Prague, 24 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The case of 13 Iranian Jews arrested in Iran on charges of spying for Israel is rapidly growing into a major diplomatic battle between the West and Tehran.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine this week used the strongest language in the confrontation to date when he said on Tuesday that the charges against the 13 Iranian Jews were -- in his words -- presumably fabricated after their arrest. He called the case part of a political struggle within Iran's own leadership.
Vedrine also said that France will mobilize other European Union countries to press Tehran to release the alleged spies, whom Iran's chief judge has said will be executed if they are found guilty.
The French statements maintain an angry tide of Western and international reaction, which has already seen Pope John Paul, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the United States, Germany, and Israel criticizing Tehran over the affair.
The 13 were taken into custody some months ago, but the case only became public this month when U.S. Jewish groups broke their silence after reportedly failing to mediate their own solution.
Tehran has responded to the criticism by demanding Western powers stop what it calls attempts to interfere in its internal matters. Foreign Minister Hamid-Reza Assefi said Tuesday that all those arrested are Iranian citizens charged with threatening national security and that Western pressure will have no effect on court proceedings.
Analysts say the case has aroused intense Western reaction for two major reasons.
One reason is the vague nature of the spying charges against the 13 suspects, most of whom are believed to be rabbis and religious employees from Jewish communities in the provincial cities of Isfahan and Shiraz. The target of the alleged spy ring's activities has not been specified, though Israel is known to be concerned by Iranian programs to develop long-range missiles. And both Washington and Israel accuse Tehran of trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Equally unspecified have been any details of how the Iranian Jews allegedly cooperated with Israeli spy services. Some Iranian papers have reported that the suspects were accused on the basis of e-mails to people in Israel and that some of their relatives went to Israel after having traveled to Austria. But no specific charges have yet been made public by prosecuting officials.
The murkiness of the charges has fueled the second reason the West is angered by the case -- a growing suspicion that Iran's Jewish minority is being used as a pawn in efforts by Iranian hard-liners to sabotage warming relations between the European Union and the government of relatively moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
William Samii -- a specialist on Iran with RFE/RL's Communications Division -- says that some moderate Iranian newspapers have also raised that hypothesis, even as they endorse a general Iranian conviction that Israel regularly spies on Tehran and that the suspects may have been involved in such activities. "There is universal condemnation of the Israelis. There is universal suspicion of Israeli intentions. All the newspapers publish pieces saying they may indeed be spies. But some of the Iranian newspapers have pointed out that this could be an issue which is being used to discredit the president."
The arrests come just three months after Khatami made a groundbreaking visit to Italy to call for a "dialogue of civilizations" to end Iran's international isolation. Khatami's visit -- the first by an Iranian head of state to a Western capital in 20 years -- angered Iranian hard-liners, who fear greater opening to the West will compromise the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Analysts say the case now has put Khatami in a dangerous crossfire between the criticism of the arrests by his would-be European partners, like France, and Iranian hard-liners' demands to pursue punishment of the alleged spies to the maximum.
So far, Khatami has remained silent, except for one public response apparently intended to calm fears that the case could be part of a crackdown on Iran's religious minorities. He said that as head of state, he is responsible for the rights and protections of minorities. Iran's mission to the United Nations also tried to broaden the spying case beyond Iran's Jewish community last week by saying that the number of alleged spies exceeds 13 and that some of the others held are Muslims.
Samii says that Khatami's silence may reflect his reluctance to take sides in a case which offers him no easy solutions -- even though the current battle risks jeopardizing his foreign policies. "He certainly can't come out in defense of people who may actually be spies for Israel or, at least, who will be shown as such in an Iranian court. Also, since he has assumed the presidency, Khatami has shown he is not the kind of person to take sides in cases where he can't win. Khatami's power stems from a popular and populist mandate, but in this case no one in Iran is speaking out on behalf of the arrested Jews."
Meanwhile, leaders of Iran's 30,000-strong Jewish community have called for the release of their co-religionists -- all of whom maintain their innocence.
The community's parliamentary deputy, Manucher Eliasi, asked this week for the suspects to be set free and asserted the loyalty of all Iranian Jews to the central government in Tehran.
The religious leader of the Jewish community, Rabbi Yussef Hammedani-Kohan, met on Monday with Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri to discuss the arrests, but no details of the meeting are available.