Earlier this month relatives and friends of the 10 Iranian Jews who were convicted of spying for Israel gathered at a synagogue in Brooklyn to discuss their future campaign for the release of the detainees.
In March 1999, 13 Jews in Shiraz, a southern Iranian city, were arrested in a controversial espionage case. They were held for more than a year without access to lawyers. The proceedings have been closed to journalists and other observers.
The custody drew relentless international scrutiny and widespread criticism. Leaders and politicians all over the world condemned the Islamic Republic for plotting the arrests.
“There is fear that the internal struggles within Iran are being played out in this case,” said Hanny Megally, the executive director of Human rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa in New York.
Last May, Iran's state television broadcast confessions of two of the detainees. But world leaders and Jewish groups suggested that the confessions were coerced.
“All of the confessions are contradictory. All acknowledge they didn't have any confidential information,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization in New York.
Last June, after intense political pressure from European countries and the U.S.A., the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz sentenced 10 of the detainees to jail terms ranging from three to 13 years. The other three Jews and two Iranian Muslims, who were linked to the espionage allegations, were acquitted.
The charges on which the defendants were convicted included “cooperating with a hostile government, membership in an illegal ring and recruitment of new agents.”
Sadegh Nourani, the judge, who also acted as the prosecutor, said the court handed down “lenient judgments.”
At a press conference held at his UN's office, Iran's representative to UN, Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, said his government considers reducing sentences of the detainees and releasing some of them.
The question remains whether he made this assessment in accordance with a well- calculated policy in Tehran, or in response to pressure from UN members.
“I am not optimistic at all,” said Professor Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami at New York University's Middle Eastern studies department. Nejad-Hosseinian is a reformist and an ally of President Khatami, he said.
According to the Islamic Republic constitution, the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who's known to be a diehard conservative, has the authority to grant clemency. Khorrami added that the controversial espionage case resulted from new clashes between the hard-liners and the reformists.
“The hard-liners target different groups such as women, journalists and the Jews,” said Khorrami. “This is not because they hate women, journalists or Jews per se. They are looking for ways to reproduce their identity and unify their camp.”
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that sentences might have included death had people around the world not spoken out against the trial. He alluded to an organized campaign by Jewish groups around the world and the intense response of political leaders in the West.
Espionage is punishable by death in Iran. In 1997, two people were hanged after they were convicted on espionage charges.
“I think it's better to look at Iran not as having one unified, solidified regime, as basically having two centers of power,” said Professor Ervand Abrahamian at Baruch College in New York. Abrahamian, a prominent expert on the Middle East and author of several books about Iran, referred to the power struggle between hard-liners and reformists.
He added that the hard-liners want to jeopardize President Khatami's efforts to open up to the West. Khatami won the presidency in a landslide victory in June 1997.
“Since President Khatami was elected, the conservatives have been doing anything to sabotage his relations with the West,” Abrahamian said.
The reformists, led by President Khatami, overwhelmingly dominate the parliament. But the hard-liners, led by the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, control the Judiciary, the army, Islamic militias and the media. Moreover, the spiritual leader has the final say over the president and the parliament.
“The artificial crises created in the past have not had a good impact on national and international relations,” said Khatami to his supporters last year, only days after the verdicts of the 13 Jews were rendered.
“Each time we make some progress in actualizing our reform policies, each time we try to move one step forward, something bad happens,” a reformist member of the Iranian parliament said last July on condition of anonymity. He made the assessment in an interview with Christian Amanpour, CNN's correspondent in Tehran.
“They want to distract people's attention and to shift the focus from social and economic problems to alleged espionage,” said Jaleh Delkhidam, whose sister's husband is among the detainees. Delkhidam left Iran seven years ago and settled in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Her siblings moved to Israel except Farah, who remained in Iran. Farah' husband, Javid BentiYacoub, was charged and convicted of espionage and was sentenced to nine years in jail, but in last September the appeal court reduced the sentence to seven years.
“It is an extremely difficult situation for her since all her siblings and relatives have left the country,” said Delkhidam and added, “It is hard to raise the children alone. She is depressed and cries a lot.”
Javid Benti Yacoub, 43, who owns a sport-clothing store in Shiraz, had visited Israel prior to his arrest. The judge based the conviction on this trip. According to the Islamic Republic laws, Israel is an enemy state and visiting Israel is prohibited.
Since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, most Jews have left Iran and only an estimated 25,000 still remain in the country. Before the revolution, Iranian Jews held positions of power and influence as businessmen, lawyers and civil servants. But since the arrest of the 13 in Shiraz, they live in fear of being branded traitors in the land they have lived in for more than 2,700 years.
Despite the mass migration, Iran's Jewish community remains the Middle East's largest outside Israel. The majority of the diehard, orthodox Jews from Shiraz moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Benti Yacoub's mother who lives in Brooklyn has not been informed of her son's detention. Mahnaz, Benti Yacoub's sister said that her mom's health is deteriorating and it would be better not to inform her of the sentence. Mahnaz, however, declined to comment further on her brother's custody because “it's very painful.”
Benti Yacoub's siblings, Mahnaz, Shahin and Masoud joined Nezrim, who's the sister of Nasser Levi Haim, another detainee, met with President Clinton in Los Angeles last year.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Iranian government has again failed to act as a society based on the rule of law, to which the Iranian people aspire,” Clinton said, shortly after the verdicts were announced.
“We never expected that Nasser would get such a long sentence,” said Cyrus Javaherian, whose wife, Nezrim, is the sister of Nasser Levi Haim. Levi Haim, 46, a rabbi, who imported religious articles from Israel to distribute them in the community, received 11 years, which later was reduced to eight years.
“He worked for a power company and taught the Torah. That's what he did all his life, he only did good,” said Javaherian.
The relatives of the 10 incarcerated await a meeting with President Bush. They intend to travel to Israel next June to meet with Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to urge him to continue with the political pressure on the Iranian government.
Professor Khorrami at NYU said that under two completely different scenarios, the 10 Jews might be released. If hard-liners win the presidency in the upcoming election in June, they would feel confident enough to make a gesture of good will and release the imprisoned Jews.
The other scenario is that they lose control of the judiciary. The recent polls, however, show that President Khatami, a reformist, is headed to another landslide victory.