Spy Charges Show Signs of Iranian Power Struggle
CNS Jerusalem Bureau Chief
08 June, 1999
Jerusalem (CNS) - Iran has charged 13 Jews with spying for Israel and the United States, crimes punishable by death in the Islamic republic.
The move may be the latest wrangle in a power struggle between reformist and extremist elements in the country, an Iranian specialist told CNS Tuesday.
Iranian radio reported that the suspects were living in a Jewish community in the southern Fars province, and were accused of spying for the "Zionist regime" and "World Arrogance," common references to Israel and the U.S. respectively.
The brief report said they had been charged following due interrogation and documented evidence.
Sources in the Jewish community say the arrests were made several weeks ago in the city of Shiraz, and that those held included the chief rabbi of Shiraz and students at a Jewish school there.
Prior to the radio report, Jewish groups in the U.S. and Europe asked their governments to intercede on behalf of the Jews, once learning of the arrests. The French embassy in Tehran has made inquiries.
In a move reflecting concern about worsening the Jews' plight, the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment.
A ministry source told CNS Tuesday the government preferred to leave sensitive matters of this nature in the hands of Jewish organizations.
Dr Jamshid Hassani, an expert on the Iranian legal system, said the arrests may be part of the latest "power play" between the supporters of the Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those backing the popularly-elected President Mohammed Khatami, regarded a relative moderate.
Hassani said in an interview that both the legislative and judicial branches of government were firmly controlled by the Khamenei old-guard, as was the Islamic militia.
The arrests also "show the basic lack of freedom in the constitution of the Islamic republic. I've studied many legal systems, and never seen anything like this - a situation where people can be accused of anything by those in power."
He dismissed the spying charges as "meaningless," saying it was not uncommon for those considered "non-believers" - Jews, Christians, Baha'is and others - to be the targets of trumped-up charges of espionage or drug trafficking, whenever there were internal problems.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian authorities have executed at least 13 Jews, most of whom were sentenced to death for religious reasons or connections with Israel, according to human rights monitoring groups.
In 1997, Iran hanged two Jews convicted of spying for the two countries. Iranian Jews have also been charged in the past with attempting to help Jews immigrate to Israel or the U.S.
In June 1998, a 60-year-old Jew was hanged, apparently for having ties to Israel or, according to one report, for helping Jews fleeing Iran. The man disappeared a month before his family was notified by the authorities that he had been executed. No explanation was offered.
Iran's 25,000-strong Jewish community is one of the world's oldest outside of Israel, dating back to the First Temple period (6th century BCE), according to the World Jewish Congress.
Discrimination after the Muslim conquest culminated in campaigns of persecution and forced conversion during the 19th century, boosting support for the emerging ideology of Zionism.
Jews played an important cultural and economic role in society during the Phalavi dynasty. On the eve of the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah, there were 60,000 Jews in the country. The majority left. The remaining community enjoys limited religious freedom, living under constant suspicion of cooperation with Israel and the U.S.
Iran sponsors Islamist organizations, some of which are working for the violent overthrow of Israel.
©Copyright 1999, Conservative News Service