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Mapping out a dialogue with Iran

By Ze'ev Schiff
June 25, 999

Anyone who has thought about the arrest of a group of Jews in Iran on charges of spying for Israel and the United States can't help but wonder why Jews who live in a place where the ayatollahs determine how minorities shall be treated and hand out death sentences to suit their religious and political purposes would elect to put themselves at risk.

For a Jew, living in today's Iran is like wandering in an unmarked minefield.President Khatami's declaration that Iranian Jews enjoy full rights is worthless. Khatami has not managed to grant protection even to his close associates who have been put on trial.

One would have to be an idiot to believe that Israel would put the lives of 20,000 Iranian Jews - whose access to the Iranian government is nonexistent - at risk by recruiting them for espionage activity. At first, the Iranians arrested a larger group of Jews from Shiraz. Israel was made aware of this, but it was decided not to make a big stir in order to give reason a chance to prevail.

The silence did not help, and now, those arrested are being accused of spying and their lives are in danger. In Iran, where torture is common, any type of confession can be extracted in an interrogation.

All indications are that, at most, three of the Jews could be accused of trying to escape from the Iranian "paradise."

All the facts attest that the Jews fell victim to the struggle going on in Iran between supporters of President Khatami, who seek closer ties with the West, and their opponents from the camp of Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It's a characteristic occurrence in despotic regimes, like those of Stalin and Saddam Hussein, for Jews to fall prey to a government's internal political struggles.

In Iran, they well know that harming Jews constitutes more than an offense to Israel. They know it will arouse Jewish communities around the world, as well as many people in the United States Congress and in various foreign ministries, to take action against Tehran.

This will, of course, foil Iran's rapprochement with the West, to the satisfaction of Khatami's adversaries. One might be tempted to conclude from this that the Iranian president is devoted to making peace with Israel. During his recent visit to Damascus, he did not neglect to tell Hezbollah leaders that the military struggle against Israel must continue.

When pressure to release the Jews mounted, Iran responded in typical fashion with a step meant to push the spotlight off of the Jews' arrest: It leaked that Tehran is interested in a special regional accord that would prevent the use of surface-to-surface missiles in the Middle East. More than actually talking about missiles, the Iranians accused Israel of every possible evil and misdoing, including missile production. Even though the chances for such an accord are quite slim, it was deserving of real discussion, but not merely as a move designed to divert attention from the bogus plot cooked up by the Iranians.

Even before the Jews were arrested on espionage charges, two conflicting phenomena were apparent among Iranians with respect to their attitudes toward Israel.

On the one hand, Iranian leaders held nothing back when it came to hurling accusations, such as one that Israel was meddling in the production of oil in the Caspian Sea with the aim of causing damage to Iran.

Another claim was that Israel was somehow involved in the murder of the Iranian deputy chief of general staff (an assassination that was apparently carried out by the Mujahedeen).

This assertion posited that such a step by Israel came in response to Tehran's assistance to Hezbollah and its training of other Palestinian groups in Iran.

The other side of the coin is that various Iranians are now more willing than ever before to hold a dialogue with Israel on different topics. They no longer automatically flinch from the possibility, as Palestinians and other Arabs did in the past.

The arrest of the Jews in Iran and the danger that their lives have been put in could very well throw a wrench into this trend. On principle, a propensity for dialogue must be viewed as a positive development. The chasm in knowledge between Israel and Iran is vast and perilous - especially when neither side understands what the other's red lines are.


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