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The 13 Arrested Iranian Jews: Spies or Victims?

Iran Press Analysis
20 June 1999

Last February and March, 13 Iranians of Jewish faith were arrested in Shiraz and Isfahan. The news of the arrests broke out only last week in the press. Prior to that, various groups - domestic and foreign- were trying to keep the matter out of public eye, in an attempt to quietly resolve the problem behind the scenes. It is not clear why the behind-the-scenes negotiators decided to bring the problem into international limelight, but chances are, their clandestine bargaining was just not working.


Since the Khatami administration took office, and perhaps before that, the leadership ranks of the various factions in Iran had come to a tacit agreement that all quarrels will remain domestic in nature. That is, given the urgent need for Iran to improve her international image and to attract foreign capital, there would be no more events like the Mykonos trials in Germany to complicate matters. Should the arrest of the Jewish-Iranians indeed prove to be an attempt to sabotage Iran's recently-improved international image ' and it is too early to tell if that is indeed the case ' we may be witnessing a major regressive step for the Islamic Republic. Either way, the arrest has already brought on much international condemnation, especially from Israel and the United States.

The Iranian Press & the Arrests

Despite the obvious significance of the event, most Iranian papers eschewed reporting on the matter in a detailed manner when the story broke out. It should be added that a number of religious holidays meant that the press was inactive for half of the week, since in Iran newspapers do not print on holidays. The first opportunity to reflect the news came on Saturday, June 12, though the reformist daily Neshat decided to take that day off too. Emrooz and Khordad gave a very brief column to the matter on that day. With Sunday and Monday off, the press had a chance to think about how to handle the situation. After Tuesday, there was definitely more coverage given to the matter, though usually in the frameworks of President Mohammad Khatami's address, where he reiterated a sense of responsibility for the rights of all Iranians. As time went on, the trend in the press was to tell their readers what the foreign media have been saying about the event. Sometimes this type of reporting was done under the guise of rejecting what is being said abroad, though it is certainly easier for an Iranian publication to quote a Western paper, than to say some sensitive matters itself. Below the specific coverage of some of Iran's papers is examined.


The right of center daily, Entekhab, was interestingly the paper that chose to provide the most coverage on the event. In its Saturday, 12 June issue, Entekhab devoted five columns to the event, including one on the front page. However, the daily came out clearly and unequivocally in favor of the move. The editor of the paper himself wrote a small column called "So it was not paranoia", outlining what he considers three important points that the event proves:

1."The event can be considered a major service by the alert Ministry of Information…and an end to all the rumors and hearsay about …[this group being ineffective]."

2.The editor of Entekhab rejected the notion that it is a false tendency towards conspiracy-theory that makes the authorities react as they do. He emphasized that the history of the Revolution shows just what the motives and actions of foreign powers can be.

3."The enemy is applying full might to the reverie of ruining [us]. There is no doubt in this regards." In another piece called "Spying against the country has nothing to do with religious belief," Entekhab carried out an interview with four MPs who are representatives of various minority groups in Iran. This included Manouchehr Eliyasi, the representative of the Iranian Jews in Majles. Eliyasi is quoted as saying that a charge of espionage is irrelevant of religious affiliation. He adds, "Iranian Jews have no problem or difficulty with their country and their relation with the people and government is excellent and without any problem… We have not to date seen any ill treatment from the Islamic Republic."

Another report in that day's Entekhab covered parts of the Friday Prayer sermon given by the hardline head of the Iranian Judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, that pertained to the matter. The title of that article was, "Yazdi: The arrested spies will soon be tried." Yazdi left little doubt where he stands on the issue when he said, "These people have sold the rights of sixty million Iranians to several Zionist occupants." Alluding to the comments by the United States and Israel, Yazdi rejected that there is any issue of human rights violations at stake here. While assuring that the court will try the accused according to the law and in a public fashion, he did warn that: "We shall carry out the verdict of the court, no matter if it is the death penalty, and we will not listen to what the United States or Israel say."

There was a fourth column reporting on Israeli Prime Minister Barak's request to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan to intervene for the release of the 13 accused Jews in Iran. The final piece on that date covers the reaction of various international media to the event. Interestingly enough the list included the Jerusalem Post and Arena ' both published in Israel. Entekhab adhered to reflecting comments by international media, in its Wednesday issue.


The moderate daily Emrooz in no way gave as extensive a coverage to the issue on Saturday. In fact, the only reference made to the case was in a small column on the bottom corner of its second page. More interestingly, Emrooz's story on the same Friday prayer sermon given by Yazdi is published under the title: "The temporary Friday Prayer Leader of Tehran asked the people to support the Tehran Mayor in the implementation of his plans." There was absolutely no mention of the espionage case in that article what so ever.

After the holidays, on Tuesday 15 June, Emrooz, like many other reformist papers, highlighted the speech President Khatami gave at the Joints Chiefs of Staff's Office of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, on occasion of the death anniversary of the Prophet Mohammad. In that address, Khatami referred to the freedoms of all religious minorities in Iran, and said that he considers the protection of every single person and all religions who live in Iran and have accepted the Islamic regime his personal responsibility. On Wednesday Emrooz reported briefly on the fact that Jesse Jackson's request to mediate on the issue was rejected. Other Reformist Press As mentioned earlier, faced with an extremely sensitive issue and given the luxury of two days of public holidays, many of the press did not come out with a strong stand on the topic. Nehsat was not published at all on Saturday. When it did come out on Tuesday, its most significant piece reported on "The Announcement of the Society of Iranian Jews: The arrest and accusations of a group of Jews has nothing to do with their religion." Similarly, Khordad's Wednesday issue ran a story on: "Iran's Representative Office in the United Nations: The arrest of a number of Iranian Jews has nothing to do with their religion."


The arrests constitute an extremely difficult and sensitive matter for the administration. It is doubtful that Khatami would be able to muster a lot of domestic political support for this cause. Thus, even if he truly believes in helping out, he will be exposing himself to a lot of attack since his opponents will make it sound like the Iranian president is protecting a group of spies. Khatami's address to the Revolutionary Guards Corps was perhaps as supportive as he could have been at the moment. Yet, the case is becoming a thorn in Iran's international image and in the government's attempts to improve ties with the West. For now it is clear that the reformists are trying hard to play down the event, and especially to detach the issue of minority rights from it. It is highly doubtful that they will be able to escape international lime light on such an issue. (IPA)


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