Battle for reform takes its toll on Iranian Jews

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The Independent Online
THE ARREST of 13 Jews in Iran accused of spying for Israel sent shivers through the 2,500-year-old minority. The exact nature of the charges has never emerged but, ever since the round-up in March, Iran's Jews have been quietly packing and leaving, convinced the country is no longer safe for them.

There are renewed hopes that the detainees, including a boy aged 16, will be released. "The Supreme National Security Council, which is in charge of thinking about the interests of the country, may decide soon to free some of the [Jews]. This has nothing to do with court," Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, was reported to have said yesterday.

Mr Rahbarpour has led the campaign to convict the Jews. Two months ago he claimed the court had enough evidence, and his volte face has all the signs of a behind-the-scenes deal. "It is up to the system's officials to think of the country's interests, not the court," he was quoted as saying.

Iran has come under heavy international pressure over the matter. It used to ignore such protests, but President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government is set on improving relations with Europe.

Why the 13 were accused has never been clear. It seems that some of them may have secretly visited Israel - illegal under Iranian law - and the 16-year-old may have sent e-mail messages to Israel. There are rumours one of the 13 worked on a secret aircraft project.

Officially, the arrests had nothing to do with religion. Iran's authorities point out that several Muslims were arrested in connection with the same charges. But that has done nothing to allay the fears of the Jewish community.

Iran's Jews are descendants of slaves brought to Iran 2,500 years ago, long before Israel or the new Islamic Republic existed. Rumour has been rife as to why the Jewish community was selected for the arrests. But the most common theory is that the accused are 13 pawns in the struggle between hardliners and Mr Khatami's reformers for control of Iran.

Also yesterday, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's Supreme Leader, announced his refusal of United States requests to send diplomats to Tehran. "They want to set up an intelligence and political site," Mr Khameini said. US officials denied making any request to send diplomats.