Albright says Iranians pledging not to execute 13 jailed Jews

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NEW YORK — Iran is not planning to execute 13 Jews imprisoned in Iran on charges of espionage, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told American Jewish leaders Tuesday.

According to sources who were in Albright's closed-door meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Albright said that Iranian authorities told third-party intermediaries that they would not use capital punishment.

Iran has executed 17 Jews on espionage charges in the past two decades, including two in 1997.

The sources said Albright expressed hope that all 13 will be released, saying the United States would continue pushing for their freedom. Albright also said that the U.S. was using "quiet diplomacy" to assist the 13 Jews who have been jailed by Iran since spring, accused of spying for Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the conference of presidents, said that while Albright's comments were encouraging, "this was not a guarantee."

Hoenlein called the international interest in the fate of the arrested Jews "remarkable" and said many countries have made it clear that if any harm were to come to the group it would adversely affect their relations with Iran.

In Iran on Tuesday, President Mohammed Khatami denounced "the injustice done to the Jews under the Nazi and fascist regime in Europe." But he added, "Should Palestinian Muslims have to pay for the injustice done to the Jews in the West?"

The Iranian news agency said he was making a speech to Islamic leaders in Iran.

Albright addressed other topics in her speech last week.

She criticized Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's speech to the U.N. last week. According to Hoenlein, Albright said she had spoken to Arafat before his address and was disappointed by his call for the right of return.

Albright also asked the Jewish organizations to lobby for Clinton's foreign aid package. Although expected to cut $2 billion from the package, the Republican-led Congress isn't expected to cut any aid to Israel.

She said Clinton had requested the funds to implement the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, including costs Israel already has incurred.

She went on to ask the Jewish community to support "our entire international affairs budget," adding, "I have eliminated the words 'foreign aid' from my vocabulary. Those two words don't seem to excite a lot of people."