Jews accused of spying are pawns in Iran power struggle

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The Independent Online

A young man shelters from the sun in Shiraz's main synagogue. A few weeks ago, he had watched in disbelief as his brother confessed on Iranian television that he had spied for Israel, and begged for mercy. He had already been told of his brother's confession, but still had not accepted it. "It was just so illogical, it was unbelievable to me," he says.

A young man shelters from the sun in Shiraz's main synagogue. A few weeks ago, he had watched in disbelief as his brother confessed on Iranian television that he had spied for Israel, and begged for mercy. He had already been told of his brother's confession, but still had not accepted it. "It was just so illogical, it was unbelievable to me," he says.

His brother is one of 13 Iranian Jews on trial in this hot, dusty city, accused of passing photographs of military installations and classified information to Israel and plotting to poison the Shiraz water supply. The young man will not say which of the 13 is his brother but it must be one of the two whose confessions were broadcast. The other relatives are too scared to speak at all. Now they sit and wait for a verdict that could see their loved ones imprisoned for years - at one point it was feared they could be executed, but that seems unlikely now - and which could come as early as this week.

The young man lived with his brother before he was taken to the jail. Now he is left to comfort their mother, his brother's wife, and his brother's three young children. "That night, when they said he had confessed, my mother and sister-in-law were bad, they were crying. Two of my brother's kids are too young to understand, but the eldest is 13. She just won't accept it at all."

The world has not accepted it either. The brother sits, nervous, frightened, shy of the glare of publicity that has been thrust upon him. The international community has condemned the trial as a show. The United States has said the outcome could affect its relations with Iran, and Israel is furious that the European Union is not saying the same.

The trial has rocked the 2,700-year-old Iranian Jewish community - one of the oldest religious minorities in the world - to its foundations, and the frightened Jews are leaving in droves.

"I am Iranian," says the brother. "My family has been here for 2,700 years."

And they have: the Jews were living here when Alexander the Great razed Persepolis - half an hour up the road. "Israel really means nothing to us," he says. "We want to help improve this country. Everything we have is here."

And the Jews have plenty in Shiraz. On Zand, the busiest shopping street, the best shops are closed on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, because they belong to Jews. Life was comfortable for them, as comfortable as it can be for any religious minority in the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, their world has turned upside down.

And why has it happened? The Jews will not say any more than that they are caught between "two factions" in Iran's internal politics; they have too much to lose with the verdict so near. But everyone here knows the truth, the reformers will happily tell you. The Jews of Shiraz are helpless pawns, caught up in the tense power struggle for Iran's destiny, between the popular reformers of President Mohamed Khatami, and the hardline mullahs who do not want to let go of a country they have ruled for two decades.

Mr Khatami wants to mend fences with the West; recently there have even been signs of a thaw in relations with Iran's "Great Satan", the US. By trying the Jews so publicly in the courts they still control, the hardliners hope to wreck that policy and weaken the president. And, with their warnings and protests, Israel and the US have served the hardliners up with exactly what they wanted.

There are muted signs of unhappiness at Israel, too, from Iran's Jews. "We are just a football between Israel and Iran," says the brother bitterly.

But it is the hardliners' ruthlessness that has left everyone stunned. The trial was closed to the press and to international observers for reasons of "national security", yet they showed the defendants on television - the hardliners control Iranian television, as well as the courts - "like POWs", said Esmail Naseri, spokesman for the defendants' lawyers.

Eight of the 13 accused Jews have confessed, and one has said he passed information to Israel that he did not know was classified. The defence lawyers say their clients confessed only to passing the addresses of well-known landmarks to Israel - and claim they proved the confessions were inconsistent with each other and unreliable under cross-examination.

But the hardliners showed the first two confessions on television, without any details of what the men had confessed to, but with their abject apologies and pleas for mercy.

Iran's 25,000 Jews are the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel. They have been slowly moving away for years. But one of the community in Shiraz says that the rate of departures has gone up by 30 per cent this year - the year of the trial.

"If they are heavily punished at the end of the trial, I think most of us will leave," says another member of the 6,000-strong Shiraz Jewish community. "There will be only a tiny minority left. I'd be unhappy to see that. We're proud to be living in this land - we've been here for longer than some of the Iranians."

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