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U.S., Israel call for release of 13 Iran Jews

By Janine Zacharia

Jun 09, 1999, JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States and Israel Tuesday called for the immediate release of 13 jailed Iranian Jews accused of spying for both countries, a charge Washington said was ``entirely without foundation.''

The State Department issued a statement saying it was ''aware that 13 members of the (Iranian) Jewish community have been arrested and are expected to be charged with espionage for Israel and the United States.''

``These arrests send a very disturbing signal. We call on the government of Iran to ensure no harm comes to these individuals and to release them,'' State Department spokesman James Foley said at a briefing in Washington.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart denied charges that the detained Iranians were spying on behalf of Washington. ''These charges are entirely without foundation,'' he said in a statement.

He said the United States was ``deeply troubled'' by the arrest of the group, including several religious leaders.''

``We call on the government of Iran to uphold its state commitment to protect the rights of all religious and ethnic minorities by releasing these individuals and ensuring that no harm comes to them,'' Lockhart said.

Israeli media quoted Iran's state-run radio as saying the 13, residents of the southern Fars province, were suspected of spying for the ``Zionist regime,'' and ``world arrogance,'' a euphemism for the United States.

Israel denied the arrested men had ever spied for the Jewish state and expressed concern for their welfare.

U.S. officials said the United States had learned of the arrests in April but had treated the matter with discretion at the request of those who were directly involved in seeking the release of the individuals.

``Now that it's in the public domain, we believe it's appropriate to speak out on the matter,'' Foley said.

Israeli analysts said the first arrests had been made in January and that for five months Iranian authorities refrained from divulging information on the case. Jewish groups have been seeking release of the detainees through quiet channels.

``Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon declared today that not one of the arrested men was involved in espionage, and not one of them has, or has had in the past, any connection with any Israeli intelligence agency,'' the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

``Israel is worried about these arrests which have occurred only because they are Jewish. Israel is deeply concerned about their fate and demands their immediate release,'' the statement said.

A U.N. spokesman said Sharon met Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Prime minister-elect Ehud Barak said he backed the government's and Sharon's efforts to secure the release of the detainees and that the people of Israel ``were united in their concern for the Iranian Jewish community.''

The case sparked broad concern in Israel. A banner headline in Israel's leading Yedioth Ahronoth daily read: ``Fears for the lives of Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel.''

Israeli analyst Menashe Amir, an expert on Iranian affairs, said the 13 Jews had been jailed in Shiraz prison, ``known for its severity.''

He said those who were arrested were suspected, among other things, of encouraging Jews to leave for Israel, ``a very grave matter for Iranian authorities.'' Those convicted of espionage in Iran could face the death penalty.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish groups had appealed to European leaders to help secure the release of the Jews.

Iran, which had ties with the Jewish state until the 1979 Islamic revolution, does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Asked whether the incident could affect U.S.-Iranian relations, Foley said the United States had demonstrated its interest ``in pursuing a different and better relationship with the government of Iran after 20 years of no relations,'' but added that a number of areas of concern remain.


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