A longstanding power struggle between Iran’s top leaders crystallized this week over the legal system that will decide the fate of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel and America.
Offering the first specifics on the case against them, Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that the 13 were arrested “on charges of illegally gathering secret information, including military information, and handing it over to foreigners.”
Foreign affairs chief Kamal Kharrazi condemned international calls for the release of the Jews as “an affront to the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic.”
But in contrast to more hard-line officials, he carefully avoided referring to the arrested Jews as “spies” and emphasized that they would receive “a fair trial with all assurances linked to a correct legal proceeding.”
“At present, they are only suspects, and no verdict has been issued,” Kharrazi stressed.
The foreign minister’s remarks, reported by Iran’s state press agency, came in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan just one day after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami issued a sweeping challenge to his own country’s legal system.
But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, staunchly defended the controversial legal system before the same conference of jurists Khatami addressed.
Analysts pointed to the rhetorical clashes as another sign of a deepening split between fundamentalists and relative moderates in Iran’s political hierarchy.
It is a split, they said, whose outcome is bound to affect the fate of the 13 Jews, who face execution if convicted of espionage.
The Jews, from the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan, were arrested in two sweeps, in January and March. But their arrests and the charges of espionage were officially announced only on June 7. The suspects are said to include rabbis, Hebrew teachers and a ritual slaughterer. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the human rights groups that have issued alerts on their behalf.
Meanwhile, a June 23 story in The Washington Post reported that three of the 13 detainees have visited Israel — a strict illegality in the staunchly anti-Zionist Islamic state. The 13 in general, said the report, had “raised suspicion because of their alleged contacts with family members in Israel [and] illegally importing prayerbooks from there.”
Advocates for the Iranian Jews here, as well as some legal experts, said that such contacts alone, though illegal, would not be likely to convict them of espionage.
But some feared it could inflame suspicions among segments of the population that otherwise would not sympathize with the fundamentalists.
This week, however, supporters of the 13 were cheered by a modest breakthrough: on Tuesday morning, for the first time in many weeks, the 13 were allowed to contact members of their families in Iran by phone, said Jewish leaders here who have been active in calling attention to the plight of the arrested men.
“Until today, these prisoners have not been allowed contact with anyone,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation. Jewish leaders were hopeful family visits might be allowed next.
Kermanian attributed the change in part to his group’s strategy — adopted by the leadership of the wider Jewish community — of eschewing public protests against Iran for now. Instead, with Jewish support, sympathetic governments are pressuring the Islamic state through diplomatic and economic channels.
Last week, the World Bank postponed indefinitely tentative moves to advance a long-delayed $200 million loan to Iran to fund a sewer system in Tehran and medical clinics in the countryside. In press reports, unnamed officials were quoted citing the situation involving the 13 Jews as a factor in the decision.
Some American Jews, including a faction within the Iranian community, have called for more public actions to demand the Jews’ release. But the mainstream communal leadership is now restricting itself to public calls to grant the jailed Jews legal due process.
On Sunday, speaking at a nationwide gathering of judiciary officials in Tehran, Khatami seemed to support many of these demands for the judicial system as a whole. Among other things, the Iranian president called for trial by jury for defendants accused of “political crimes.” Iranian legal experts said this would be unprecedented for the country, which like France and some other European countries, has eschewed juries for bench trials.
Iran has also generally tried political cases in closed revolutionary courts in which defendants’ access to lawyers is usually denied. But in his speech, Khatami stressed the “absolute right of any accused, at any level, to have a lawyer and defend himself freely in court.”
Khatami also lashed out at the practice of “wrong methods” to get confessions from defendants — an apparent allusion to torture.
“We cannot deprive a defendant of his human rights merely because he is accused,” Khatami told the judges, according to the state-sponsored Islamic Republic News Agency. “This is not right, to treat him in any manner we may wish.”
But in his appearance before the same judicial conference the next day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, praised Iran’s “successful justice system,” IRNA reported.
“Khamenei said the confidence the people have placed in the judiciary indicated the extent to which the justice system has succeeded in carrying out its duties,” the official news agency reported.
Among those in the audience, IRNA noted, was Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a key figure in the fundamentalist-controlled judiciary.
Three weeks ago, in a Friday sermon at Tehran University Mosque, Yazdi referred to the detainees as “spies” who would be executed if convicted.
In Iran’s cleric-dominated system, Khamenei heads the Council of Guardians, a body of unelected senior clerics with the power to block actions taken by the democratically elected president. The council also appoints the judiciary.
Azar Nafisi, an Iran specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the case of the 13 Jews was one of several now making the judiciary a “central arena” for the power struggle between moderates and fundamentalists.
“The fact is, the judiciary system is in crisis,” she said.
Nafisi pointed to the murder earlier this year of four pro-reform intellectuals who had sharply criticized the clerics’ domination. After a public outcry, security authorities announced the arrest of a ring of individuals from the Information and Intelligence Ministries in connection with the murders. But no details have been released and no one has been brought to trial; only one has been identified.
The name of that individual, Saeed Emami, was released two weeks ago when it was announced he had committed suicide in his jail cell by swallowing a “dilapatory agent.”
Since then, several officials in the fundamentalist camp have charged that Emami was an agent of Israel or the Jewish Agency and linked him to the 13 jailed Jews.
“I think these two cases are where the power struggle will come out most strongly,” said Nafisi.
With a trial for the Jews seen as increasingly likely even as domestic contention swirls around the system that will try them, advocates hope to see the 13 tried in an open criminal court rather than one of the revolutionary courts, where defendants’ rights are sharply limited.
According to one specialist in Iranian law, this hope is misplaced.
“I’m sure they’re going to a revolutionary court because under Iran’s legal code, espionage [falls under] revolutionary court authority,” said this legal expert.
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for family still in Iran, the attorney added, “Most of these courts are not public, and I’m sure this case won’t be public.”