Jerusalem (CNS) The German government has appointed an envoy at Israel's request to work for the release of 13 Iranian Jews, including rabbis and community leaders, accused by Tehran of spying for Israel and the United States.
Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak asked Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for his help in securing the Jews' release, Barak's office said Friday. Schroeder had agreed to commission an emissary.
Germany is Iran's biggest trading partner, and wields considerable influence in Tehran.
The development comes amid growing international demands for Iran to release the Jews, who face execution if convicted. The U.S., Israel and several European countries have joined the call, and Israeli leaders have also approached the United Nations, Pope John Paul and Jordan's King Abdallah.
Amnesty International has named the 13 suspects, apparently all men aged between 16 and 48, and said most had been denied family visits or legal representation.
The United States and Israel have expressly denied that those arrested were spies, with White House press secretary Joe Lockhart calling the charges "entirely without foundation."
Iran early yesterday again confirmed that "13 spies who had been working for the Zionists have been arrested" in the southern Fars province.
The Iranian news agency quoted a senior intelligence official as saying the suspects "played a vital role in the espionage network" and had been apprehended "with the help of the noble people of the province, in collaboration with intelligence department personnel."
The state-run Tehran Times quoted an "informed source" as saying the suspects' activities "included the garnering of required information and transmitting them to the intelligence agencies abroad," and that they were arrested in late March.
Iran radio said in a commentary that Israel's protests over the arrests were an attempt to distract attention from the suspects' actions.
"In view of the [Israeli] regime's record of espionage, acts of terrorism and its utilization of inhumane and illegal methods, Tel Aviv's endeavor is rendered ineffective," it said.
"Iran, which has been the constant target of foreign conspiracies over the last 20 years, reserves the right to arrest and try the spies."
Iran has also criticized what it called Western interference in the case, denying Israeli charges that the 13 were arrested because they were Jews.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the West of "unawareness, prejudgment and interference in Iran's internal affairs," and said the suspects would be treated justly and tried according to Iranian Islamic law.
"All official minorities in Iran enjoy full civil and religious rights and actively participate in the administration of the state affairs."
A front-page editorial in Tehran Times took up a similar theme: "There are 27,000 Jews in Iran. They have one representative in Parliament and enjoy rights equal to those of other Iranian citizens."
The assertion of equality has been challenged by Middle Eastern experts.
Professor Gerald Steinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv said Friday that Iranian Jews and other minorities "are subject to blatant discrimination and the pressures to conform to the dominant Islamic custom."
He noted that Jewish schools and the teaching of the Hebrew language are prohibited, and that a Jewish newspaper was shut down after taking issue with the government for appropriating Jewish schools.
"The arrest of 13 Jews for [alleged] spying shows that in Iran, as in the former Soviet Union, Iraq, and Syria, the minimum standards of human rights are absent."
Amnon Netzer, Hebrew University professor of Iranian studies, said Iran's Jews lived in constant fear of more arrests on trumped-up charges. He concurred with other analysts who said the arrests were probably linked to battle between extremist and modernizing forces in Iran.
Israel's Iranian-born Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, said the arrests were indicative of "a very serious trend." He said various political factions were trying to prove their religious zeal by focusing on Jews.
According to Amnesty International "lawyers and observers are excluded from trials at [Iranian] Revolutionary Courts, where trials often fall short of minimum international fair trial standards."
In its editorial, the Tehran Times suggested Washington had effectively admitted that the suspects were spies, saying State Department spokesman James Foley had "refused to comment on the charges, citing as the reason the U.S. policy against discussing intelligence matters."
According to the record, Foley told a press briefing Tuesday that, "without crediting in any way the thesis behind the accusations, we simply don't comment on intelligence matters."
The newspaper also sought to find significance in what it said was the fact foreign media "probably in coordination with the American intelligence services" had announced the arrests before Iranian officials had confirmed them.
In fact, the first known media report on the arrests was from the BBC, which quoting an unidentified official cited by Iranian radio on Monday.
Germany has been involved previously in sensitive diplomacy involving Iran, for instance in efforts to locate Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon and believed possibly held in Iran. German intelligence representative Bernd Schmidbauer played a crucial role in these contacts.
Germany has presented this access as proof of the validity of the EU policy of "constructive dialogue" with Iran, a policy critics say is a pretext to enjoy commercial benefits with countries the U.S. seeks to isolate.
The bilateral relations suffered several years back, over alleged Iranian-backed terrorism on German soil, and Iranian assertions that Germany had supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons he used during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
They reached a low point in April 1997, when a German court linked Iran's political and spiritual leadership to terrorism in Europe, prompting the European Union to sever diplomatic links.
Ties improved following the election a month later of President Mohammed Khatami, a relative moderate.