Iranian Jews Unlikely to Be Put to Death

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

Jerusalem ( - Thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for the United States and Israel won't be given the death sentence, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright believes.

Speaking to leaders of major American Jewish organizations in New York, Albright said international efforts on behalf of the 13 are making headway. Iran had conveyed a message through several world leaders that as long as the Middle East peace process continues, the death penalty would not be imposed on the suspects.

Iran has executed 17 Jews on charges of espionage since the Islamic revolution began 20 years ago. Two of them were executed as recently as 1997.

The 13 Iranian Jews that currently face spy charges include a rabbi, several teachers and a 16-year-old youth. They were arrested in two Iranian cities last spring on suspicion of spying for Israel and the US. Both countries have vehemently denied the allegations.

Earlier reports that the 13 had confessed to spying were false, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He told that Iranian prisoners as a rule "confess" when they are arrested, which amounts to signing a charge sheet when they enter prison.

Hoenlein said the Iranians also claimed to have "hard evidence" against four of the suspects, but this could in fact be something as innocent as having received a letter from a relative in Israel or owning a cellular phone.

Jewish leaders were taking advantage of the current United Nations General Assembly session in New York to speak to world leaders on behalf of the Iranian Jews. "We told them the consequences will be enormous" if anything happened to the prisoners, he added.

Hoenlein said many leaders, including some from Muslim states, had been very supportive and expressed their dismay over the case.

The trial of the 13 did not appear "imminent," although that could "change overnight."