
“He has to use his influence to see that justice is done,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We believe that he has to be involved when there is an injustice.”
Khatami told The Jewish Week at a press conference in New York last week: “The judiciary reached conclusions and they were convicted of the charges. The government should not interfere in the judiciary. If things are against my will, I do not give myself the power to interfere in the judiciary.”
The Iranian news agency IRNA noted that the Iranian government does not have the constitutional power to interfere in the work of the judiciary.
Although the 10 were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison, Khatami stressed that “this is not a final verdict. It is going through an appeals court and we hope the issue will be approached with the utmost justice — as has been done in the past — and that nobody is convicted beyond their actual guilt.”
He added that the sentence “should not be beyond what they are convicted of.”
Khatami, who was elected in 1997 as a reform-minded cleric, took umbrage with the fact that The Jewish Week asked only about the Jews who had been convicted and not the Muslims “who were convicted as well as the Jews. Why do you not mention the Muslims? … If instead of Jews, they were Christians, would the world still speak [out] as it does today?”
Although saying it was “proper for the public to be for freedom of individuals,” Khatami insisted that the “reaction [to this case] has been a little unnatural.”
He noted that when an Israeli was arrested and tried in Switzerland for spying, “the world did not show the same reaction.”
Asked about peace prospects in the Middle East, Khatami said Iran would “not interfere” but continues to believe that a “viable peace will [only] happen when all of those in the region will be able to obtain their rights. The rights of the Palestinians have been neglected and … that will not lead to a viable peace.”
He added that Israel “wants to settle [disputes only] on a unilateral basis.”
While in New York, Khatami issued a call for a dialogue between Americans and Iranians.
He said a statement earlier this year by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledging that Iranians had reason to resent the American intervention that in 1953 led to a coup in behalf of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had not gone far enough in offering an apology. That is necessary, he said, for improved relations between the two governments.
Khatami, who is locked in a power struggle with hard-line fundamentalists at home, said those who have looked to him to bring about reform overnight are misinformed.
“The demands of people should not rise beyond possibilities,” he said, suggesting that expectations about the economy and greater freedom for young people are unrealistic.
“Extremism in any form or direction is unwanted,” Khatami said, “whether in the name of freedom and supporting people’s rights, or in the name of security and suppressing people’s rights. … Let me remind you that I did not come in the name of reform.”