West watches Iran's closed-door trial of Jews

Iran's Jewish people - who've prospered under 20 years of Islamic rule - are worried over spy trial that resumes today.

On the streets, Iran's minority Jews look like anyone else in the Islamic Republic.

But when the congregants enter a heavily fortified gray and brick building off Palestine Street, the men quietly pull folded black yarmulkes from their pockets, fit them to their heads, and offer prayers along with their families in a top-floor synagogue.

Jews have been in Iran since they were freed from slavery in the 6th century BC, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. At 30,000-strong today, they are the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. They are a legal minority, whose fortunes have largely improved in the 20 years since the Islamic Revolution.

But the trial of 13 Jews accused of spying for Iran's archfoes - Israel and the United States - has sent a chill wind through the community. The trial resumes today in Shiraz, Iran, and if the accused are found guilty, the case could torpedo Iran's improving relations with the West. There is also growing concern that the fate of the Jews now facing possible death sentences is caught up in the intense political power struggle between hard-line clerics and reformists.

A guilty verdict at the closed-door trail by the conservative-controlled Revolutionary Court could deeply undermine President Mohamad Khatami's dtente policy with the West, analysts say. That in turn could harm his reform plans at home.

Jews here are eager to say that they are Iranians first, and love their country. On the record, Jewish leaders say that little has changed in the 15 months since the Jews - along with eight Muslims who have never been identified - were arrested. Three of the Jews have been released on bail.

But during a prayer service this weekend at the end of Passover, one man took a visitor aside in the synagogue and confided that "most people are in denial. There is a real terror in their heart. They are afraid, because of these 13 people. We know them. They are all innocent."

Iranian authorities have sent mixed messages: a former chief justice made a guilty pronouncement last year, while subsequent signals, however, indicate that some officials are hoping for a face-saving way out. Judge Sadeq Nourani, who is overseeing the trial, made an emotional visit to the prison, and handed out Passover presents to the defendants.

"The fate of these 13 people is no longer the heart of the game," says a senior Western diplomat. "The president, his foreign affairs ministry, and a clever elite understand that the risk [of a guilty verdict] is very heavy for the country itself.

"On the other hand, it is a very good opportunity for the conservatives to torpedo Khatami's dtente policy with the West," he adds.

Western scrutiny and criticism of the case - spearheaded by Jewish groups abroad - has been sometimes counter-productive to Iranian Jews, by confirming for hard-liners that the community has especially close ties to Israel and the US.

Evidence against the 13 - among them a rabbi, professionals, and a 17-year-old student - reportedly includes exchanging e-mails with Israel, and making visits to the Jewish state while abroad, both illegal in Iran. Many have relatives in Israel and the US.

"It is not right to say that we are in prison in Iran. The only point is that we can't go to Israel," says Hooshang Eliassian, a Jewish spokesman. "We are free - marriage, schools, and rituals are all according to our custom. Iranian law is for us just as it is for Muslims. There is no problem for us in Iran. It is ungrateful to say differently."

Still, the usual annual exodus of 500 to 600 Jews from Iran has increased since the Shiraz arrests were announced. At first, authorities leveled several lesser charges, but months later brought the espionage charges - causing alarm among human rights groups about a political motive.

Support from Iranian Jews abroad has been welcome, says Manouchehr Eliassi, Iran's single Jewish member of parliament. But "Zionist groups connected with the US" have "taken advantage of the issue to blame the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is against our interests. This is internal, and will be solved."

"It is my belief that the authorities and even the judicial authorities are looking at this with an open mind," he says. "It's a national issue now. Many Iranians know about this and are supporting us. We are not alone."

Iranian analysts now speak optimistically that the Jews will eventually be released. "Not even the conservatives want to risk completely cutting off Iran from the West again," says one reformist editor, whose paper was banned last week.

Pressure from outside has been strong: "Do not underestimate the importance of this in Western capitals," says a European diplomat. "If they were to be executed, it would have a serious, serious impact on Iran's relations with the West. There has been some backtracking, but some people want them [executed] to derail Khatami's plans."

Tough criticism from dozens of countries and human rights groups - including Russia, which is often an Iran ally - has revealed a double standard, some here say. The unrecognized Baha'i minority has been persecuted for years, causing little fuss.

"There are thousands of political prisoners in Iran, and dozens of people are executed every year," notes one diplomat, saying that Jewish interest groups abroad have made Iran an issue in Jewish capitals.

"When you are close to God, there is a calm, and that is where we are now," says Jewish farmer Cyrus in the Tehran synagogue. As for the Shiraz group, he says: "If they are guilty, they will be sentenced. If not, they will be freed. It's up to the legal system."

Contrary to popular perception, the religious roots of the 1979 Islamic Revolution helped invigorate Jewish faith in Iran.

"In these 20 years, people have come more religious, especially young people: It has been like an atomic bomb that changed the entire atmosphere," says Mr. Eliassian.

Some have compared last week's Passover - which commemorates Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt - to Iran's case. But Iranian Jews reject that analogy as "unacceptable."

"The Israelites were a tribe from outside that had gone to Egypt, were enslaved, and Moses saved them," points out Mr. Eliassi, the parliamentarian. "We are and always have been Iranians - that is the difference."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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