Families fear for 13 Jews Iran calls spies

LOS ANGELES ‹ Amid international efforts to secure the release of 13 Iranian Jews, relatives of the accused spies are publicly expressing fears for the lives of their loved ones.

Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose is the sister of Nasser Levihaim, who at age 49 is the oldest of the accused. When the charges were announced, Javaherian called her family five times in one night.

³I was so scared. I was crying all the time,² she said this week, trying hard to control her emotions.

Levihaim¹s wife has not been allowed to see her husband since his arrest in March, though she can bring kosher food to the prison once a week, a process that involves signing four sets of papers.

³We have no idea whether he¹s getting the food,² Javaherian said.

Javaherian was one of the relatives who met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson late last week in Los Angeles. Jackson has declared his readiness to fly to Tehran together with the same ecumenical team that obtained the freedom of three American soldiers held in Yugoslavia this spring.

Political leaders in the United States, Israel, Germany and France are seeking to mobilize world opinion on behalf of the threatened prisoners.

Efforts are also under way to enlist the support ofItaly, Spain, Britain, Holland and other European Union countries, as well as the United Nations, the Vatican, Japan and Canada.

The World Jewish Congress appealed Tuesday to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross to make personal pleas to Iran for the release of 13 Jews accused of espionage.

³This is a blatant case of religious persecution,² WJC executive director Elan Steinberg said in an open letter to the two officials. ³The lives of these 13 individuals are in danger.²

Following suit, synagogues across the United States will dedicate Sabbath services this weekend to the plight of 13 Jews. The initiative, announced Tuesday by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is backed by the leading rabbinic and congregational arms of all the Jewish streams.

This week, Iranian leaders began making their first public statements about the accused. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared that he is personally responsible for the protection of religious minorities in Iran.

Khatami¹s comments Tuesday were his first on the case since Iran¹s judiciary warned last week that 13 Jews arrested on charges of spying for Israel and the United States could face the death penalty.

An Iranian Jewish leader called for a fair trial in the case of 13 Jews arrested by Tehran on charges of spying for Israel.

³As the representative of Jews, I demand true justice for the suspects,² Manouchehr Eliasi, parliamentary representative of Iran¹s 27,000-strong Jewish community, said in an interview with the moderate newspaper Entekhab.

³If the results of investigations prove them guilty, they should be punished. But if the opposite was proved, they should be released immediately.²

A report in a hardline paper in Iran, meanwhile, said the 13 suspects had been linked to the Mossad, Israel¹s foreign intelligence service. In a statement released Monday, Iran¹s U.N. mission said that the detainees also include Muslims, though no number was given.

While the world outcry grows, many observers are puzzled as to why Iran would arrest the Jews during a time when the government of Khatami has signaled a desire to improve relations with the West.

Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles said the answer lies in an internal power struggle between Iranian moderates led by Khatami and fundamentalist hardliners.

³There are conservative groups in Iran which advocate strict Orthodox Islamic values and see any contact with the West as threatening these values, and they try to sabotage Khatami¹s policies,² Kermanian said.

It is the hardliners who control the judiciary and the security apparatus that arrested the Jews, he noted.

The high-profile public actions follow months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering during which Jewish organizations sought to influence Tehran through quiet diplomacy.

The 13 Jews range in age from 16 to 49 and were mainly residents of the southern city of Shiraz, while others were arrested in Tehran and Isfahan, Kermanian said.

During the first months of imprisonment, the Jews were not charged with any crimes. Some signals from Tehran indicated that they might be set free.

Then early last week, Iranian officials accused the 13 of spying for Israel and the United States, which ³at certain instances provide for capital punishment,² the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The espionage charges are ridiculous, said Kermanian.

³No one would recruit spies among a group [of Jews] who have high visibility and are constantly watched by the authorities,² he said.

The prisoners, including a 16-year-old boy arrested in his classroom, are mainly religious Jews, Kermanian said. They incurred the government¹s displeasure for such ³crimes² as teaching Hebrew, holding religious classes and requesting permission to close their businesses Saturdays.

Javaherian speculated that Iranian authorities might have gone after her brother because he frequently volunteered as a Hebrew teacher. Manager of a Shiraz electric company, he is also the father of three boys, the youngest of whom is 18 months old.

As Iran kept the arrests quiet for the past two months, so did an informal consortium of American Jewish organizations.

After Iran announced the spy charges last week, consortium members decided to go public. Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League¹s national director, contacted Jackson, who agreed to meet with the ADL leader and relatives of some of the prisoners in Los Angeles on Thursday of last week. Among some 50,000 Iranian Jews in the United States, Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration, an estimated 30,000.

In a news conference in Los Angeles last Friday, Jackson described meeting the relatives as ³a deeply moving experience.

³I watched bitter tears roll down their faces in anguish and pain and fear for their loved ones.²

Flanking Jackson during the news conference were two men who had accompanied him on the earlier mission to Belgrade, Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Los Angeles and Dr. Nazir Khaja, national president of the American Muslim Council.

Jackson¹s first move would be to appeal to the religious authorities in Iran ³to allow us to visit and gain the release of the 13 prisoners, and to appeal fervently that their lives be spared,² he said.

³I have seen some evidence that Iran is trying to rejoin the world. One expression would be to set the 13 Jews free.²

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent