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Iranian Parliamentarian Says Tehran May Free Last Five Jewish Prisoners

The five remaining Jewish prisoners held in Iran on spying charges may be freed within the next two months, according to the sole Jewish member of the Iranian parliament.

“From the discussions I had in Iran, I sincerely hope they will be released either on the occasion of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 12 or for the Iranian New Year, or Nohrouz, on March 21,” Maurice Motamed, who represents Iran’s 25,000-strong community in the Iranian parliament, told the Forward in an exclusive interview last week.

The two-hour interview was held at the New York residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in presence of an Iranian diplomat.

Motamed, 58, said he recently held talks with Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president who is now head of the powerful Expediency Council, and the head of Iran’s judiciary, Mahmud Shahroudi, about granting the men a “provisional pardon.” Such pardons allow the release of a prisoner when more than half of his term has been served. He then went to see the judicial authorities in the southern city of Shiraz, where the men are being held, to plead for their release.

Thirteen Iranian Jews and eight Muslims were arrested in Shiraz in 1999 on charges of spying for Israel.

In July 2000, a court sentenced 10 of the Jews and two of the Muslims to jail terms of between four and 13 years, igniting a wave of international protests and American demands that the verdicts be overturned. Two months later, an appeals court reduced the sentences. Two of the convicted men were later freed after serving out their terms.

Last October, after initial reports that Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had pardoned the remaining eight, only three were set free.

Such disappointments are why Jewish leaders who have been in touch with Motamed during his month-long private visit to the United States warned against hasty announcements.

“They have already served half their time, but let’s wait and see,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Motamed, who was elected in January 2000, explained that in October Shahroudi, head of the judiciary, had agreed to a provisional pardon and that three of the men were released a month later.

But he said the process was halted after Pooya Dayanim, head of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, announced the release of the men to Voice of America and claimed it was the result of American pressure, prompting the Iranian authorities to back off.

Several sources interviewed at the time, however, said Motamed had told them that all the prisoners would be freed and that “he just got it wrong,” as one source put it.

In any case, Motamed now thinks his efforts will soon bear fruit. He stressed that the inmates were in good health, receiving weekly visits from their families and allowed to eat kosher food. He said he brought them tefillin and that the prisoners recently spent 10 days at home.

Another case Motamed has been trying to solve with the highest political and intelligence authorities is the one of 11 Jews who disappeared in 1996 close to the Pakistani border.

He explained that while “the people in charge” believe the individuals had crossed the border into Pakistan, following a traditional escape route to Karachi and the United States, the U.N. and their families believe they are still in Iran.

Over tea and Iranian pistachios — one of the few Iranian imports allowed in the United States — Motamed, a tall, lean, clear-eyed man sporting a moustache and an elegant suit, explained that he had “never had a problem” with his religion in his work as an engineer and a civil servant.

He described the situation of Jews in Iran as “good,” repeatedly referring to the 2,500-year-old history of the Jews in what used to be called Persia.

He said that while Jews, like other minorities, run their own schools and can teach their own languages, they still face discrimination in many areas of public life.

For example, they receive smaller damages than Muslims in court. This is why Motamed is “thrilled” that the parliament recently voted in favor of a bill he sponsored ensuring equal compensations for all Iranians. The bill still needs to be accepted by the more hard-line Council of Guardians before it becomes a law, but Motamed said he was optimistic because Khamenei supported the measure.

He also is hoping that Jews whose properties were seized the government after the 1979 revolution — some 75,000 Jews out of a community of 100,000 left Iran at the time — will be able to reclaim possession like other Iranians. Jews now have to show they have no relations with Israel or Israeli institutions to do so.

Although sources say he is close to the reformist camp of President Mohamed Khatami, Motamed was careful to cast himself as an independent in the parliament, stressing that he also has good relations with conservatives.

Observers said he is forced to adapt such a neutral position in order to gain as much leverage as possible for his constituents. For instance, Shahroubi, the head of the judiciary with whom he has been discussing the issue of the Shiraz Jews, is conservative.

“Maurice is in a tough position,” one knowledgeable source said. “He has to tread a very, very fine line.” This is certainly true on issues such as Israel, the United States and terrorism.

When asked about the apparent paradox of being a Jewish member of parliament of an Islamic republic that doesn’t recognize Israel and funds terrorist groups like Hamas, Motamed said it was “completely wrong” to portray Iran as the enemy of the Jewish people.

His attitude prompted Dayanim, of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, to write an article in the National Review Online last week in which he blasted Motamed for allowing himself to be used as a public relations tool by the Islamic Republic.

Motamed said the acrimony was due to resentment over the premature announcement of the release of the prisoners several months ago.

And he did depart from the official stance on Israel when he said he supported a two-state solution and always publicly expressed deep regret about the killing of innocent civilians on both sides. He also used the word “Israel,” while the Iranian diplomat stuck to the expression “Zionist entity.”

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