Imprisoned Iranian Jews Casts Shadow over Khatami Visit to France

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

( - French Jews have been demonstrating in Paris to protest the first official visit by an Iranian president in 20 years, highlighting the plight of 13 Iranian Jews being held on charges of spying for Israel and the United States.

Theirs is not the only protest President Mohammed Khatami has faced during a visit aimed as achieving closer ties with the European Union. Human rights groups and Iranian opposition activists have also demonstrated since the three-day visit began Wednesday.

Several hundred people rallied outside the Paris law courts as Khatami held talks with President Jacques Chirac, demanding the release of the 13 Jews.

The U.S. and Israel have expressly denied that those arrested were spies and have called for their release.

Iran says they will get a fair trial. Amnesty International says court cases in Iran - where espionage carries the death penalty - "often fall short of minimum international fair trial standards."

Despite the fact the trial has yet to begin, Tehran Revolutionary Court president Gholamhossein Rabarpour was quoted as telling the Jomhuri-ye Islami newspaper last month there was sufficient and compelling evidence that the 13 were guilty.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said Wednesday the visit was a sign Iran wanted to rejoin the international community, and said the U.S. expected France to raise issues of concern to the West.

He noted that the Iranian Jews, "after seven months under arrest on capital charges of espionage have yet to be granted access to defense counsel. We have made clear that these charges are without merit and should be dropped."

Both Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and his predecessor - now in opposition - Herve de Charette, spoke earlier of the importance of raising the subject of the imprisoned Jews during the visit.

Neither Chirac nor Khatami mentioned human rights issues during public comments Wednesday. But Vedrine told French RTL Radio that the Iranians "are telling us there will be guarantees, that they [the Jews] will get a regular trial, that nothing has been decided ..."

Earlier, French police rounded up Iranian dissidents in and near Paris, citing anti-terror laws and warnings about security risks facing Khatami. France also closed borders to prevent other exiles from entering from neighboring countries to protest in Paris.

Khatami also held talks with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and visited the Senate, where Iranian protestors reportedly threw eggs and paint at his car. Thursday he was due to meet business leaders.

Paris and Tehran share a desire to improve economic cooperation and regain markets lost in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Since his election two years ago, Khatami has presented himself as a moderate keen on restoring ties with the international community.

The U.S. has long sought to isolate Iran for its alleged sponsorship of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction program. Washington's Western allies, especially France, have been reluctant to play along.

The visit is receiving high-profile media coverage in Iran, where the official news agency IRNA quoted Khatami as saying Iran and France were in agreement over their rejection of a "unipolar world."

The official Tehran Times quoted leading Iranian lawmaker Mahmoud Alavi as saying the visit would "not only promote ties between Iran and the EU, but it will also foil the U.S. attempts to isolate Iran on the international scene."

Alavi said the French should not try to impose their views on Iran with regard to the "arrest of the 13 Jews."

"All Iranians are equal in the eyes of the law in Iran, including the Jews. Therefore, a fair trail will be held for the 13 Jews charged with spying," he said.

Two other lawmakers were also quoted on the subject. Abbas Mousavi said: "If by raising the issue of the Jewish suspects, the French officials try to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, such an action will not be allowed by Iran" while Taha Hashemi said Iran could clarify the matter if the French wished, but would "react" if it felt France was "going to meddle in Iran's internal affairs."

Mahmoud Sadri, the political editor of another daily, Hamshahri, said that "the French and other European countries have coordinated their relations with Iran in accordance with their economic interests and political goals, so Zionist pressure groups cannot influence Iran-France relations."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow