The release of five Iranian Jews from prison resulted not from a change of heart by the regime in Tehran, observers say, but from a political calculation that requires a burnished national image.
And clouding the relief of their relatives and advocates is concern that these released prisoners may be rearrested at any time or be subjected to other forms of harassment, at the whim of the authorities.
The quintet, released February 19 after four years in prison, were merchant Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, who had been sentenced to 13 years; university English instructor Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Hebrew teacher Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; perfume merchant Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years, and shopkeeper Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.
The five had been imprisoned with eight others on charges of spying for Israel. The “Iranian 13,” as they came to be known, became a cause celebré in the Jewish community and their plight was taken up by international diplomats after they were arrested and imprisoned in January and March 1999.
Israel has steadfastly denied that the men were its spies.
Three were subsequently found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years. Five of those 10 were previously released.
The remaining five were released earlier this year for what has been called a “vacation,” only to be re-arrested in mid-February.
The February 19 re-release came on the heels of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Mecca, a traditional time for rulers to demonstrate magnanimity, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
But “it’s only magnanimous,” he said, “if you compare it to what the hard-line judiciary could have done.”
Numerous Iranian officials had threatened the Jews with execution, a penalty that Tehran has reportedly meted out to at least 17 Iranian Jews accused of espionage since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Ongoing skirmishes between the hard-line clerics who run Iran and their more moderate rivals likely played a role in the release, as did pressure from the European Union, a major trading partner with Iran, which has cited human rights abuses as hindering expanded trade between the two.
While pressure from the E.U. and the United Nations over human rights may have played a role, so too might have Washington’s saber-rattling against Iraq and North Korea, which along with Iran make up President Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”
“I think Iran, after several years of not paying attention to international pressure, is now taking public steps to improve its image abroad because they may not want to be a target of the war on terrorism the U.S. has launched,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
The last days have seen conflicting statements as to whether the five have been released permanently.
Over the weekend, media reports circulated that the five had been released permanently after being pardoned by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By Monday, however, word emerged from Iranian officials that there had been no such pardon and that the prisoners had only been released on a 10-day “holiday.”