Iranian town's Jewish community in turmoil over espionage charges

13 men at center of fight between reformers, hard-line Muslims

Trial begins today

May 01, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SHIRAZ, Iran -- As dusk obscured the orange trees and rose bushes in the courtyard, a group of solemn women pulled off their head scarves and cloaks, slipped on rubber sandals and readied themselves yesterday for the mikvah, or ritual bath, in a steamy side building of the Delrakhim synagogue.

Translated from Persian, the Iranian language, the name of the congregation means generous-hearted. But for the traumatized Jews of Shiraz, 6,000 strong and supporting 16 different synagogues, the soft spring evening brought little comfort.

Today, 13 of their number will go on trial in the feared Revolutionary Court, accused of spying for Israel, in a case that has been caught up in the swirl of Iran's internal political battles and could undo its tentative overtures to the West.

"We are all praying for them, praying that they come home soon to their families," said Fariba, a young woman at the bath who, like the other women, was afraid to give her last name. "We are a small group, we Jews in Shiraz, and everybody knows them. They are our family."

Local leaders said that the arrest of the 13 men, the youngest of them 18, is the worst event in anyone's memory to befall the dwindling Jewish community, which has survived in Iran for more than 2,000 years.

The society around them is also in turmoil, and the Jews have been squeezed by the conflict between the hard-line Muslim hierarchy that controls the judiciary and the reformers backing President Mohammad Khatami's efforts at liberalization.

The spy case has drawn close international attention, with Jewish groups and human rights organizations condemning it as a political show trial aimed at frustrating Khatami's attempts to develop warmer relations with some of the country's traditional enemies, including the United States.

"The battle between conservatives and reformers is the core of the problem in the case of the Jews," said a veteran European diplomat based in Tehran.

"The case is a pretext for confrontation between the two camps," the diplomat added. "It is one of the means used to embarrass Khatami and no one will go back and say a mistake has been done. And in the middle are these 13 poor people."

In the past few months, a succession of foreign envoys have pleaded with Khatami about the Shiraz Jews, who include a shopkeeper, an office worker, a university professor and a student -- a group that relatives say could not have had access to classified information.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and a group of visiting French senators have made personal appeals. President Clinton has expressed concern, and administration officials have said the trial would be a test of Iran's commitment to international standards of human rights.

But for the Iranian president and most Iranians, the spy case is a sideshow in a larger drama that has intensified in the past two months, since Khatami's supporters swept aside their conservative opponents in the first round of parliamentary elections.

Since then, the hard-liners have gone on the offensive, using their dominance in the courts to arrest reformers, close 16 pro-Khatami newspapers and vilify many of his most ardent supporters as foreign agents out to destroy Iran's Islamic system of government.

Reformers have been kept dangling even about their first-round victory. The deeply conservative Council of Guardians has ordered a third recount of ballots in the capital, Tehran, where reformers won 29 out of 30 seats, and has refused so far to certify the results.

Khatami, waging a quiet battle to depoliticize the courts and restrain the unchecked power of hard-line militias, has promised the foreign envoys that the Jews will receive a fair trial.

Indeed, he has hammered away for three years on one theme -- the need for the rule of law -- and has said all institutions should adhere to the Constitution and popular will.

But Khatami has also pointedly refrained from interfering in, or even directly criticizing, the recent judicial persecution of his own political allies. Even as some of his most avid supporters have been sent to prison and their publications silenced, he has maintained an image of serene probity.

The theocratic regime that has ruled Iran since the revolution of 1979 has generally maintained a hands-off attitude toward the Jews.

But the 30,000 or so remaining Jews here are suspect. Hostility and suspicion toward Israel are taken for granted here -- and not only for the conservatives or the clerics. Israel is a declared enemy, and Khatami's reformist supporters, preoccupied with domestic political battles, either do not dare or do not desire to deviate from that line.

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