Iranian Jews Accused of Spying Allowed Visits From Family

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Thirteen Iranian Jews, imprisoned since last spring on suspicion of spying for the United States and Israel, have been allowed visits from family members, but their fate remains uncertain.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has been deeply involved in the effort to obtain the release of the Jews.

He told there had been "no change in [their] immediate circumstances."

"We have continued to pursue all avenues and we saw some possibilities," Hoenlein said. "They [the Iranians] said they will deal with [the case] after the parliamentary elections in February." However, Hoenlein added, it was hoped a solution would not have to wait that long.

Iran has been engaged in an internal struggle between moderate and hardline elements in the government. A victory for moderates in the elections could bode well for the Jews, since they may be more willing to find a face-saving way out of the situation. But there is no guarantee moderate forces will gain strength.

Despite the long incarceration of the 13, Hoenlein said, the mood among the Jewish community is "somewhat optimistic."

The 13 men, rounded up in two southern Iranian cities shortly before the Jewish holiday of Passover, have been accused of spying for the U.S. and Israel. Both countries flatly deny the accusations and say they had no secret connections with the accused. The men, including a rabbi, teachers and a teenager, have not been charged with a crime or brought to trial.

Earlier this week, the official IRNA news agency quoted the secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Association, Habibolah Asgarowladi as calling for a "fair trial" for the Jews, while emphasizing that Iran should not bow to international pressure to release them.

"The government should not bow to the pressures being exerted by the European Union and the United States to release the 13 [alleged] Israeli spies. Since they are Iranian nationals, the government must tell them [the West] to stop meddling in our affairs," Asgarowladi said.

The charges carry the death penalty. Seventeen Jews have been executed by Iran on charges of espionage over the last 20 years, two of them in 1997.

There has been an international outcry for the release of the 13, including calls by other Muslim nations.

There has been speculation here that the renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks could improve the situation of the detainees, although there have yet to be indications that this will be the case.

Syria and Iran have cooperated in various ways, including allegedly collaborating in terrorist ventures. Iran sponsors the Hizballah militia which operates in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

"Some think it might work against us," said Hoenlein of the Israel-Syria talks. "Others think it may help us."