Molla Niessan Synagogue in Isfahan. Photo by N. Kasraian
How NOT to help arrested Jews in Iran
By Ali Akbar Mahdi
July 22, 1999
The following is in response to articles by Thomas Friedman (New
York Times June 28, 1999) and Tom Teepen (Columbus Dispatch,
June 29, 1999) about the arest of 13 Jews in Iran.
As a minority group in Iran, Iranian Jews experience an added hardship
living in a society governed by the strict implementation of Islamic laws.
Many Iranian Jews also experience prejudice, stereotyping, and ocassional
discrimination. However, majority of these Jews regard themselves Iranians
and would prefer to share the pain and joy of living in that country with
their fellow Iranians, be it Muslim, Bahahi, Zoroasterian, or Christian.
The arrest of 13 Jews in Iran accused of spying for the United States
and Israel has given rise to a worldwide campaign for their freedom. While
Western and Jewish concerns for the fate of these individuals is understandable
and admirable, their approach to the problem is at best ineffective and
at worst harmful to their cause.
To start with, this approach, epitomized by Thomas Friedman and Tom
Teepen is based on unfounded assumptions that Israel would not do such
a "stupid thing" as using the Jewish minority in Iran for spying
purposes; that Israel does not have spies in Iran; that President Khatami
does not share the concerns of his opponents regarding this issue (i.e.,
espionage and national security); that the arrested persons are innocent
because Israel or Western countries say so; and that Iranian people also
see them as innocent and are willing to, in response to Khatami's call
at the urging of Friedman, come to the streets and sacrifice their lives
in protest of arrest of the 13 alleged Jews.
It is naive to assume that Israel, which has so much at stake in the
region, is not in the business of collecting information on one of its
most vocal enemies. All countries, including Iran, Israel, and the United
States, are engaged in collecting information about each other and in doing
so they may get caught. All countries have done stupid things inadvertently
in the past and will probably do so in the future. Remember Iranian government's
efforts to stage a fake departure of a writer to Germany while he was in
prison in Tehran or brutal serial murders of writers which exposed some
of the worst crimes committed by the members of intelligent service? Or
the ill-conceived Sabra and Chatilla massacre in Lebanon by Israel? The
cake delivered by Reagan's National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane in
Tehran in 1985? The U.S. Navy downing of Iran Air Airbus over the Persian
Gulf in July, 1988? And the bombing of Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia a
month and a half ago? Stupidity knows no nationality.
From what we know of his thoughts and deeds, President Khatami is as
much opposed to spying as is the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah
Khamenei. As a moderate cleric, Khatami may disagree with his conservative
opponents' judicial process and the amount and kind of punishment for spying,
but he does not disagree with them on the criminality of the act. No country
does. Hardliners and moderates agree on this issue.
Teepen's suggestion that this case has merely to do with politics is
unwarranted. While the conservatives exploit any situation to derail Khatami's
policy of normalization of the relations with the West, this case does
not fit the charge. Trying to antagonize one camp against the other would
not work here. Western politicians are using this strategy to gain public
support for this cause and to put pressure on the Khatami camp to do something
about the release of the alleged spies. There is no doubt that if he could,
Khatami will do everything to get this matter resolved as soon as possible.
Mounting Western pressure is not what he needs now. What Khatami should
be asked to do is to push for due process and the release of information
about the case and assure a fair and open trial for the defendants. Khatami
has stated that he sees himself responsible for the safety of minorities
in Iran. On June 27, he told judiciary officials that they should protect
the rights of accused persons, better define political crimes, and offer
defendants jury trials. The next day, Khamenei responded to him indirectly
by praising the judiciary system and arguing against those who undermine
The Western strategy of trying to treat the apprehension of 13 accused
Jews as a human rights issue requires that they do not discriminate against
other accused in this case. When the defendants are not given a fair and
open trial, discriminated because of their religion, and forced to confess
to crimes they have not committed, this becomes a human rights issue. However,
these 13 Jewish individuals have not been tried yet. There are also some
10-15 more Iranians among those arrested allegedly for the same crime.
Why not decry the loss of human rights for all these people? Why do the
Western media and Jewish groups fail to mention the others among this group?
A look at the Iranian papers, even the moderate ones, shows that this kind
of favoritism has been disturbing to the Iranian public and makes these
arrested individuals look "special."
In a multiethnic context, playing this kind of ethnic favoritism does
not work well. Remember Ayatollah Khomeini's targeting of African-American
hostages for release in the 1980s? Did his sympathy toward African-Americans
work for him? Did it soften American altitudes toward Iranian demands?
Even African-Americans were uncomfortable with such uninvited and self-
serving sympathy. Listen to the Jewish leaders in Iran today. They are
understandably cautious and careful as to what they say but reasonably
asking for an open, fair, and realistic process in which the guilt or innocence
of all the accused can be established. They, like the Iranian people, have
been asking for such equity for all their citizens, whatever their religion
and political ideology.
The Islamic Republic's record on human rights is dismal and criminal
trials leaves a lot to be desired. If Westerners are interested in gaining
any sympathy from the Iranian public, they should refrain from treating
these 13 Jews as LESS Iranain than they are. Choosing 13 out of 28 detainees
and mobilizing the whole world against Iranian government for their release
may make Western and Jewish leaders feel better that they are doing something
about their plight. It will not, however, win the Iranian public sympathy
for the case - the desired goal of Western media. Such an overblown reaction
to a case that is not yet determined (as if all these 13 Jews are already
convicted and about to be put to execution) harden the positions of many
Iranian politicians that the accused are indeed spies. The Western media
should not overreact to the sensational statements made in Friday prayers
for public consumption. Hardliners have often used Friday prayers as a
forum for testing public reaction to their projected strategies and mobilizing
people for their own causes.
If Western and Jewish leaders want to win the Iranian public opinion
on this issue, they should show the same zeal about all cases of political
abuse in Iran, be it Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, Christian, secular, religious,
or nationalist. They should do so for all countries in the region, not
just Iran. Concern for human rights and political repression is effective
when it is not skewed toward any particular group or country. When the
Iranian people see that Western governments are willing to severe their
relationship with Iran over this case but in their thirst for commercial
dealings with Iran remain silent about the brutal murder of secular politicians
and intellectuals, they become cynical about Western concerns for human
rights in countries like Iran.
Finally, a word about the language used by Mr. Friedman is in order.
His tone, and much of others, is presumptuous and paternalistic. It suggests
that if a developing country does not do as told by a superpower, it deserves
to be punished like an errant child. Friedman's mantra for expanding Western
influence around the world by might is dangerous and self-serving. The
way in which Western governments, politicians, and journalists address
developing nations has serious consequences for public attitudes toward
the West in the rest of the world. Look at the language and tone of Mr.
Friedman's article and ask yourself why non-Westerners see us as arrogant
There is an often stated truism that what one government does to the
leadership of another government should not be a measure of that government's
attitudes toward the people of the affected country, i.e. "the United
States is not against the Iraqi people but only Saddam Hussein." This
logic does not work all the time, especially for people affected by the
devastating treatment of their country because of its leadership. The majority
of Iraqis and Serbians fail to separate the treatment of their leaders
by Western powers and the consequences of such a treatment on their lives.
Chinese and Iranians may not like their governments but they do not appreciate
treating their country the way Mr. Friedman does. Respect begets respect.
Ali Akbar Mahdi
June 28, 1999
Ali Akbar Mahdi is an associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan
University. He is the author of Farhang-e
Irani, J'ame'eh-ye Madani, va Daghdaghe-ye Demokr'asi ("Iranian
Culture, Civil Society, and Concern for Democracy, " 1998, Javan Publishing
Co., Toronto) ... TO TOP
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